Friday, May 26, 2006


I would just like to state, for the record, that using the term "yenta" and implying that it ascribes an inhuman or ratlike quality to a person (i.e. a woman) is, um, well, not only totally anti-semitic it's misogynistic as well. There's really no excuse for this kind of thing. I understand that the negative connotation is, in part, derived from the Yiddish etymology of the word, but for non-Jews (or for that matter Jews) to use it "against" someone is waaay over the line. The complex relationship many Jews have --post Holocaust-- to the (loss of) the Yiddish language is a very sensitive one, historically and psychologically. Thus, I have posted the long piece below on the subject in hopes that some kind of knowledge can be gained from my own negative and offended feelings on the use of Yiddish in anti-semitic ways, even if it's used by non-Jews "against" non-Jews, perhaps especially so. A couple other things. Beer which calls itself "He'brew" and which has an image on the carton of a hooked nosed Jew is repulsive, reaffirming Jewish stereotypes, and I question the desire for Jews to drink from this tainted well. And, just so ya know, Judaism and the "Passion" have nothing to do with one another. As Sarah would say... I'm just sayin' is all.
(Oh, and apologies for the f'ed up lineation. It'd take too long to juggle the lines properly.)

Published in the Jewish Quarterly, no.170, Summer 1998.

Popular wisdom has it that the Yiddish language is
making a comeback in the United States and elsewhere.
While I see no evidence of such a renaissance,
there is definitely a Yiddish phenomenon in American culture.
People are yearning for a connection to Yiddish as never before
- or, at least,differently from ever before.
I would like to try and describe the form of
this yearning, suggest a psychological reason for it,
and offer some speculations about the future.

Yiddish culture in America - like Gaul -
is divided into three parts:erudite, informed
and popular. Although my experiences at the university
level are fundamental to all my ideas about Yiddish,
I will focus on informed and popular cultural manifestations.

Concerning informed Yiddish culture, I notice
two remarkable developments:the proliferation
of communal activity, such as Yiddish festivals, and
Yiddish postings on the Web, notably the bulletin
board 'Mendele'. While notexclusively American
in its membership, Mendele was started in the US and,
from what I can tell, most of its membership is in
the US. Democratic inconcept and practice,
Mendele has a life of its own: participants freely
post news, questions, comments and responses to
other postings. The level of knowledge ranges
from ameratses to bekiyes; the temperature ranges from cool
to incendiary.

Last June, I followed a particularly engrossing
discussion on Mendele. The stimulus for this
exchange was an article by Michael Chabon in the June/July
1997 issue of Civilization, the magazine of the
Smithsonian Institute. Entitled
'Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts', the essay was
a meditation on the poignant irrelevance of
Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich's 1958 Say it in
Yiddish. Chabon, who does not know Yiddish,
mused about the futility of such phrases as:

What is the flight number?
I need something for a tourniquet
Can I go by boat/ferry to . . .?

Where and when, in 1958 and subsequently, would
these expressions ever have been useful? Chabon asks.
After playing around for a while with the notion
of a Mediterranean Yiddishland or one in Alaska
(or Alyeska), he gets to the heart of his argument:

The Weinreichs are taking us home, to the
'old country'. To Europe. In this Europe the
millions of Jews who were never killed produced
grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,
and great-great-grandchildren. The countryside
retains large pockets of country people whose first
language is still Yiddish, and in the cities
there are many more for whom Yiddish is the
language of kitchen and family, of theater and
poetry and scholarship. A surprisingly large
number of these people are my relations...
For my relatives, although they will know some English,
I will want to trot out a few appropriate Yiddish
phrases, more than anything as a way of
re-establishing the tenuous connection between us.

These words resonated deeply for me: I remember
vividly how, as I started my academic career,
my colleagues would go off every summer to
Germany, Austria or Norway, and I would be reminded
that there was no Yiddishland that I could go to.
Already 20 years ago, I worried that perhaps I
was perpetuating a dream by teaching my students
the Yiddish words for 'marshmallow' and 'stereo'.

