Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Harsh, a Guttural, and an Any but Euphonious Jangle of Sounds

Is there anything I love more than vintage polemics against that other language of love, Yiddish? I was reminded of my passion for that bashin' by a post on the ever erudite, and ever fascinating, blog, On The Main Line.

The post is about 'The Jargon', an article in an 1892 issue of the American Hebrew. In 'The Jargon,' Lewis Dembitz presents his own peculiar theories on the historical development of Yiddish and various etymologies. And he pulls no punches as to his assessment of the language itself:
For all the purposes of modern culture, for art or science, for the higher walks of trade and commerce, the Jargon is utterly useless.
Haters gonna hate.

Dembitz's thoroughly unprejudiced and scholarly rant reminded me of some archival curiosities I've been sitting on for a while. 

In 1916, a Milwaukee folkshul (non-religiously affiliated school for Jewish children) applied for permission to use a public school building on Sunday mornings. The school, or Yiddishe Folkschule, was associated with the Yiddish Labor Zionism (Po'ale Tsiyon) movement and had more students than it could fit in its current space, in the Abraham Lincoln house.

Though the school board was in favor of allowing the Yiddishe Folkschule to use the building, the Folkschule had opposition from the Jewish community, specifically from within Milwaukee's German Jewish elite. This opposition prompted one of the teachers at the school, Robert Hess, to write a passionate defense both of his school and of the project of transmitting Yiddish culture to Jewish kids in the United States.

Here's what Hess wrote in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities in January, 1916, 'Teaching Yiddish in a Public School':

He concludes his defense of their school with a lovely passage I've already quoted on this blog, but it's worth repeating:
"... 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."

Members of the Milwaukee German-Jewish elite, however, would not let Hess have the last, uplifting word and in April, 1916, Rabbi Samuel Hirshberg published a defense of his offense against the Yiddishe Folkschule, one that sits quite comfortably with the kind of sentiments we saw from Lewis Dembitz. His piece was called 'Judaism and Hyphenism' (the title signaling a discourse around questions of Americanization and anxiety about a lack of assimilation):

Hirschberg proposes that promoting the teaching of any foreign language (even one as noble as German!) is against the best interests of American Jews. Not that Yiddish is anywhere near German in matters of nobility:
"It is indeed to be conceded that Yiddish is an unlovely and unbeautiful tongue, a harsh, a guttural and an any but euphonious jangle of sounds which no cultivated person, I imagine, would care to speak; but I doubt very much, at that, whether we can justifiably deny it the name of the language."
No, we cannot discriminate against Jewish Jargon solely on account of its Jargon-ness, Hirschberg sadly concedes.

But his real argument is even more disturbing, in hindsight, than mere anti-Jargonism. Yes, he says, American Jews have a 'right' to teach their kids who they are and where they come from. But, should they? Wouldn't it demonstrate real class to just, I don't know, forget about all that?

"... there are higher considerations than 'rights' of this character. It is the test of a higher and a nobler right many a time to forgo-- magnanimously to waive-- what we are pleased to call and which may even be conceded to be 'rights.' And I would call upon these co-religionists of ours just now to manifest such magnanimity and come under the rule of the 'higher rights.' "
America, Hirshberg argues, is being split apart at its most vulnerable moment, by the plague of hyphenism. It behooves all new Americans, he writes, to strengthen the American spirit by erasing themselves and their history as quickly as possible.

But it wasn't America which was painfully vulnerable in 1916, but the new immigrants arriving every day.

1916 was smack in the middle of a time of unprecedented immigration. With those hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants came a corresponding reaction of nativism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. In the 1920s Milwaukee experienced "a wave of anti-Semitism...Urgent community efforts were made to demonstrate Jewish patriotism and Americanism."   You can see foreshadowing of this in the terms of the debate around whether Jews should be teaching Yiddish (or foreign languages at all.)

A number of developments hostile to immigrants (and especially Jews) were brewing in 1916, all of which culminated in 1924, when the doors to Southern and Eastern European immigrants were effectively closed.

Rather than stand in solidarity, too often, the already established German-Jewish elite sought to distance itself from Eastern European Jews, or 'throw them under the bus'. Hence the over the top rhetoric around the 'language' of those embarrassing Ostjuden and pleas for a level of self-sacrifice which would have no effect whatsoever on anti-Semitism, xenophobia or racism. Despite the American Jewish community's ultimate willingness to shed its language, culture and distinctiveness, millions of Jews were prevented from emigrating from Eastern Europe, and possibly, saving themselves from the coming war.

Interestingly enough, there is one very famous example which comes out of this story and would seem to have proven Rabbi Hirschberg's fears of Jewish foreignness (and unassimilability) to be correct, at least in one instance.

Hirshberg feared that teaching a foreign language to young Jews would create the perception of (or the reality of!) dual loyalty and Un-American values. At the same time that Robert Hess was teaching at the Yiddishe Folkschule another young teacher, Golda Meir, future Prime Minister of Israel, was also immersing herself in Labor Zionism. She was an immigrant who went on to do the unthinkable- reject America as her home and become the leader of a foreign state: Rabbi Hirshberg's worst nightmare, for sure.

Of course, for better or worse, Golda Meir is and was an exception within American Judaism, within which political Zionism (and permanent aliyah) has always been a minor phenomenon. The fearful suppression of Jewish culture and identity, and internalized self-hatred, however, still lives on today.

(Many thanks to the Berman Jewish Policy Archive where I found the pdfs of the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities)