Saturday, December 29, 2012

The year in Yiddish revivals, with a prologue by Molly Picon

Wow. It's been a year (pretty much to the day) since I revived this blog. I've covered everything from OTD Hasidim to masturbation mussar to the erasure of Jewish Communists from American documentary film. But my focus has always returned to my favorite topic: how we do and don't talk about Yiddish. The very first post I wrote for the blog was about an AP wire story on the 'revival' of Yiddish among college students. It's the story that keeps on giving, and give it did in 2012. Here is a surely incomplete survey of 'revival' stories from 2012.

I could list twenty articles like these to make my point: there is no revival. There is only a Jewish populace deeply confused about its identity and conflicted about the sacrifices it's made in the name of assimilation, Americanization, Zionism and the myth of a unified Jewish monoculture. The revival meme is a way of neutralizing those who would question the value of all those things; it frames their connection to Yiddish as cute, unthreatening, and incapable of maturing. To talk about Yiddish in terms other than its 'revival' is to tread on politically dangerous ground.

If my round-up of articles doesn't make my point, perhaps you'll be more impressed by the beloved pixie diva of Yiddish theater, Molly Picon.

In 1980 Molly Picon appeared on Israeli TV. There's a lot to unpack about her appearance (in which the show's host interviews her in English and she answers in Yiddish) but right now I'll just skip to the part where Molly herself proclaims a Yiddish revival. In 1980.

Around 3 minutes in Molly says that her Israeli hosts, including the Yiddish actor Shmulik Atzmon, are excited about the current Yiddish revival. All over the world, she says, there is a growing interest in Yiddish, especially among young people. They want to know 'Who are we?' and 'What have we lost?'

At Queens College, she says, six hundred students (!) study Yiddish and now in Europe and Israel, too, students want to learn Yiddish.

To which I have to ask, politely, what the hell? What in bloody hell happened between 1980 and today?

Well, for one, there has been an incredibly burst of creativity around traditional Eastern European music. Some call that the 'klezmer revival.'

And what about Yiddish language? The National Yiddish Book Center, established in the early 1980s, has obviously changed the face of Yiddish between then and now, systematically preserving Yiddish materials for future readers. But what about the classes where those readers will be educated? What about the learning? What about providing professional pedagogical resources for the next generations of Yiddish speakers? What about training the next generation of Yiddish teachers?

While there are some (too few) high quality resources for learning (and teaching) Yiddish today, it's nowhere near what you might think it would be for a language whose 'revival' was heralded over 30 years ago on Israeli TV.

More and more, real Yiddish literacy in the United States is in the hands of either academics (and quasi-academics) or the Hasidim who use it as a vernacular. These are the people who either have the resources to learn and use it or have a politico-theological reason for them to retain it as the language of everyday life.

As much as I love Molly Picon, even 600 students do not make a revival, or a revolution. A revival takes political will and institutional power. The day I see a Federation leader get up at the General Assembly and declare the importance of language transmission, the day I see a session devoted to planning for Yiddish language pedagogy at an educational conference, that's the day I will doff my Yiddish revival cap and herald a new age of Akvarious. Without these things-  communal prioritization, resources, a gigantic shift in our cultural conversation around Yiddish-  the much bally-hooed Yiddish revival is nokh vayt (still far off.)

Gawd, I depress myself sometimes.

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