Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday Fragments

Spent the last few days reading and writing about the latest Pew report on American Jewry. The report does a spectacularly bad job at capturing anything outside a very narrow, synagogue oriented American Judaism, a Judaism, as the numbers show, with minimal relevance to the average American Jew. Unsurprisingly, there are no questions on the survey regarding languages other than Hebrew, and even the Hebrew section is badly designed. 

Inspired by this latest bit of cultural erasure, I present a fragment of something I wrote a year or two ago:

Yiddish isn't so much marginal to institutional Jewish America as it is asymptotic. A glance at the discourse around Yiddish shows it's ever present, and ever maligned, in ways only a psychoanalyst could love. American Jews love to sprinkle their speech with Yiddish words, but have no compunction about denigrating Yiddish as a non-language or 'clown language' or claiming it as the quintessence of onomatopoeia. In the popular imagination, Yiddish is spoken exclusively by the elderly and by victims, (which raises the question of how new Yiddish speakers were ever made.)

When it comes to transmission of Yiddish, we've got Yiddish for Dogs and Yiddish for Babies, but Yiddish for Dayschool Students is almost unthinkable. Indeed, every year books come out purporting to teach Jews Yiddish (usually in the form of curses), but these same books are riddled with errors, sometimes on every page. In what other Jewish subject would such ignorance be tolerated as 'expertise'?

Yiddish is to American Jews what homosexuality is to closeted fundamentalist pastors- an obsession and an embarrassment. Yiddish is no longer a 'vernacular' but has come to function as a screen onto which can be projected our personal, and collective, anxieties.

And here we arrive at one of the most intriguing paradoxes of American Jewish life. The myth of Yiddish, the myth of bubbes and zeydes, Holocaust victims and vulgar Boscht Belt comedians, is at the very heart of American Jewish culture. But the real Yiddish, the Yiddish with a grammar and dictionaries and literature, is so far on the fringe as to be slightly disreputable, and perhaps even illegitimate. Yiddish has been transformed, not just into a post-vernacular (as Jeffrey Shandler has written), but into something out of time, fantastical. No matter what the 'facts' are about Yiddish, its function as myth is so essential to the psyche of the American Jew that it is almost impossible to discuss Yiddish *except* in these mythological terms. Anything that doesn't fit into these tropes just cannot compute.


  1. I always wonder why dayschools even within the Modern Orthodox community do not offer Yiddish. Given how much Yiddish vocabulary one would already have if one had studied Hebrew since kindergarten and how Yiddish would help one learn German, I would think that offering Yiddish would be a no-brainer. If only the Yiddishist community had a patron, the way Birthright has Sheldon Adelson.

    When I was in post-Bar Mitzvah Hebrew school I had an ardent desire to take Yiddish. After two years of lobbying my school FINALLY did offer Yiddish, but I think it was because a teacher came along who wanted to teach it. Anyway, the class had over 20 kids sign up, used a respectable text book(let), and did teach some conjugations, but it was called "Yiddish for Fun" and concentrated on Yiddish sayings and the the humorous side of the culture.

  2. Yes and yes. I cousin of mine literally laughed out loud when I told him I was learning Yiddish recently. Though I know he dashes it about in his speech. Still, I think the idea of a "post-vernacular" yiddish can be something rich and meaningful and distinct from the denigrated yiddish used commonly now that you describe so well.