Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More Memes of the Yiddish Atlantis

In this episode, Yiddish is brought in to make a sad analogy; Nova Scotia Gaelic is said to be having its "Yiddish moment." 

What is a Yiddish moment? Once flourishing minority language squashed in its place of birth, chugs along for a while in the New World, now on life support along with its few elderly speakers.

Tosh and poppycock. Ahistorical poppycock. 

The author sees Nova Scotia Gaelic at a crossroads as a minority language in Canada. It can go one way and be like Romansh, one of the four national languages of Switzerland, or it can go the way of Yiddish, and be the language of... well, no one, really, according to this article. In Switzerland you can get your phone bill in Romansh and the Romansh speaking population is aggressive about maintaining it as a civic language. Yiddish, on the other hand, has already passed over into the 'post-vernacular' of nostalgia and sentiment and is the civic language of no place and no government. If Nova Scotians aren't more aggressive, the author warns, Gaelic will go the way of Yiddish, rakhmone litslon.

There's a lot to unpack here. Though I don't know much (ok, anything) about the politics around Romansh and linguistic hegemony in Switzerland, I'm sure it's a lot more complex than what's sketched out here. In any case, I'll just focus one what concerns me, the use and abuse of Yiddish as a signifier, and one piece of the Atlantean meme:

Both [Yiddish and Gaelic] have some fluent speakers left, but with Yiddish as with Gaelic, most are elderly. Younger people who consider either language part of their identity rarely (not never, but rarely) know enough to hold down a conversation. It’s more typical for them to know snatches: songs, little sayings, a few words and phrases. Nobody who spends any time getting to know either Gaelic or Yiddish can avoid seeing that reality.

Fact is, those who study contemporary Yiddish agree that there are almost a million Yiddish speakers alive today. The majority of them are some flavor of ultra-Orthodox, mostly Hasidim. And, due to exploding birth rates, the population of contemporary Yiddish speakers skews heavily younger.

So, no. Sorry. Wrong. Maybe you don't like Hasidim, but you can't deny that they're Jews, there's a lot of them, and that they speak Yiddish every damn day. 

Gaelic is at a crossroads. It can continue to go the way of Yiddish, a language whose fluent speakers are mostly elderly and which is basically nonexistent as a language of government. Or it can go the way of Romansh and other small languages, and gradually but aggressively claim its right to be part of the modern world. 

In fact, if you want to go all Dubnovian, Yiddish is a language of civic life and governance. Of course, it's a totally internal, self-governing of the Hasidic kehiles, but nonetheless, go into any Hasidic community (In America, in Canada, in Belgium, in Israel) and you'll see a great deal of public life being conducted in Yiddish. 

Point being that those who had a political will, and a theological imperative, to maintain Yiddish as a vernacular have done so for themselves, without waiting for a Yiddish phone bill from the government. (Though you can buy a Metrocard in Yiddish in New York City.)

Faced with the grinding machinery of American assimilation, the majority of American Jews had no such collective will to maintain Yiddish. If the Jews of 1910, let's say, had been dealing with the same kind of linguistic discourse available to Canadians of 2012, perhaps then, things might have turned out somewhat differently. But obviously the two situations are completely different. Analogy fail. Let's hope Nova Scotia Gaelic fares a little bit better.

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