Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
Bilingualism in Jewish Literature

Pick up an old Jewish book—pick up the Bible, the book of books, for example. You will immediately perceive that we Jews have not always been content with one literary language; for, in addition to Hebrew, there are sections in the Bible that are written in Aramaic (parts of Ezra, Daniel). Recall, again, how the twenty-four books of the canon were published in the early days of printing: alongside the original Hebrew the medieval printers set the Targum translation, in Aramaic. As for the Talmud, the continuation of the Bible, the original itself is a very monument to bilingualism: Aramaized Hebrew in the Mishnah, on the one hand, and Hebraized Aramaic in the Gemara, on the other hand. During the Talmudic period Hebrew and Aramaic, the two Jewish literary languages of the time, were close neighbors, as it were, a divinely ordained marriage, a couple fated for one another.

Hebrew and Yiddish constitute a similar couple, a similar marriage, similarly fated for one another.

Since the beginning of the 16th century, hundreds of Jewish books have been printed in bilingual editions—except that in their case the two languages were not Hebrew and Aramaic but Hebrew and Judeo-German. Judeo-German was the partner of Hebrew, exactly as Aramaic had been in an earlier period.

Bilingualism has been a commonplace in Jewish literature, a tradition. This was true not only of the Pentateuch, Judeo-German Chumesh, the Muser morality books, the prayers or penitential Techines. It was true as well of the latter-day Haskalah (Enlightenment) booklets where Hebrew and Yiddish were frequently partners (Yiddish text and Hebrew titles—often introductions and complete paragraphs were also in Hebrew). There have even been Jewish journals containing articles alternately in Hebrew and Yiddish. This does not take into account, of course, the Jewish writers, old and new, who have in many cases been bilingual.

Were it not for a certain ideological opposition to this bilingualism in Jewish literature (an opposition that was marked in the past, and has more recently become extreme), we should not find it necessary to ask whether we ought to content ourselves with one Jewish literary language, or whether we can afford the luxury of two; the historical fact that we have had two literary languages for centuries would have spared us the necessity of research. But there is now, and always has been, a drive to linguistic monism in Jewish literature. Consequently, we must clarify which of these impulses, the bilingual or the monolingual, has deeper roots in Jewish history, is more broadly based in Jewish life.

We all know about the current wish to limit Jewish literature to one language. We are all familiar with, on the one hand, the 100 per cent Hebraist, who would make Hebrew the sole medium of Jewish culture, and, on the other hand, the extreme Yiddishist, who would do the same for Yiddish. The upshot of this situation is that one group of Jewish intellectuals tries to deprecate the importance and role of Yiddish as a “jargon,” the language of Galut and the ghetto, while another group of intellectuals struggles to minimize or completely eliminate the functions Hebrew assumes in Jewish cultural life.

Each of these parties knows in its heart of hearts that if its program were to be realized, something in our culture would be sent packing, something in our past would be cast into the shadow. But each faction is willing to make this sacrifice: either because it believes that the worthy cause of Jewish unity demands the sacrifice, or because it maintains that the damage would not really be so great. Whatever the reason, the Hebraists think we can get along without Yiddish, and the Yiddishists feel we can survive without Hebrew.

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In our early bilingual period, when the languages concerned were Hebrew and Aramaic, we find no trace of so-called “Aramaicists,” who would exclude Hebrew from Jewish literature. But we do find reference to Hebraists, who saw no reason for Aramaic as a second literary language—though the majority of the Jews were no longer speaking Hebrew by that time. As these early Hebraists saw it, the most appropriate language of Jewish literature next to Hebrew should have been that of the country where Jews resided—Greek or Persian—and not Judaized Aramaic, the Jewish popular tongue of the time. Thus:

“Rabbi Judah said: In the Land of Israel, what need for Syriac [Aramaic]? Either the Holy Tongue, or Greek. . . . Rabbi Jose said: In Babylonia, what need for Aramaic? Either the Holy Tongue, or Persian” (Baba Kama 82-83).

There were even sages who were not opposed to Aramaic in general but inveighed against worship in the popular tongue—the Yiddish of that time—because, they said, the angels understood no Aramaic, but only the Holy Tongue! (Shabbat 12). Apparently then, as now, there were Jewish soothsayers, intellectual leaders who were opposed to bilingualism in Jewish literature. They insisted that our intellectual and spiritual language should be Hebrew exclusively, exactly the way modern Yiddishists insist that it can be only Yiddish.

Today, the Yiddish monists rely on the present situation in Eastern Europe where Yiddish is the popular tongue, while the radical exponents of Hebrew take up the cudgels in behalf of the Jewish past (and future). Hence, it may be worthwhile to examine both the present state of Jewish popular culture and Jewish historical experience, for insight into our linguistic situation.

The very first thing we must take into account is that we Jews are not the only group in the world that has used more than one linguistic medium for literary, as well as nonliterary, cultural purposes. It is important that we keep in mind the fact that we are not the only ones to have “suffered,” or to be still “suffering,” from bilingualism, or, rather, to be the victims of linguistic warfare. Other peoples have had, and still do have, the same problem. . . .

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