Saturday, October 29, 2016

Where Do Statistics Come From?

The 2013 study Pew survey of American Jews served up some sobering statistics, most notably, that the intermarriage rate for American Jews was now over 70%.

There were lots of other statistics contained therein, like that almost half of American Jews didn't even know alef-beys. For some reason, that statistic barely got any play. But the intermarriage number... hoo boy. 

Now, three years later there's lots of talk about the meaning of these numbers. Lots of 'three years later' blather, and now, I'm one of the blatherers! See, some things do change! 

Over at Haaretz I wrote about how the intermarriage 'crisis' is more of an opportunity for certain establishment types to make themselves seem important at a time of communal danger.  If you've been reading my blog, you won't be terribly surprised to see what I have to say on the subject. I want to understand why the intermarriage numbers are framed as a crisis above, and independent of, the dismal state of Jewish education and literacy in the U.S. Why is 'intermarriage' more crisis-worthy than the many other dismal dimensions of American Jewish life? 

I looked to the sociological theories of Rogers Brubaker for a clue. Brubaker studies ethnic conflict and the way that 'groups' are called into existence by what he calls 'ethnopolitical entrepreneurs.' What if the 'intermarriage crisis' frame is a kind of ethnic conflict used by those entrepreneurs to increase a feeling of 'groupness'? After all, nothing coheres a group more than heightening previously unseen boundaries (and fear of crossing them).

A few weeks after the Pew report hit in October 2013, many of us got an email from the Forward, subject line 'Does the American Jewish community have a future?'

Dear Friend,
By now, you probably have heard the statistics: 32% of Jews under age 30 say they have no religion, and the majority of those without religion have Christmas trees. Fully two-thirds of the Jews with no religion are raising their children without any Jewish identity at all. As historian Jack Wertheimer told the Forward, “It’s the story of a community contracting.”
If young Jews were choosing some kind of secular engagement over a religious one, Jewishness itself would not be at risk. But even ethnic and cultural identifiers are disappearing. America’s full acceptance of its Jewish citizens has led many more to leave their Jewish identity entirely behind.

"The statistics" mentioned in this email didn't just happen. They were called into being by the institution now using them for fundraising - Jane Eisner was the catalyst behind the Pew Foundation taking on the 2013 survey. In January of that year she wrote an editorial calling for a Jewish marriage agenda, saying that whether her kids (my generation) would marry, and if so, would they choose to marry Jews, was what kept her up at night.

Now, I don't know if Jane Eisner's kids will marry Jews, and I'm not that worried about it. But if you got that email, chances are you've at least given it some thought because those who shape the cultural conversation, Eisner and the Forward, and Jack Wertheimer, prominently (though not exclusively), missed no opportunity to hammer home the looming demographic dangers. (Dangers they themselves are involved in uncovering.) 

Luckily, Eisner and the Forward presented both problem and solution (signed by Forward publisher Sam Norich):

What is to be done? The Forward has been out front in raising that question and looking for answers. For us, it’s personal – we feel a direct responsibility to our community and its continued vitality. If you share that feeling, I hope you’ll join us in sustaining our ongoing discussion of the Jewish future. Stay informed. Participate in the debate. And take an active part in supporting the Forward’s continuing role by making a donation. Your membership contribution makes it possible for us to keep the spotlight on the defining issues of our community.

I think it can be true that Jane Eisner (and Sam Norich, and everyone at the Forward) cares deeply about the future of Jews while at the same, also true that they have interests that diverge dramatically from those of average Jews and that as ethnopolitical entrepreneurs, they have an investment in groupmaking that does little to nothing to solve the problems they claim to be tackling and a lot to do with making themselves, and their institutions, be seen as essential to American Jews.

We need information about the American Jewish community and the Pew study was a crucial (if deeply flawed) opportunity to take a snapshot of where we are. That's a good thing. But taking a minute to understand how statistics get made, and why, can also be a crucial part in planning for the future. And, as I point out in my Haaretz piece, it's the past that got us to the future, and it's too important to ignore in the present.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How Do You Say Email In Yiddish

How do you say 'email' in Yiddish ?

I'll admit, this New York Times piece about the new Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary isn't aimed at me. I'm probably one of a relatively small number of Times readers who already knows how to say email in Yidish. Or rather, one of a small number of readers who knows (and uses) the terms (blitspost or blitsbriv) suggested by the lexicographers behind the Dictionary, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul Glasser. I'm also one of even fewer readers (I imagine) who bought the Comprehensive Dictionary soon after it came out and uses it in the ordinary course of business.

Please don't mistake that for a brag. If it were, it would surely be the lamest brag ever. But it's to make clear that I consume mainstream journalism about Yiddish with an entirely different set of expectations than the average reader. Now, according to some people, I expect way too much from journalists. According to some people, any publicity for Yiddish is good publicity. To both of those arguments I say HOGWASH. (Or else I would've given up these kinds of blog posts ages ago.)

As I've discussed elsewhere, the way we talk about Yiddish is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Joe Berger has been on the Yiddish beat for the New York Times for 30 years. Our mainstream (non-Yiddishist, non-specialist) discourse around Yiddish is exemplified and magnified in the Berger oeuvre. Yiddish is constantly represented as dying, inherently humorous, weak or any of the many icky tropes regularly invoked by journalists like him. The lachrymose vision of Yiddish culture flogged by Berger and his ilk translates to very real, negative consequences for Yiddish. Grants are turned down because Yiddish is obviously dying. Educational programs that treat Yiddish as a legitimate part of Jewish learning are scoffed at. Artists invited into Jewish schools and camps are explicitly told not to dare bring any Yiddish into the classroom.

