Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Stories We Tell

I stumbled on this a while ago, but just decided to blog about it. PRI partners with Israel Story to bring us a slice of life from Israel, in English, in the style of This American Life.

The subject is one I've covered before: Mendy Cahan and Yung Yiddish. This particular iteration follows the 'Yiddish revival in Israel' pattern pretty much point for point, so I don't need to say much. There was just one thing that stood out to me.

Around 8:30 the narrator talks about the ways that the state of Israel suppressed and even criminalized Yiddish in an effort to promote cultural and linguistic unity. She says that all the Yiddish books lovingly brought from Eastern Europe to the new promised land now sat yellowing on the shelf. Skip ahead to the soi disant revival and Mendy collecting all those now yellowed treasures from pre-war Eastern Europe.

And yet. What we miss in the skip ahead is that after the war, the center of global Yiddish publishing shifted to Israel! I'd lay money that a great portion of the books in the collection of Yung Yiddish are actually relatively modern and published right there in Israel.

I'll quote myself, because I'm lazy:

"...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.'

 Yung Yiddish and Mendy are like catnip to journalists. You've got the quirky protagonist with his bushy eyebrows and hand rolled cigarettes. You've got a delightfully grotesque locale for a Yiddish library (in the bus station! next to the VD clinic!). And you've got a foregone conclusion, that Yiddish is a curiosity for Israelis, but ultimately, poses no threat to the cultural hegemony. It's lazy, boring journalism at its finest.  And that's a damn shame.