Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yiddisher Than Thou

Have you seen this? 'Mother Tongue: A passionate, crusading Yiddisher tries to keep the Eastern European language alive in the cosmopolitan center of the Jewish state', appeared in Tablet magazine on January 12th. It's about the inimitable Mendy Cahan, he of the crooning and the Tel Aviv bus station, and the whole Yiddish against all odds in Israel thing.

Let's unpack, shall we?

Previous discussions of journalism about Yiddish (especially that of Joseph Berger) are useful here to show how vocabulary, style and rhetorical devices tell a story of their own, one that may or may not be in tune with that told on the surface of the text.

The baffling appearance of the word Yiddisher is the first thing to give us pause. Yiddisher? Is the author by any chance referring to Mendy's membership in a Jewish, anti-fascist street gang of 1930s London? Because I thought he wasn't talking about that anymore.

Or is this the quality of being more Yiddish than the next guy? Well, Mendy probably is more Yiddish than you, more Yiddish than I, more Yiddish than the mohel at Max Weinreich's bris. Mendy isn't Yiddisher, he's Yiddish-est.

Oh. Wait. Not Yiddish-est, but Yiddishist, I think, is the word we were looking for. A person for whom the use of Yiddish has both personal and political valence. Why did Tablet have to make up a word when there was a perfectly good, widely used term already available. But ok. Moving on.

The text of Mother Tongue confirms the existence of yet another category of bankrupt journalistic cliches about Yiddish. This one presents the hapless Yiddish administrator, one whose viability as a leader is as dubious as the half dead, mish-mosh creole he's single handedly reviving. 

We've seen this trope before, in Joseph Berger's story about CYCO, two summers ago. This is how Berger describes Hy Wolfe, director of CYCO:

Mr. Wolfe shamelessly admits that he is praying for a white knight to offer him free space. He wouldn’t object if that savior demanded his head in the deal. 
“I’m the wrong person for this job,” Mr. Wolfe admitted. “They need someone who knows what he’s doing on a computer. I can’t type. I only know Yiddish literature.”
Now take a look at how Daniella Cheslow characterizes Mendy:
[Mendy is] the first to concede he is not the best administrator: He owes roughly $40,000 to city hall for overdue property taxes, he smokes Camel cigarettes inside his library of 40,000 old books, and his meager budget provides the collection with no protection from Tel Aviv’s oppressive summer humidity.
Well, when you put it that way, let me get out my checkbook!

But seriously, reading these articles, what funder wouldn't be moved to pour money into Yiddish, the most quixotic of fool's errands?

From Berger: "Things have gotten so dire that Mr. Wolfe’s companion in the quixotic hunt for a new home is Shane Baker, a 41-year-old Episcopalian from Missouri who fell in love with Yiddish and leads a sister organization that stages folk-singing coffeehouses." 

From Cheslow: "But Cahan, who speaks Hebrew and English as well, also bears a quixotic passion for fully living in the half-dead language he loves."

Quixotic shmixotic. You gotta love a guy who sees the glass is half alive; a Yiddish optimist, if you will.

Mendy Cahan, son of Vishnitz hasidim, is a Belgian-Israeli song and dance man, proprietor of the world's only (I think) bus station based Yiddish center, Yung Yiddish, and all around Yiddish force of nature. Mendy is a one of kind talent who really does it all, poetry, performance, art, community organizing. I've had the pleasure of meeting him a handful of times when he was in New York, finding him to be as charming as you would imagine a man who writes and performs his own Yiddish translations of Jacques Brel. In a word, SWOON!

As Cheslow points out, Mendy has been organizing/collecting Yiddish books since 1990. His organization, Yung Yiddish, isn't just a repository of Yiddish books. Among many other things, it hosts a rocking klezmer melave malke in Jerusalem. And Mendy's Yung Yiddish Purim shpil was, in the words of a Jerusalem based friend of mine, 'off da hook.' 

Yes, Yung Yiddish is, and has been for years, on the edge of financial peril. At the same time, it is, and has been for 20 years or so, a dynamic source of creativity and fellowship in the Israeli Yiddish scene. 

Now, wait, before you get excited about somebody, anybody having some modicum of success in promoting and teaching Yiddish, remember it's our duty to remind them of their failure to achieve a wildly unrealistic goal they never set for themselves:

From Berger: "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." 
From Cheslow: "For all the recent enthusiasm in Israel for Yiddish, however, its biggest champions acknowledge that reviving the language is an ongoing struggle. The generation of people who speak it as a mother tongue is aging." 
What is the point of this story? Is it to tell the story of Mendy Cahan and a Yiddish 'revival' in Israel? Because that story has been written many times. As in the United States, it can seem that Yiddish in Israel is only a legitimate subject of journalism when framed as 'dead' or 'reviving.' As I pointed out before, the narrowness of the Yiddish!Revival! narrative keeps the conversation about Yiddish at the stingiest level of superficiality, ever and always rehearsing the salient plot points of Yiddish's demise and resurgence; in this case, the official apparatus to suppress Yiddish in Israel, the vigilante violence against Yiddish speakers, the patronizing or vulgar voice in which Yiddish is invoked in Israeli popular culture, if at all. 

