Academic journal article Shofar

Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory1

Academic journal article Shofar

Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory1

Article excerpt

Queer Yiddishkeit-a cluster of works in literature, journalism, filmmaking, and performance art-constitutes one of the most revealing and provocative developments in contemporary Jewish culture. These works all juxtapose queerness and Yiddish in some way and do so as a means of challenging some cultural status quo. Queer Yiddishkeit epitomizes how, a half-century since the Holocaust, cultural engagements with Yiddish have been reconceiving the possibilities of the language and its relationship to culture and peoplehood. Several examples of Queer Yiddish culture are examined herein, especially performances that link Yiddish with drag, focusing on the different ways that they interrelate Yiddishness and queerness. This essay then considers what the practices of Queer Yiddishkeit suggest for the theorizing of Yiddish now, at a crucial juncture in the language's history, marked, on one hand, by the imminent passing of the last speakers who used Yiddish as a vernacular before World War II, and, on the other hand, by the expansion of what the author terms postvernacular engagements with Yiddish.

The past century has witnessed a remarkable transformation of Yiddish language and culture. Once the language of daily life for the majority of the world's Jews, used at the turn of the twentieth century by millions both in a centuries-old cultural "heartland" in Eastern Europe and in an international diaspora of Ashkenazim, Yiddish is now something very different. It is true that the number of Yiddish speakers today is perhaps only one-tenth of what it was on the eve of World War II, and with this decline has come a sharp reduction in publications, performances, and other cultural practices. But rather than describe this great change exclusively, or even primarily, in terms of loss, I find it more productive to characterize Yiddish as having entered a new phase in its history, distinguished by the prominence of a new kind of engagement with the language and its culture.

I have termed this mode of engaging with the language postvernacular Yiddish. Encompassing a wide range of practices and of practitioners-from devout hasidim to ardent secularists, as well as a noteworthy number of non-Jews-postvernacularity is characterized by a distinctive consciousness about language, in which its secondary, symbolic level of significance is privileged over its primary level of meaning as an instrument of communication.2 In the postvernacular mode, the fact that something is said (or written or sung) in Yiddish is at least as important as the content of what is said, if not more so.

While postvernacular engagement with Yiddish has its origins much earlier (beginning, I argue, when Ashkenazim first encountered Enlightenment ideas that prompted a new self-consciousness about language, culture, and peoplehood), this mode comes to the fore in the wake of the Holocaust, which swiftly and cruelly murdered the majority of the world's Yiddish speakers and destroyed their cultural infrastructure across Europe. Compounding this devastation are the more or less concomitant persecution of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies and the repudiation and suppression of Yiddish in favor of modern Hebrew among Zionist settlers in Palestine and, after 1948, by the new State of Israel, as well as the voluntary abandonment of Yiddish for local mainstream languages by the majority of Yiddish-speaking Jews and their descendants living outside of Eastern Europe, especially in the United States, home to the largest community after World War II.

In the wake of these assaults on Yiddish in the mid-twentieth century, however, new kinds of engagement with the language and its culture have emerged. These include the establishment of Yiddish as a subject of study in the academy in North America, Western Europe, and Israel; a transformed relationship with Yiddish as a language of daily life among Hasidim, as they settled in new enclaves in New York, Montreal, Jerusalem, Antwerp, and other locales; and innovative uses of Yiddish among writers, performers, filmmakers, and artists from an array of ideological and ethnic backgrounds (including a noteworthy number of non-Jews). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.