"Babe in the Yiddish Woods": Dos Lied Fun Hiavat'a

Article excerpt

THE FATE OF YIDDISH ON THE AMERICAN SCENE HAS seemed something more to lament than to celebrate, a perverse drift into irrelevance if not near-extinction. But there is, as scholars and readers increasingly recognize, another story interwoven with that of decline, a story of extraordinary achievement, of promise prematurely aborted. The two stories of declension and of resurgence belong together, the former proving an essential condition of the latter in the sense that an encroaching sense of defeat in the linguistic struggle with English prompted Yiddishists in the early twentieth century to strive all the harder to adopt the old cultural speech to new circumstances. Americanization seemed to doom the mother-tongue to fragmented dispersion into the host language, bits of speech, sayings, whimsies, code words typically dipped in the acid of a bitter, stoical humor that even turns against its own cloying nostalgia. Yet the same process which stripped the language of a base in living speech and produced vulgariz ation also gave rise to extraordinary creative achievements in theater, in song, and especially in poetry, an astonishing renaissance of Yiddish verse, brief, intense, complex: exuberant with experiment, riddled with despair. A gnomic verse from H. Leyvick's "Yiddish Poets." translated brilliantly by John Hollander in his unpublished poem, "On a Stanza by H. Leyvick (1888-1962)," captures a tone both of resignation and defiance, a shrug of the shoulders and a pushing onward, typical of much Yiddish poetry early in the last century:

Like careworn cats who schlep all their umpteen

Kittens around on agitated feet,

We go schlepping our poems by the neck, between

Our teeth, through every New York City street. [1]

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The grotesquerie of the trope lays bare a bitter predicament: Yiddish poets sentenced by history to compose in a language, in Hollander's words, "sentenced to an early death." [2]

Could Yiddish find a welcoming home in America as an idiom for poetry? In his indispensable The Meaning of Yiddish, Benjamin Harshav describes the character of Yiddish as a "fusion" language, "a language, almost by definition, used by multilingual speakers." The historical work of Yiddish has been, Harshav explains, a work of mediation; it served "as abridge to and from the external, Christian world and ... the Gentile milieu," "a junction, a noisy marketplace where 'internal' and 'external' languages and cultures met and interacted. It was the coherent floor of a schizophrenic existence." [3] Yiddish has always served, in short, as an instrument and medium of translation. By definition Jews inhabit at least two worlds of culture and language. Yiddish made it possible for Jews to invent social identities by precarious balancing of separate yet mingled linguistic systems of meaning. Translation, Harshav explains, is of the very nature of Yiddish, a continuous process of making the alien familiar: an ingrained suppleness and agility reflecting the astonishing skills of survival and cultural experiment of Jewish Ashkenazic existence.

Formal occasions of translation, the conversion or transfer of texts from one language into another, played a special role in modern Yiddish cultures in Europe and the Americas, a gesture of hope simultaneously toward assimilation or accommodation with gentile cultures, and preservation of Jewish identity. In the case of the United States there evolved, as hosts of scholars and critics have shown, a distinctively Jewish way (or ways) of being American, of living as an equal member of the gentile-dominated world yet doing so in a manner recognized and accepted by Jew and non-Jew alike as a Jewish Americanness. Yiddish has served this process in a major way, most often in the degraded form of Yiddishisms, scraps and shreds of the mother tongue, but within the past century serious and heroic efforts were made by Yiddish poets to achieve just this, a Yiddish speech in poetry that smacked of America, that gave promise of something new in Jewish life emerging from the translative work of Yiddish poetic speech in th e New World. …