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

By Aya Elyada | Go to book overview

Two “From the Jews’ own books”
Yiddish Literature, Christian Readers

Mastering Yiddish was also recommended to the Christian Studiosis Thcobgiae to enable them to read Ashkenazi Jewish literature in this language. During the early modern period, a rich corpus of Yiddish literature was published in the Holy Roman Empire, including both religious and secular works, such as biblical translations and paraphrases, ethical books on morality and proper conduct, prayer books, medieval epics and romance, poems, fables, and drama.1 While Hebrew was the language of Jewish scholarly literature, works in Yiddish were meant primarily for the larger segments of the Jewish population, including Jewish women, children, and less educated men, who could not read Hebrew and lacked the training required to fully understand complicated rabbinic texts. The fact that this was the targeted reading public of this literature influenced both its content and style. As Yiddish scholar Chava Turniansky explains, these were mainly popular works, and their authors, who drew their material primarily from Hebrew sources, “removed the theoretic and abstract passages, omitted the intellectual speculations, avoided the arduous deliberations and the complicated ideas, and concentrated on the practical, concrete, simple and easily comprehensible elements, and especially on those which were presented as appealing narratives.”2

To be sure, this literature was by no means held in regard by the Protestant scholars, who sharply criticized it for both style and content, declaring it ridiculous, foolish, and distasteful (lächerlich, albern, abgcschmack'). Due to their peculiar and ridiculous expressions (seltsamen, lächerlichen Redens-Arten), it was argued, Yiddish works would awake mainly scorn and laughter among Christian readers, and could thus serve them as a source of amusement (Belmtigung) or even as an “Anti-

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