Chabon concludes this sombre contemplation by wondering what it means to
come 'from a culture that no longer exists' and to speak 'a language that
may die in this generation'. Perhaps it was these words that inflamed
Mendele's readers; perhaps it was the very idea of questioning the total
vibrancy of Yiddish. In any case, there was a hue and cry that went on for
days and that contained, in addition to a response from Mr Chabon himself,
such comments as:

How many hundreds, even thousands, of labourers must be employed by
Yiddish-speaking Hasidim in the New York area in service industries,
retail and domestic work, or any number of other sectors of an
often-underground Hasidic economy (such as the cash-only construction
trades)? . . . How many such workers - and one thinks especially of
shabes-goyim - might benefit immensely, might draw tremendous advantage,
from learning those basic Yiddish skills that would allow them to
significantly alter the emotional and psychological footing on which they
must interact with their Yiddish-speaking employers? (Ron Robboy)


Listen up friend Chabon. A number of us have gotten together and created a
dictionary of chemistry, in Yiddish!! (I hope it will come out in a short
time) . . . And who needs it . . . ?? WE need it because it is our Yiddish
CULTURE . . . for the same reason that the Guide for travellers is needed
. . . throughout the world . . . (Mendy Fliegler)

I think that the Mendele controversy illuminates the current situation.
Some Mendelyaner feel compelled to defend not only the existence of Yiddish
but also its growth. Yet the very argument is flawed; the need to assert
that a language is thriving implies doubt. No one makes comparable
pronouncements about Spanish, Chinese, or even Flemish.

Rabboy, in his reply to Chabon, quotes Max Weinreich's marvellous bon mot,
'A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.' But - even without a
military establishment - no one disputes the independence of Yiddish. No one
disputes that, pace Weinreich, Yiddish has continued to exist in goles (in
the Diaspora) for a millennium.

At issue is the future. What will happen next? Dictionaries of chemistry do
not prove that a language is flowering. The effort to produce such works
indicates that those who love Yiddish cannot bear to acknowledge that an era
has ended. Yiddish is not the only language that is endangered. Of the 175
American Indian languages still extant today in the United States, only 20
are now spoken by mothers to their babies, and an additional 55 are used by
ten or fewer tribal members. Linguists estimate that, because of increased
communication and a globalized economy, about half of the world's 6,000
languages are expected to become extinct within the next century. But Chabon
puts his finger on the ultimate cause and the anguished refusal to accept
the truth: Yiddish did not die out because of television or the European
Economic Community - it was murdered. Like the survivors themselves, Yiddish
is tenacious and plucky, filled with insight and information. But tenacity
and pluckiness do not bestow immortality; only speakers can do that, and
only as long as they and their culture are one.

I now want to propose a psychoanalytic explanation for the argument that
Yiddish is just fine, thank you. Those who continue to speak the language
and those who love it are mourning its death throes. As mourners, we are
behaving in ways well recognized by practitioners and well delineated by
theorists. You may be thinking that the loss of a language or a culture is
something quite different from the loss of a person, and of course it is.
Yet the notion that people mourn objects and ideas as well as people is not
new. At the beginning of his seminal 1917 paper, 'Mourning and Melancholia'
(Volume XIV of the Standard Edition), Freud noted: 'Mourning is regularly
the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some
abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one's country,
liberty, an ideal, and so on.' More recently, Heinz Kohut suggested that
cultural possessions can provide psychological sustenance, especially in
times of crisis.

Psychoanalytic literature contains diverse descriptions of the mourning
process, but all writers on the subject agree that denial is a typical first
response to loss. Although twentieth-century Americans often use the words
'in denial' pejoratively, denial is a powerful psychological tool; denial
can help cushion a blow that, if faced squarely, would be intolerable.

The most influential psychoanalytic writer on mourning is Britain's John
Bowlby. Bowlby came to his ideas about mourning from his work with infants
and their responses to separation from their parents. Amplifying his
observations with information from animal behaviour studies, he eventually
reached generalizations about the larger subject of separation and mourning
in adults. (See, for example, his paper, 'Process of Mourning',
International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XLII, Parts 4-5, 1961.) Bowlby
divides the mourning process into three fluid stages: (1) attempted recovery
of the lost loved one, (2) disorganization and despair, and (3)
reorganization. In the first phase - attempted recovery - the mourner
remains focused on the absent person. Repeated efforts are made to achieve
reunion, and when these endeavours fail, as they must in the case of death,
the griever frequently fantasizes that reconnection will yet occur. Anger,
weeping, protest and accusations all mark this first stage. As infants,
every one of us learned that crying and other displays of distress usually
succeed in bringing back the truant parent; these demonstrations also
admonished the parent against future wandering. Weeping, protest, anger and
the demand for reunion are thus adaptive infant responses to temporary loss.
These behaviours have been reinforced - either by evolution or learning -
precisely because they are effective in communicating that the missing
parent had better return immediately.

Adults employ these same strategies when separation results from death,
although the gambits look superficially different: 'It can't be true that
you are gone. How dare you leave me! You can't leave me - I'll die without
you. If you come back, I'll never yell at you again. It's all the hospital's
fault! It can't be true that I'll never see you again. It can't be true.'

My understanding of the Yiddish Chemical Dictionary follows Bowlby's
insights. For many people who love Yiddish and who love those who spoke it,
the response to its demise is simply denial: 'Of course Yiddish cannot be
dying. It never has and it never will.'

The loss of the language is particularly intense because its speakers
perished catastrophically and unnaturally. The continued vitality of Yiddish
commemorates the dead and constitutes a small victory over the huge and
hideous injustice of history. Michael Chabon and his ilk, who threaten to
explode the fantasy, are the targets of accusation, protest and rage. In
contrast to those who want to pretend that Yiddish persists as it always
has, others - and these are the people I have encountered most frequently -
see the language as the symbol of a saintly, satisfied, impossibly perfect
society that existed at some point in the vague past. These romantics are
concerned principally with locating the cultural moments and places where
nostalgia and idealization may be nurtured. I suspect that the current
enthusiasm for klezmer music stems partly from the longing for a past that
is simple and freylekh (joyous), albeit sometimes in a minor key. Ditto for
the Yiddish-flavoured festivals that celebrate food, paper cutting and
wedding recreations.

Still other fans of Yiddish identify with its precarious position. In the
words of Ruth Wisse (Commentary, November 1997), they are 'Jewish (and
non-Jewish) spokesmen for gays and lesbians, feminists and neo-Trotskyites
[who] freely identify their sense of personal injury with the cause of
Yiddish' precisely because it was the language of millions of martyrs. Like
the consumers of klezmer-yiddishkayt, they seem not to care about how
Yiddish evolved over centuries and how it burst into the twentieth century
with its contradictions, conflicts, heady developments and difficult
choices. They seem not to be curious about the existence of Yiddish-speaking
manufacturers, linguists, political theorists, physicians and athletes.

Remembrance and cultural transmission are fine in themselves. But when they
are consistently isolated from other aspects of Eastern European Jewish
existence, they create a distorted picture of life in that time and place.
As Bowlby would see it, this distortion is precious to those who cling to
it. The notion that everything connected with Yiddish and Eastern European
Jewry must be joyous and/or funny, even slapstick, is another form of
denial, a denial of death, and even of pain: 'That world must have been lots
of fun, filled with music, celebrations, and great food. Certainly it has no
connection to suffering.' How else are we to understand the year-round
dreydl (Hanukah top) and giant pickle that functioned as leitmotivs in a
recent production of 'Shlemiel the First,' based on a story by Isaac
Bashevis Singer?

I am well acquainted with the denial phase of mourning. I spent years and
years believing that, if I kept teaching the Yiddish for 'marshmallow ' and
'stereo', there would one day be a practical use for these words. Like a
small child demanding the return of her mother, I stamped my foot at the
slipping away of mameloshn, as if my refusal to accept what was before my
eyes would reverse reality. Now, however, I inhabit the changeable space
between the second and third stages of mourning.

It was during the writing of my Singer biography that I finally admitted to
myself that I could no longer hope for the continuity of Yiddish. I decided
that I wanted to use Bashevis's life as a means of illustrating, not only
his own sophistication, but also that of his culture. I naively assumed that
anyone who could view his work as the stuff of giant pickles was acting out
of ignorance. If readers had the proper information, they would surely
revise their opinions about Singer, about the Yiddish language, and about
the culture of Eastern European Jewry. Nothing doing. Instead of realizing
that Bashevis was much more than a benign, vegetarian, pigeon-feeding old
grandfather, people started asking me why I hated him. This inability to
accept Bashevis's personality in all its complexity has a strange reflection
in Dvorah Telushkin's memoir of her relationship with him, Master of Dreams
(New York: William Morrow, 1997). Throughout the book, she attempts to
create a Yiddish accent, which consists of using a 'v' for every 'w', as in
'vhen' and 'vhy', and a double 'e' in 'we', which therefore emerges as
'vee'. Few of the reviews even alluded to this tacky and inaccurate
manoeuvre, let alone questioned it. Telushkin's book further highlights the
sad scene I have outlined. The picture includes aficionados who deny that
Yiddish is in trouble, admirers who appreciate the language because its
speakers suffered, and lovers of a simplicity that simply never existed.

Is Yiddish in America finished, then? I don't think so. We have the YIVO
(Institute for Jewish Research), the Forverts, and the National Yiddish Book
Center. Moreover, Yiddish does indeed have a place where it is thriving and
where transmission is organic and natural. That place is the English

My favourite examples of an evolving Yiddish literature are writings that
blend English and Yiddish into a new entity. First, just consider Singer's
translations of his own work into English. At some point during his long
years in New York, I believe he actually began to think in English; then he
wrote in a Yiddish style that translated smoothly into English. Certainly,
his later works are far less idiomatic than his earlier ones. He even
stipulated that his oeuvre be canonized in English.

The capacity to blend English with Yiddish, or to move fluidly between
English and Yiddish, however, depends on knowledge of both languages. The
problem we are facing today is precisely that only a shrinking number of
people still possess that knowledge. Moreover, the possibilities for
developing near-native fluency in Yiddish are on the wane, at least in the
secular world. Still, a sensibility to the flavour of Yiddish wondrously
persists. People who read Singer at his best in translation can savour that
flavour, as can, for that matter, people who read certain works by Saul
Bellow. I have also been seeing the spirit of Yiddish in English, in the
work of authors who do not know Yiddish, for several years. This is a corpus
that, however small and pale in comparison to the original, nonetheless
provides a form of access to the realm of Yiddish.

A wonderful example can be found in the writings of Steve Stern. While
several stories illustrate his debt to Yiddish, Stern explicitly credits the
language and Eastern European Jewish culture with expanding, indeed
unleashing, his creativity in 'The Ghost and Saul Bozoff', which appears in
the collection Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (New York: Viking, 1986). An
effete young writer, Saul is transformed when he encounters the ghost of
Leah Rosenthal, who transmits to him a wealth of literary subjects from her
own experience, including 'a perpetual blizzard of feathers in the
pillow-making sweatshop, eternal spring in the paper-flower factory, clothes
hung in the airshafts like flags at a naval regatta . . . flaming bodies
that plummeted from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company like a flight of

Since reading Stern, I've noticed many additional hints of Yiddish in the
writing of Anglophone authors who do not know the language. Art Spiegelman,
in Maus I and II (New York: Pantheon, 1986 and 1991) has his father Vladek
speak two types of English: he is Vladek, the native speaker of Yiddish, and
he is Vladek the immigrant, grappling with English. The European battling
for his life utters an impassioned plea to his wife: 'Until the last moment
we must struggle together! I need you! And you'll see that together we'll
survive.' But the immigrant who is retelling the story concludes: 'This
always I told to her.' He tells his American-born son: 'Help yourself for a
little cereal . . . Okay, if not, is not. Only just try then a piece from
this fruit cake . . . I want only you'll enjoy here the summer with me.'

The technique of rendering native and non-native speech in English is
certainly not new; Henry Roth did it superbly in Call it Sleep. But there
the point was to show that the same person who butchered English was also
capable of eloquence. For Roth, it was a clever way of highlighting the
immigrant plight while simultaneously reminding the reader that being
limited in English by no means signified lack of refinement. Spiegelman's
use of a similar technique, by contrast, suggests that Vladek was once
effective and courageous but that now he is a weak old man, forced to
communicate in ways that Artie finds both ludicrous and infuriating.
Nonetheless, Spiegelman's content emphasizes the modernity and initiative
that thrived in pre-Holocaust Jewish Eastern Europe, even as his form is
quintessentially American.

In another moving example, Pearl Abraham's poignant novel, The Romance
Reader (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995; London: Quartet, 1996) uses what
might be called Hasidic English to contrast the values of the protagonist's
Satmer father with the young woman's own search for freedom through secular
literature. The father puts it bluntly: 'The Jews escaped slavery in Egypt
because of three things,' he says, quoting from the Humash, swaying as if
he's studying. 'Name, dress, and language. You two call each other by your
goyishe names, Rachel instead of Ruchel; you speak a goyishe language; and
now you're changing the way you dress. I will not have any of that in this
house. This is a hasidishe home.' The prose is not Yiddish, of course, but
the echo of Yiddish lies beneath the surface. And, with this method, Abraham
creates an American novel that evokes the stultifying atmosphere of
old-world Hasidism and at the same time convincingly portrays the quest to

Where to draw the line with respect to authenticity and aesthetic
acceptability is another matter. To use food as a cultural illustration, I
recently read that, the more accepted an ethnic dish becomes, the larger
(i.e. the more American) its size. Enormous, doughy bagels available at
Dunkin Donuts and on American Airlines prove the point. Once a food has been
adopted, it can be adapted to the majority culture's needs and tastes, as in
chicken croissants, blueberry bagels and, in Arizona, Navajo bagels.

