A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany

By Aya Elyada | Go to book overview

Introduction
A Jewish Language in a Christian World

In a famous passage from his autobiographical work Dichtung und Wahrheit, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe recalls his impressions as a young boy from the Judengasse in his hometown, Frankfurt. Together with the crowdedness and filth of the Jewish quarter, it was “the accent of an unpleasant language” that attracted his attention, leaving “a most displeasing impression” on the young Goethe.1 Despite this somewhat unfavorable reaction to Yiddish (or “das barocke Judendeutsch” as he called it), Goethe, not yet thirteen years old, decided to learn the language. He soon realized that deeper acquaintance with Hebrew was needed, and started taking Hebrew lessons from the rector of the Gymnasium—assuring his tutor that his sole intent was to read the Old Testament in its original language.2 As for learning the Yiddish language itself, the young Goethe could of course take private lessons from a convert, as he in fact did in the summer of 1761. But he could also make use of the vast linguistic and philological corpus on Yiddish that had been consolidating in the German lands since the beginning of the sixteenth century and that consisted of works prepared by Christian authors for a Christian readership.3 These included theoretical depictions and analyses of the Yiddish language, grammars and textbooks, dictionaries, bibliographies of Yiddish writings, literary surveys, and translations from and to Yiddish.

The Christian literature on Yiddish, written and published in the German-speaking world from the beginning of the sixteenth century and into the second half of the eighteenth century, stands as the focal point of this book. The Yiddish that was the subject of Christian works during that period is referred to today as “Western Yiddish” (also known as “Jewish-German” or “Judeo-German”), as opposed to the

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