Sexual Politics of Language

Article excerpt

Sexual Politics of Language

Paula E. Hyman

Naomi Seidman. A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

The culture war between Yiddish and Hebrew is long ended. The Nazi mass murder of the Yiddish-speaking masses of Poland, Romania, and Hungary, the forced (and voluntary) assimilation of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the new Soviet Union, and the abandonment of Yiddish by immigrants eager to make their way in their countries of resettlement combined to eliminate the social milieu in which Yiddish had flourished as a vehicle of literary creativity as well as the language of daily life. With the exception of the ultraOrthodox, most Jews today regard Yiddish not as a living language but as a source of ethnic humor or a stimulus of nostalgic sentiment. Yet, exploring the changing relations of Yiddish and Hebrew in Eastern Europe and the Zionist yishuv in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first third of this one is no mere exercise in delving into an esoteric aspect of the Jewish past. As Naomi Seidman demonstrates in her splendid book, the subject of Hebrew and Yiddish naturally speaks not only to those interested in the development of modern Jewish consciousness but also to a larger audience concerned with gender relations and with the impact of gendered bilingualism on cultural creativity.

In traditional Ashkenazi Jewish society, texts written in Hebrew were directed exclusively at a male readership; those produced in Yiddish were aimed at a female audience. Hebrew was a language worthy of respect and honor; Yiddish, a disparaged jargon. Yiddish was gendered female even though-since Yiddish was the vernacular of all Jewsmen might (and did) read Yiddish books. As a woman's language, and the language of the lower classes, Yiddish played a subordinate cultural role. Seidman points out that "the relations of Hebrew and Yiddish ... often reflect and reinforce other ... polarities in what can be called the `symbolic system' of Ashkenazic Judaism. Thus correspondence can be drawn between HebrewYiddish relations and such important oppositions as sacred/profane, educated/uneducated and ... writing/speech."

Despite these tensions, the two languages existed in symbiosis until the rise of Zionism and Yiddish socialism. Some Hebrew writers of the 1880s and 1890s sought to attract female readers to expand their audience, to infuse Hebrew literature with a stronger aesthetic sensibility, and to implant a love of the language and of Jewish culture that women would transmit to their children; but most educated women continued their practice of reading Yiddish and European vernaculars, the languages to which they most frequently had access. Similarly, Yiddish writers struggled to establish the legitimacy of Yiddish as a literary language, a true language, by freeing it from its association with women. Because a mass Yiddish-reading public existed, they were more successful than their colleagues who sought to create a secular modern Hebrew literature. Mendele Mokher Sforim (Sh. Y Abramovitsh), one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature, provides a good example of the rise in status of Yiddish writers. When he began his career, he published his Yiddish works under a pseudonym in order to protect his reputation as a Hebrew writer, but it was through Yiddish that he ultimately achieved a popular audience and a prominent place in Jewish literary history.

The Hebrew-Yiddish culture wars that erupted at the end of the nineteenth century as East European Jewry became secularized reflected a struggle over issues of masculinity and femininity as Jews engaged in the sexual politics of Jewish identity. With the rise of Zionism and Bundism, the languages of Hebrew and Yiddish acquired a strong political valence. Bundists sought recognition of Yiddish as the degendered cultural instrument of the Jewish masses and Zionists promoted modem Hebrew as the appropriate language for the pioneer New Jew. …

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