Reading Yiddish in a Post-Modern Age: Some Trends in Literary Scholarships of the 1990s

Article excerpt

From the Age of Enlightenment on, attitudes to Yiddish language and culture have been ideologically motivated. Yiddish was variously perceived as a corrupt jargon or the quintessence of the Jewish soul, a propaganda tool or the idiom of the Jewish collective unconscious. But with the worldwide decline of secular education in Yiddish after the Holocaust, knowledge of Yiddish culture becomes increasingly fragmented. Although Yiddish forms a legitimate part of various academic Jewish Studies programs, it often has the secondary status of an auxiliary subject. As a result, academic research in Yiddish culture rarely tackles central topics such as literary history or monographic studies of individual writers. With Yiddish studies in the U.S. increasingly focused on border cases between Yiddish and other cultural phenomena, Germany is gradually emerging as a major center of Yiddish philology.

Yiddish Studies between Ideology and Philology

Ideology has long been an important factor influencing and sometimes determining the attitude of Jewish intellectuals to Yiddish from the Age of Enlightenment onwards. At first, Jewish intelligentsia despised the "ugly jargon" and regarded it as an obstacle in the way of progress and integration. Within the conceptual system of Enlightenment, Yiddish had a limited instrumental use as a tool for disseminating propaganda, satire, and useful knowledge for as long as the Jewish masses did not have sufficient command of a European (in the maskilic parlance, "living") language. The frustration of Jewish intellectuals in their attempts to realize the ideals of the Enlightenment under the conditions of Eastern Europe entailed a change in this attitude. Yiddish was perceived as an authentic idiom, the only language capable of expressing the essence of Jewish folk psyche. At its early stage, the Jewish socialist movement reverted to the instrumental attitude to Yiddish and considered it primarily as an effective medium of propaganda among Jewish working masses. However, later some of the ideologues of socialism on the Jewish street, most notably Ber Borochov, appropriated the essentialist attitude of Yiddish. By contrast, the majority of non-socialist Zionist intellectuals reverted to the old maskilic negativism, identifying Yiddish with the Galut heritage that had no place in the bright Jewish future. Similarly negative was the attitude of assimilationist intelligentsia, which argued for the speediest acculturation of Jews into the culture of their host country. Both Zionists and assimilationists tolerated and even encouraged some limited use of Yiddish, but only with the ultimate "suicidal" purpose that it eventually be replaced by Hebrew or the language of the country. Thus we can identify three types of attitude, which, regardless of their ideological affiliation, can be called negativist, essentialist, and instrumentalist. These three types (and their various combinations) continue to inform the position with regard to Yiddish among Jewish intellectuals, scholars, and artists to this day.

The essentialist attitude requires perhaps some further clarification. In its purest form it was expressed by the prominent Hebrew-Yiddish-German writer Micha Joseph Berdyczewski (1865-1921) in 1907:

The [Yiddish] language is still so indivisible from the Jew, so thickly rooted in his soul, that all we can say about it is, this is how a Jew talks;...You see, anyone can learn Hebrew, provided that he confines himself to his desk for a few years, stuffs himself with the Bible and grammar, and reads some melitse books. The mastering of Yiddish, however, is a gift; a faculty one must be born with. I am speaking, of course, of the real thing, of radical, authentic Yiddish.(1)

Berdyczewski contrasted his notion of the "radical" and "authentic" Yiddish as spoken by "a Jew" to the language of literature and journalism of his time, which was created largely by the intellectuals, and was, by implication, artificial if not fake. …