Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Ghost of Yiddish Revivals Past

I just discovered an interesting magazine called Jewish Quarterly.

Published in London since 1953, The Jewish Quarterly is one of the foremost Jewish literary and cultural journals in the English language. Its spectrum of subjects includes art, criticism, fiction, film, history, Judaism, literature, poetry, philosophy, politics, theatre, the Holocaust and Zionism.

I'd never even heard of the Jewish Quarterly until today, and now I'm wishing they'd put the entire archive on-line. I was flipping through issues from 1958 and found a ton of Yiddish poetry in translation, literary criticism and other socio-cultural pieces of interest.

Of particular interest was a 1958 article by A.A. Roback called 'Conference on Yiddish Studies.'  In it he reports on a Yiddish Studies conference convened at Columbia University in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1908 Czernowitz Conference.

Roback's two page report on the conference could've been written yesterday, save for the fact that in 1958 the last living attendee at the Czernowitz conference was still around and the second to last (Sholem Asch) has passed on a few months back. 

In order to counter what Roback saw as pessimism around the future of Yiddish, he frames the conference in terms of its resurgence:

The conference itself provided one more proof, if proof were needed, that my hopes for the growth and consolidation of Yiddish are not a figment of the imagination, as some of my readers and critics seem to have made up their minds it was.

In other words, revival renaissance huzzah!


Of course, we could not insure ourselves against the coming of Hitler, or of Stalin, nor for that matter against the immigration restrictions in our own country. But therein exactly lies the miracle: that despite the holocaust we still have a growing literature in a language that gains in appreciation from year to year. If this appreciation will be coupled with other constructive efforts, it will achieve practical results, for the younger generation will discover new values in, and through, the Yiddish language. [emphasis mine]
Ah yes, the always elusive 'constructive efforts.' It would be another ten years before the first session of the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture would be held by YIVO. Not for lack of interest, but because rarely in modern American history has Yiddish scholarship been seen as valuable or even instrumental in terms of promoting American Jewish identity. And yet! Though it's fought for funding, not only has the YIVO zumer program always been fully subscribed by eager students, it has spawned imitators all over the world to meet demand for high quality Yiddish pedagogy. 

So, rather than speaking of revivals and such, maybe we'd be better off talking about a slow, inexorable progress in the growth of academic Yiddish infrastructure, even as the number of non-Hasidic, native Yiddish speakers in the United States drops rapidly. 

At the end of Roback's review of the conference (in which he laments the infelicitous scheduling of papers, poor coordination of similarly themed presentations and lack of press coverage), he mentions a paper by Judah Joffe called "Metanalysis in Yiddish:

The Dean of Yiddish philology is still very active as the co-editor of the definitive Yiddish dictionary. Let us hope that he will live to see several volumes of this Dictionary in print.


Well, Dr. Joffe lived to see part of the four volumes of Alef published of his Groyser Verterbukh fun der Yiddisher Shprakh.  I wonder if I will live long enough to see the rest of the Groyser Verterbukh published.

Though time, politics and history ain't exactly on the side of Yiddish, Roback closes his article with a hopeful note and a good reminder to all of us:

... the conference proved once more that with an efficient organization a great deal can be achieved. Good intentions are not enough. It took more than two years to prepare the conference.... If we had efficient organizers, not just writers or scholars but enterprising and dynamic men, Jewish culture would soon acquire a new look. The Conference on Yiddish Studies was a good beginning and could serve as a model for other cultural ventures."

This has never been more true than today. I know too many organizations which flounder because the people who should be researching, performing and leading are also responsible for publicity, fund raising and event clean up. There's never been more work to be done for American Yiddish.  We have the people who can do it. What we also need is recognition of the importance of that work and the funds, and skilled support, to actually get it done.