The Discourse on Yiddish in German: From the Enlightenment to the Second Empire

Article excerpt

by Jeffrey A. Grossman. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000. 258 pp. $59.00.

From the German Enlightenment to the last third of the nineteenth century, Jeffrey Grossmann traces the views on Yiddish and East European Jewish culture held by German professionals, scholars, intellectuals and politicians as well as by Jews who, following the vision of German Enlightenment, adopted the German language and considered emancipation and eventual assimilation if not a desideratum, at least inevitable and the destiny of Central European Jewry. Grossman's engaging and informative work succeeds in establishing "the genealogy of the image of Yiddish across a range of texts, genres, institutions, and disciplines" in the context of "a changing Germany". The study is inspired by the growing interest in things Jewish in the post-Shoah world, the validity and motivation of which Grossman explores briefly. In recent years the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature in translation have enjoyed a remarkable popularity both in German-speaking countries and in the United States, a renouveau that inspired in part Grossman's in-depth examination of the function of Yiddish within German and German Jewish culture over the past centuries.

The issues of religious and racial antisemitism, the utilitarian interest in Yiddish on the part of Christian missionaries and criminologists, and the derogatory representation of speakers of Yiddish in German literature and theater as well as the scholarly, but nonetheless biased, discussions on Jewish languages by Herder and Humboldt are central issues in Grossman's study. Concurrently the author sketches the origins and development of Yiddish alongside and embedded in German culture and explores the interaction between German and Yiddish, German-Jewish and traditional Jewish culture, i.e., Yiddish-internal issues that involve the construction and reconstruction of Jewish identity in response to changing social and political paradigms during a century of transitions. This interrelationship has been briefly addressed in earlier works, e.g., Jacobs and Lorenz's recent article "If I were King of the Jews" (not referenced by Grossman), but clearly the study at hand exceeds the framework set by earlier scholarship on the linguistic/cultural interactions.

Grossman explores the German discourse on Yiddish in conjunction with decisive historical events and developments. The demise of the Holy Roman Empire and the ensuing concepts of nationhood and the nation state called for new paradigms to configure statehood and language. Grossman's analysis of Herder's and Humboldt's theories of language shows that the already existing association between Yiddish, other supposedly "corrupted" languages such as Romani, and the jargon of the underworld, "Rotwelsch," now confirmed by academics, received "scientific" approval. …