So. Back to the Comprehensive Dictionary. It truly is a milestone in modern Yiddish scholarship. It's the product of decades of lexicographical collection (and some good old fashioned neologizing) and will be prized by Yiddish students and speakers for years to come. Here's what a good article about the Dictionary might look like. Larry Yudelson gives a beautiful background on the Schaechter family, on the project of modern Yiddish scholarship, and on the extraordinary talent and skills of the people who finally brought the project to fruition.

What does the paper of record have to say?

Those terms [email, transgender, bingewatch] came into popular usage long after the language’s heyday, when it was the lingua franca of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the garment workers of the Lower East Side and was the chosen literary tongue for writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Though the Holocaust and assimilation have shrunk the ranks of Yiddish speakers — once put at over 11 million worldwide — to a relative handful, Yiddish still needs to keep itself fashionably up-to-date.

So two of its conservationists have produced the first full-fledged English-to-Yiddish dictionary in 50 years and it is designed to carry Yiddish into the 21st century and just maybe beyond. After all, Yiddish has always had a canny way of defying the pessimists.

"How Do You Say Email in Yiddish" opens with a number of familiar tropes about Yiddish, dearly beloved above all by Berger, such as:

  • Yiddish as the province of a specialized, politicized sub-group of Lower East Side garment workers as opposed to millions of Eastern European immigrants who came to the US and maintained a Yiddish infrastructure far longer than comparable immigrant groups

  • Characterizing Schaechter-Viswanath and Glasser as "conservationists" instead of linguists and scholars. The "conservation" trope precludes a discussion of Yiddish as productive and generative, even on a small scale. 

And then...
The 826-page Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, with almost 50,000 entries and 33,000 subentries, is the work of Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, a Yiddish editor and poet, and Paul Glasser, a former dean at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the major repository of Yiddish language, literature and folklore.

  • The characterization of YIVO as a "repository" rather than as a world class site of scholarly research. Notice how repository is passive whereas a center of research would be active. This trope functions to diminish activity related to Yiddish research.

So, the first problem is the layers and layers of asinine tropes. But what about the story itself. Why is this Dictionary important enough for NYT column inches? For one thing, as minority languages around the world disappear at a shocking rate, the question of language growth and maintenance is more and more urgent, and hardly exclusive to Yiddish. But this is what Berger sees.

Whether the new words, many of which were coined by the editors, will be widely embraced remains an open question.

Guess what? Berger never asks a non-Hasidic Yiddish speaker. I promise you, it's not like he doesn't have our phone numbers. Mant of my Yiddishist friends have spoken with him for background on stories. Even yours truly, on one memorable occasion.

Who does he ask?

“Any word that you’ve got to scratch your head to come up with they’ll use the English word,” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist and translator who is the media consultant for Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella group for ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations.

Good lord. Where do I even begin? A journalist who does a story about Modern Yiddish research and then goes to the Agudah for comment strains credulity. The European, self-consciously modern project of Yiddish scholarship, of which Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter was a (figuratively) towering figure, is light years away from the American Yiddish used by haredi, Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities today. Some of them may end up using this dictionary, but this project is not for them because, the sad irony is, there is very little demand for Yiddish scholarship within the communities that use Yiddish most widely today. But this is how Berger puts it:

Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to absorb new English words just as they are for convenience’ sake without any guilt that they are bastardizing the purity of Yiddish. Email becomes email, though spelled in the Hebrew script that Yiddish adopted when it arose among Ashkenazic Jews in German-speaking lands during the 10th century. 
“For Hasidim, Yiddish is not about culture; it’s about using language in a utilitarian way,” Mr. Rapaport, the Hasidic translator said.

It's hard to believe that a writer who just published a book about Hasidim could write something so remarkably inapt and ahistorical. Though Hasidic communities may not have an investment in Yiddish as a high culture language, one of the main reasons they continue to use Yiddish is, while not on par with loshn-koydesh (biblical Hebrew and Aramaic), Yiddish is viewed as a language infused with Jewishness, and holiness. (Yiddish-only communities are also a form of social control, but that's another story.) When Berger credulously quotes Rapaport as saying it's not about 'culture' he betrays his ignorance of what 'culture' is and how Yiddish functions in the Hasidic world.

Furthermore, there were always (non-religious) Yiddish institutions in the United States which happily Americanized Yiddish as much as possible, the Forverts being the most famous example.

And this brings me to my main complaint. There is tremendous tension inherent in maintaining a minority language within a hegemonic monolingual environment. It's a valid question to ask who this dictionary is for. (Of course that would require to talk to people who DO care about the proper Yiddish word for computer or transgender.) It's also a difficult, contentious question of how to maintain and grow a language which has experienced radical, traumatic loss of speakers. Can neologisms like blitspost be imposed from 'above'? In the days of democratized media and education, is there an 'above' anymore? How have other minority language communities handled these questions? And for secular leaning Yiddish students and speakers, what is to be the relationship between them and the Hasidic/Haredi Yiddish world? What kind of linguistic interchange is possible?

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of this topic, but that should suffice for now. It's possible that a few people will read this article and buy a copy of the dictionary for their favorite Yiddish curious friend. But at $60, it's unlikely to be a popular stocking stuffer this Khanike. Rather than another lament for the disappearance of Yiddish disguised as a light human interest story, Yiddish needs more journalism that takes it seriously. It needs journalism that educates general audience readers about the accomplishments of modern Yiddish scholarship, and most importantly, it needs people who can explain why Yiddish is not just an important world language, but a vital piece of the yerushe (birthright) of millions of Jews around the world.