Saturday, December 31, 2011

Oy Gevalt! Yiddish is definitely alive. Or dead. Or in purgatory. Or hiding in Switzerland for tax purposes.

Greetings, theoretical readers. Long time no blog, eh? Though I resolved to stay away, a slew of recent news stories about Yiddish has dragged me back to the blog o'sphere.

You probably saw this story, right? Either your friends and family emailed it you. Or a million people innocently posted it on your Facebook wall, saying 'hey, this made me think of you!' Which is sweet and I'm always happier when my friends think of me than when they've forgotten me. However.

The story, titled 'Gevalt! U.S. college students lead surprise Yiddish revival,' was an AP wire piece that showed up in an astonishing variety of places, including TV station websites, the New York Times and Salon. There's nothing that's actually new, or news, in the story, but I guess it was Khanike time and everyone is looking for sentimental, feel-good Jewish 'content' like the kind bubbe and zeyde used to consume back in the day.

It opens like this:
A group of American college students stands in a semicircle, clapping and hopping on one foot as they sing in Yiddish: "Az der rebe zingt, Zingen ale khsidim!"

"When the rebbe dances, so do all the Hasidim," the lyrics go.

Like any well-written piece of journalism, the opening two paragraphs signal where this ship is heading. The first image is endearingly unthreatening. College students standing in a circle, singing and clapping. Awwwww. Singing and clapping is cute. College students speaking Yiddish is cute. Yiddish is so gosh darn CUTE!

The cuteness is smudged a bit if you know that 'Az der rebe' is not a simple khasidic folksong but a hostile parody of one. It's an anti-khasidic/misnagdish send-up of the mindless devotion of the khasidim to their various rebbeim. Whatever he does, they do. Also, the author mistranslates even this elementary Yiddish lyric. 'Az der rebe zingt' means 'when the rebbe sings' not 'when the rebbe dances.'

Ahem. Don't get me wrong. Song and music are important pedagogical tools for learning a language and I recall how effective, and fun, it was to learn Yiddish songs when I was a student at Brandeis. Nonetheless, the singing and clapping students are more than a pedagogical stage, they are part of a set of inviolable tropes for talking about Yiddish, of which the cuteness of Yiddish is just one.

The revival of Yiddish by students (or by anyone) is another. For example, way back in 1987 Joseph Berger wrote one of these non-stories called 'For Yiddish, a New But Smaller Domain. In it, he noted that Yiddish was experiencing an 'academic revival' and that "There are now 60 college campuses offering Yiddish, where 25 years ago there were five." And that was 24 years ago.

Gevald, you say, this time for real. How many times can the patient be revived?

Good question. There's this. And this. And this. And hey, even this. And what's cuter than college students learning Yiddish? College students speaking it with the elderly!

You'd think any editor with two seconds of access to the googles would hesitate to assign (or buy) an article on such a hackneyed non-theme. But then we wouldn't have the Canadian answer to the AP's Gevald article, 'Yiddish Lives on Canadian Campuses.' Author Josh Dehaas writes "Today, Yiddish contends with the fact that its keepers are mainly Bubbes and Zeydes of the diaspora, who may not be around much longer." This is flat out wrong, but for argument's sake, we'll listen a bit further.
According to Statistics Canada, between 2001 and 2006, the number of Yiddish speakers declined from 37,010 to 27,605 nationally. More than a third of those who remained—9,305—were over 75 years-old. Only 1,345 were under age five.

Which is it? Are grandparents the keepers of Yiddish? *Or* are only a third of Canadian Yiddish speakers over 75, according to Statistics Canada (which almost certainly undercounts a significant source of Yiddish speakers under the age of 18, the Canadian Hasidic population.) Is the future of Yiddish being passed from a mythical generation of ever and always elderly speakers to eager young university students enrolled in an astonishing, or not astonishing, expanding or not expanding, selection of academic university courses?

Is this a revival or a just a 'bisl resurgence?'

Obviously, I'd say none of the above, with the additional caveat that the phrase 'a bisl resurgence' is not safe for minors or those with compromised immune systems.