All of these things are true and and only partially true. For example, (according to Joshua Fishman) from the 1950s to the 1970s the publication of Yiddish books in Israel increased by 500%.  At the same time, the number of books published in Yiddish far exceeded the number published in other world languages. In 1970, 54 Yiddish books were published in Israel but only 8 in French and 6 in German. In fact, the world center of Yiddish publishing had shifted to the state of Israel. Not a revival of Yiddish as a vernacular, ober s'iz oykhet nisht keyn kleynikayt.

The position of Yiddish in Israel is a lot more complicated than toggling between 'alive-ish' and 'dead-ish.' Cheslow writes that Mendy is "determined to save the language from extinction in the Jewish state..."Though it's not as sexy, the future of any minority language lies not with any single person or project but with the emergence of a cultural will to preserve and institutional support to transmit. Mendy is a tremendous asset to the Yiddish community in Israel, but he cannot 'save' Yiddish. And I don't really think that's his goal. I suspect Mendy persists in his project for the same reason anyone is drawn to expressing themselves in Yiddish: it's a vital part of who he is. Within Yiddish the fragments of a modern identity are brought into conversation: French cabaret crooner, Hasidic bokher, twenty first century Israeli. Yung Yidish is as much a personal expression of one man's rooted cosmopolitanism as it a 'crusade' to save Yiddish.

What would happen if journalists were not allowed to talk about reviving, saving, or tekhias hameysim when it came to Yiddish. What if Yiddish had to be confronted as more than "a language often confined to old folk songs?" Unfortunately, most journalists writing about Yiddish don't know anything about Yiddish and kal v'khoymer, they don't know any Yiddish. Without any kind of grounding in the language and culture it is near impossible to go further. Cheslow can refer to Mendy's band Mendy Cahan and der Yiddish Express, but she can't offer any insights into his choice of songs, his interpretation, the possible resonances found in his Yiddish version of Ne Me Quitte Pas. 

Though these articles are written with the best of intentions and seek to bring attention to worthy organizations desperate for financial help, it is clear the journalists writing them (and the editors editing them) cannot (or will not) go deeper than the confines of the Yiddish!Revival! narrative. And, as demonstrated earlier, this narrative is not a friendly one. The revival narrative is patronizing and reinforces the very cliches about Yiddish which are used to marginalize and delegitimize it. Articles like Mother Tongue keep people talking about Yiddish, but that conversation, in my opinion, is going nowhere, fast.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on, Rokhl. Your critique here is sharp and insightful-- thank you for continuing the good fight!

    I've been progressively more and more disappointed with Tablet over the passed 2-3 years and I'd be curious to know if you (or anyone else out there) see things the way I do. It used to be a forum for all stripes of global Jewishness, both mainstream and "off the derekh" (if you will) of paradigmatic, hegemonic ways of being Jewish. Increasingly, however, I've noticed a shift. As they've added more content (and perhaps met with more sponsor gelt) they've largely reflected an Israel-centric, softly anti-religious, Adam Sandler-esque vision of American (and only American) Jewish life that I find, to quote Zvi Gitelman, just plain "thin."

    Symptomatic of this is not only empty Yiddish!Revival! pieces, but also a sad lack of nuance vis-a-vis politics (assuming that all Jews are, by fact of being Jewish, far-left liberal) and a general feeling that Jewish culture consists exclusively of skimming the New York Times desperately looking for Jewish names in the headlines, obituaries, wedding announcements, etc. Tablet is not alone in this approach to Jewishness, of course, but their decline is made all the more salient for me, as they used to be a place I looked toward for the other side of the coin, so to speak. Perhaps this is the fate of any media-space as gains popularity and moves toward the center, the gradual aging of anything and anyone as it becomes what it once criticized. What's frustrating is that Tablet still seems to be able to marshal the resources to occasionally (but increasingly more rarely) to publish some gems.

    In contexts such as the Tablet, New York Times,etc., Yiddish is degraded and marginalized, infantilized and ignored. Restoring its visibility and viability as a legitimate discourse in global Jewish life is of vital importance, but, I think, not for Yiddish's sake alone. The "battle for Yiddish," (if I may be so dramatic) is to my mind a fight against this "lowest common denominator" Jewishness writ large that is promoted everywhere, reinforced in synagogues, federations, birthright buses, the list goes on. No one argues that Israel and the Holocaust are of undeniable significance, but Jewish life (past, present and future!) is full of rich diversity, a pluralistic, multicultural, kaleidoscopic mix of Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, English Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Left, Right, Hasidic, Communist, Woody Allen, Franz Kafka, Roth, Babel, Rambam, et cetera, et cetera ad infinitum.

    bkitser, lomir zhe zingen, poshet un prost, fun ALTS vos iz heymish lib un tayer!