So what does it mean when the Yiddish language, the Holocaust, and the Golem
all appear in a novel by an Irish-American? I am not making this up: the
work is Pete Hamill's Snow in August (New York: Warner, 1997). Set in the
mid-1940s, the book concerns an unusual friendship. At the age of 11,
Michael Devlin is a good Irish Catholic youngster with more than his share
of woe. Rabbi Judah Hirsch is a Holocaust survivor from Prague, now
presiding over a Brooklyn shul that has seen much better days. Both Michael
and the rabbi have endured great loss - Michael's father has been killed in
the war and the rabbi has lost his wife in the camps. The two also share the
experience of being persecuted by a local roughneck, Frankie McCarthy, and
his cronies. After they meet in a bashert (fated) kind of way, Michael and
the rabbi arrange a project of reciprocal education: the rabbi will teach
Michael Yiddish and Michael will tutor the rabbi in baseball. Michael
discovers the Golem and the rabbi not only discovers Jackie Robinson but
also attends a game in Ebbets Field.

At the end of the novel, as the rabbi lies in the hospital after an
antisemitic incident at the hands of Frankie McCarthy's gang, Michael
succeeds in bringing the Golem to life in Brooklyn. After 'whispering an Our
Father', the boy utters the proper incantations and is rewarded with a Golem
who is 'as dark as Jackie Robinson'. The Golem quickly takes care of
Frankie's gang, heals the rabbi and smuggles him out of the hospital and
back to the synagogue, along the way restoring the sanctuary to its former
glory. Not content with that, the Golem fills the space with the six million
kdoyshim (martrys), including the rabbi's wife, Leah. Husband and wife,
reunited at last, step out onto the roof to dance the dance that Hitler had

What is wrong here? Hamill records with admirable accuracy Michael's Yiddish
lessons and his subsequent use of the language. He has done his homework on
Jewish folklore and history. Hamill grew up among Jews in Brooklyn and,
according to a recent interview in Tikkun magazine, wrote the novel 'as a
thank you to Jewish culture, because it taught [him] three things that [he]
wanted to pass along. Moral intelligence, irony, and tenacity'. But the book
fails because its flavour is inauthentic. It is a literary blueberry bagel.
No writer familiar with Yiddishkayt would have a character say an 'Our
Father' and then call up a Golem who looks like Jackie Robinson.

But it is precisely the failure to distinguish between what is authentic and
what is not that forms the plight of Yiddish in American culture today.
Snow in August is being made into a film, and I imagine it has a chance of
being successful. Many people will probably agree with Pulitzer Prize winner
Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, who says of the book: 'When you
finish that roller-coaster last chapter you'll wonder if the shade of Isaac
Bashevis Singer whispered in his ear.'

Like the bagel, Yiddishkayt has entered the American mainstream, although
its cultural translation scarcely resembles the original. But I can report
that the love of Yiddish, vulgarized and filled with error though it may be,
continues unabated and right up to the minute. As I was writing these
remarks, I found the following advertisement in a fancy food shop near UCLA:

He'Brew - The Chosen Beer. Gourmet kosher microbrew with chutzpah. Shmaltz
Brewing Company is committed to crafting great beer and great shtik for the
Jewish community and beyond . . . L'Chaim! To shmooze with Global
Headquarters . . . surf

Janet Hadda

Janet Hadda is Professor of Yiddish at the University of California,
Los Angeles, and a practising psychoanalyst. Her latest book is Isaac
Bashevis Singer: A life (Oxford University Press).

A different version of this paper was delivered at a conference in
April 1998 on 'Yiddish in the Contemporary World' held by the Oxford
Institute for Yiddish Studies; it will also be included in a book of
the same name (edited by Dr Gennady Estraikh and Dr Mikhail Krutikov)
to be published in January 1999 by Legenda Press of the University of


Kim Lacey said...

saying that I got a good laugh outta this post seems too fitting and saying that I got your back seems even funnier so instead I'll send out a big fuck yes and then another cheer for sistahood

sarah ruddy said...

oy vey... uh, i mean "word"... or, rather, "good show, old chap"... have i offended EVERYBODY yet?

i'm just saying, is all.