There is no resurgence, no revival, no renaissance, no renewal, no retrenchment, no bringing back from the dead, no zombie Sholem Aleykhem. Genug. Shoyn. I've said it before, more eloquently, in an op-ed I wrote for the Forward last year, The Revival is Over, Let's Talk Continuity.

Sure, to some extent journalism is shaped by deadlines and too often relies on cliches and recycling common wisdom. But after seeing the same story, and the same 'memes' repeated about Yiddish, over and over, decade after decade, it's clear that there are things one can say about Yiddish and things one cannot. And one of the things you can say is that Yiddish is being revived. Doesn't matter that someone else said it five minutes ago, five months ago or 24 years ago.

When you frame popular interest and engagement with Yiddish as a 'revival' you are, ironically, declaring that Yiddish will never move past the most elementary and superficial level of general Jewish interest. Oy! Bubbe! See Dick and Jane Learn Yiddish! Yiddish is good for a semester or two, to learn a few curses or songs, that's pretty much it. Nothing has been disturbed in the American Jewish status quo. Monolingualism still rules. No calls for more serious support or investment in Yiddish are presented or considered. The deep reasons why so many Jews (and non-Jews) are seeking out Yiddish are presented as a side-note, if at all.

Indeed, there's a whole set of things one cannot say in an article about Yiddish:

Yiddish deserves substantial financial support from the Jewish community.

Jewish language literacy is a life or death matter for the Jewish community and as such both Yiddish and Hebrew should be taught, with the same seriousness and respect, in Jewish day schools.

A Diaspora-based Jewish identity is just as legitimate as a Jewish identity rooted in Zionism or anti-Zionism.

Yiddish is essential to the lives and educations of millions of Jews around the world because it is their yerushe (inheritance). Without access to Yiddish, Jews of Ashkenazi descent are missing something absolutely vital to their identity as Jews and as global citizens. Ashkenaz, not Israel, holds the coordinates for the recent history of millions of American Jews. To denigrate that history, to reduce it to a fuzzy, abashed footnote, is to diminish our families, our histories and ourselves.

The anti-Yiddish cultural narrative is wide and deep. You can see it at work even in stories (like these latest ones) which purport to celebrate the tenacity of the Yiddish language. Despite the good will no doubt behind them, the cliches they recycle are toxic. The finished product, posted and reposted endlessly, is another drop in the poisonous cultural conversation around Yiddish.

American Jews (and Ashkenazi Jews around the world) need Yiddish. They need to know who they are and where they came from and they need to learn it at home, not on the street, where the kids are all high on shelilat ha-golah (negation of the diaspora.)

In 1916 a man named Robert Hess was a teacher at a Folkshule (a non-religious Jewish school associated with labor zionism) in Milwaukee. The enrollment of the school had exploded to the point where they had outgrown their rooms in the local settlement house and had to waitlist many would-be students. So, Hess and his school petitioned the local school board to have use of a public school building on the weekend. In essence, Hess was saying all the forbidden things I mentioned above: Yiddish is not a novelty but a serious language with a serious literature and history. It should be taught. It is important to the Jewish identity of American Jewish youth. It deserves resources.

Though the school board agreed to allow the weekend use of the school, the Folkshule request was met with violent protest. That protest came entirely from the established Jewish community. At bottom, it flowed from a belief that Yiddish was a zhargon, it was ugly and uncivilized and ultimately, un-American. Robert Hess, the teacher from the Milwaukee Folkshule, wrote about the controversy and this is from the conclusion of his piece:

"... we say, and we say it boldly but sincerely, that you cannot build either healthy Jews or Jewesses unless you permeate the youth with a healthy self-respect, and that you cannot hope to make men or women respect themselves unless you tell them who and what they are and from whom and from what they originate, who their people were, what their language is and tell them something of the history of their past. Ludicrous though it may seem, it is none the less the fact that our youths or at least many of them are under the impression that all Jews are either the proverbial peddler or rag-picker, and you cannot hope to have them think otherwise unless you teach them otherwise."

So, yes, let's celebrate the initiative of young people reclaiming the yerushe that belongs to them. And after that we can begin a new communal conversation about why and to what end Yiddish has been pushed to the margins and how a decades long 'revival' is really the kind of continuity the Jewish community says it is dedicated to supporting.