Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Straw Man

As noted in my previous postthe theme of Yiddish!Revival! is a journalistic evergreen, no matter how long the so-called revival has been going or how often the same article is written.

Any 'revival' is contingent upon death. The phoenix isnt reborn until he has become ash. Thus Yiddish!Revival! articles must invoke, to some degree, the death of Yiddish, whether by Holocaust, by assimilation or by simple neglect.

For some writers, however, invoking Yiddish's death, or futility, becomes more than just a perfunctory genre element, but a theme all its own. The most mundane story can be transformed into a referendum on the legitimacy of Yiddish merely by employing a false or disingenuous counterpoint, otherwise known as a straw man argument.

What's a straw man argument? For instance, if a man (or woman) tells me that Feminism is irrelevant because all feminists hate pornography, or all feminists do this or believe that.  My actual, feminist, opinion on the subject is irrelevant, to say the least. At that point I know we're not having a conversation or even a debate. I'm merely serving as target practice for his (or her) wisdom. A straw man argument signals both a lack of interest in a subject and, often enough, lurking hostility.

When it comes to Yiddish, straw man arguments often include (but are not limited to) the propositions that 1. Yiddish can never be revived as a vernacular  and, relatedly 2. Yiddish culture is a futile or quixotic pursuit.

I don't know any Yiddishist, no matter how hardcore (and I know the hardest of the hardcore), who claims his efforts will, or are intended to, revive Yiddish as a vernacular among a significant portion of the Jewish population. And I've never met a Jewish musician who spent any time worrying about whether or not his/her efforts could replicate the vibrant Jewish culture lost in the machinery of Americanization. The musicians I know are too busy recording, jamming, writing, and sometimes even practicing, to waste time worrying. 

The Yiddishists I know 'do' Yiddish for the pleasure of speaking the language and for the richness it brings to their lives and to their communities. Not to convert the masses to Yiddish, not to diminish Hebrew, not to return everyone to the muddy streets of Pinsk.

And yet I find an odious 'on the other hand' too often injected into stories about the vibrant, forward looking world of Yiddish arts and culture. As a result, otherwise optimistic narratives acquire a musty, lugubrious tone and an innuendo of failure whispers behind what should be considered success stories. A few examples:

"It would be misleading to suggest that the crowd of 25 that listened to Mr. Levitt the other day was as fervent as a mosh pit. With all those illnesses, there was a weary, fatalistic air about the room..."(Lifting Spirits with Music Passed Down Through the Generations, Joseph Berger, New York Times, 11/30/2010)
"To some the enterprise could seem pointlessly nostalgic, since Yiddish is flourishing only among the Hasidim, for whom it is the lingua franca, and virtually vanishing elsewhere with the passing of Jews who came to the United States from Poland and Russia before and after World War II.... The resurgence of klezmer gives everyone a sliver of hope." (No Need to Kvetch, Yiddish Lives On in Catskills, Joseph Berger, New York Times, 11/25/2010)
"On a recent afternoon in a Riverside Park playground, a slender, dark-haired man was introducing his 2-year-old boy to hopscotch. The scene was classic American father and son, except that they were speaking Yiddish. The man, David G. Roskies, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has no illusions that he and the sprinkling of other Americans who are raising their children in this Jewish vernacular are sparking any major revival."  (For Yiddish, a New But Smaller Domain, Joseph Berger, 10/11/1987)
"The survival of Yiddish in America is an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand story. Yiddish, once the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe, is undoubtedly moribund, with its last full-throated speakers, Holocaust survivors, now well into their 80s and 90s. (A smattering of their children speak it through sheer willpower whenever they can buttonhole a comprehending ear, but some, like this writer, grew up nagging parents to speak English and regrettably saw their first language wither.)" (Shop Speaking Tevye's Language Needs Rich Man's Aid, Joseph Berger, 8/25/2010

In each of these articles the 'other side of the story' only serves to undermine its subjects. Dave Levitt has no interest in causing senior citizens to mosh. David Roskies wouldn't claim to be interested in sparking a full scale revival of Yiddish as a vernacular. And the woes of the CYCO bookstore owe less to the 'death of yiddish' than to the mass digitization of Yiddish literature. (No one wants to pay if they can get it for free, a problem shared by the music, motion picture and television industries.)

But this straw man is impervious to facts and, to my own great dismay, it observes no respectful distance in the darkest times.

Last week we lost a woman who was, among her many achievements, at the heart of modern Yiddish music, Adrienne Cooper. Amid the grief of the community she helped create, it was a not-insignificant comfort to see Adrienne's life recognized with an obituary in one of the most influential newspapers in the world, the New York Times. But even in this, her unparalleled achievements could not be allowed to stand unchallenged:

Though the movement Ms. Cooper helped start in the 1970s and ’80s was often described as a Yiddish revival, less sentimental observers acknowledged that a true revival of the spoken language among secular Jews was unlikely, given that people who had learned it in their homes, like Holocaust survivors and children of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, were dying out. But because of the teaching and organizational work of Ms. Cooper and a handful of others, klezmer has become a popular current of the music mainstream and Yiddish courses are given at scores of colleges.(Adrienne Cooper, Yiddish Singer, Dies at 65, Joseph Berger, 12/28/2011) 
And that's the third paragraph.

Who are these 'less sentimental observers'? Who are these people who cannot encounter living, breathing Yiddish culture without also cursing it by passive-aggressive clap trap? Who on earth, I ask, would come to praise an irreplaceable cultural icon by calling her life's work "quixotic"?

Inserting these dour straw men isn't a matter of good journalism. After all, the articles cited above are soft, human interest pieces ostensibly intended to celebrate their subjects. Any 'controversy' therein is a projection of the author.

If I may take the liberty (and I'm sure I'll hear from those who feel I cannot), I think I can safely say that for those of us who engage with Yiddish culture in some sort of meaningful, creative way, what we want is to have our projects taken seriously by the Jewish community. We want resources and respect for projects which are successful on their own terms. We want to have our music, our play groups, our institutions, our lives' work judged, if they must be judged, on their own merits, not against some bullshit  'common wisdom' which isn't so wise, or so common.

But when you frame it as Berger does with such relish, Yiddish culture today is a 'wistful' (a favorite word of his) failure. 

But whose failure is it? Is it ours? Or is it the failure of the author who writes that he, himself, regrets nagging his Holocaust survivor parents to speak English and who wishes he hadn't let his first language, Yiddish, 'wither away'. 

With friends like these, Yiddish needs no enemies.


  1. I wish you had either pointed out more explicitly that all those articles were written by the same author (Joseph Berger) or included a wider variety of authors in this post...

  2. I can't thank you enough for this...your words are life-affirming.

  3. Hey there!:)

    Your words have found their way all the way to Poland!:) Please have a look here:

    Best and thank you for writing!


  4. It's hysterically funny to me that Joe Berger is a tag in and of himself, and a favorite bee in your bonnet. I'm hoping it gets back to him and irks him greatly. On the other hand, Berger harbors no illusions that his spurious antitheses will switch younger generations of Yiddish speakers back over to English any more than it did his parents...