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

By Krutikov, Mikhail | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Krutikov, Mikhail, Shofar


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.