Commentary Magazine


The Great Jewish Language War

Man trakht un got lakht: man thinks and God laughs, the Yiddish saying goes. I grew up thinking of Yiddish as an enemy and am now (among other things) a translator of Yiddish literature. It was a hidden enemy, I should add, because as a boy in New York in the 1950′s, I could not have said what the precise menace was of a language that arrived harmlessly at the front door every morning in the form of the Morgn Zhurnal, the daily Yiddish newspaper that my father subscribed to along with the New York Times. It was from the Morgn Zhurnal, which copied most of its news from the Times of the day before, that I learned Yiddish. Equipped with the previous day’s Times, the German I was studying in high school, and a good Hebrew education, I taught myself to read it.

Yet Yiddish, the mother tongue of both my parents and a language used by them matter-of-factly when there was a need for it, was one of the few things that could get my father, an even-tempered man, visibly angry. My one childhood memory of him in a rage is of his shouting at Yiddish—or rather, at a friend of his named Ben Dworkin whose wife was the daughter of the Yiddish poet Solomon Bloomgarden, better known by the pen-name of Yehoash. I cannot remember exactly what Dworkin and my father were talking about, or what made my father lose his temper and begin to shout, but it was clear to me from their argument that Ben Dworkin and Yiddish were on one side of a great divide and my father was on the other.

In time, I came to understand that I had witnessed a minor clash in a great war—a war that for all practical purposes was over by the time this scene took place. This was the language war between Hebrew and Yiddish, itself part of the great cultural and political conflict between Zionism and “Diasporism” that sundered the Jewish world in the first decades of the 20th century, and that ended only when an even greater conflict left the European Diaspora in ruins beside a newborn state of Israel. My father, his subscription to the Morgn Zhurnal notwithstanding, was a Hebraist and a Zionist. Ben Dworkin was a Yiddishist. And long before I knew the meaning of that word, the shouting that night in a living room in which I had never heard shouting before told me that Yiddish, the enemy of my father, though admitted to our home every morning with the milk bottles like a servant given the run of the house, was my enemy, too.

This attitude lasted long past childhood—so much so that until the mid-1980′s, I had hardly opened a Yiddish book. I, who had studied English literature at great universities, had read everything by Jewish authors like Kafka and Babel and Bellow, and was a lover and professional translator of Hebrew literature, had never read a Yiddish line by Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish story by I.L. Peretz, or a Yiddish poem by Ya’akov Glatshtein or Moyshe-Leyb Halpern or Avraham Sutzkever. And not only had I never explored Yiddish literature, much less realized that it constituted one of the most glorious chapters in the history of Jewish creativity, I had instinctively shrunk from it as I never shrank from the Morgn Zhurnal. One might consort with the enemy’s servants. One did not consort with the enemy himself.

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The war between the supporters of Hebrew and of Yiddish that lasted roughly from 1900 to 1940 was one of the great Kulturkämpfe, the nonviolent civil wars, of Jewish history. At its most intense it rivaled in bitterness the 9th-century schism between Karaites and Rabbanites, or the late-18th-century conflict of Hasidim and their opponents the Mitnagdim. Unlike these, however, it did not pit something unequivocally new in the Jewish world against something unequivocally old. Yiddish and Hebrew had coexisted symbiotically for nearly a millennium, ever since Yiddish first developed in German-speaking lands of Europe as a Jewish dialect rich in Hebrew vocabulary. The two languages had achieved this coexistence by dividing Jewish life between them, with Hebrew serving for liturgy, religious ritual, sacred text, rabbinic discourse, and formal literature, and Yiddish for speech, folklore, and written communication and simple prayer among the less educated, and particularly among women. As the two languages fully complemented each other, there was no cause for friction between them.

In this respect, the bonding of Yiddish with Hebrew was like that of other languages spoken by large numbers of Jews after Hebrew lost its vernacular status in antiquity. Hebrew and Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish—though each of these partnerships had its distinctive features, a similar pattern prevailed in all. In each case, Hebrew retained its position of leshon ha-kodesh, a sacred but colloquially defunct language of revelation and high culture, while its partner was la’az, an originally foreign but now domesticated vulgate used for all ordinary purposes and generally containing a sufficient proportion of Hebrew words to set it off from the speech of one’s non-Jewish neighbors.

The traditional relations between Hebrew and its vernacular partner could be characterized—and were—by means of different metaphors. The two languages could indeed be compared to a master and a servant, the vernacular performing life’s daily chores under the supervision of the superior tongue that assigned them. Or they could be likened to two social castes, one upper, priestly, and brahmin, the other lower, laic, and plebeian. Or they could be imagined as a husband and wife, the former following higher pursuits while the latter ran the household. Or as s’fat avot, the “language of the fathers” and of stern masculine duty, and mamaloshen, the maternal tongue of love and warmth.

Such comparisons, indeed, were more than mere metaphors. The structure of Jewish life was such that, although everyone prayed in leshon ha-kodesh and spoke la’az, the adepts and main users of Hebrew were the rabbis, the wealthy, the educated, and the menfolk, while those whose lives were largely restricted to the vernacular were the poor, the unschooled, and the women.

Of course, the lines were never rigidly drawn. The servants were always sneaking, as it were, into the master’s bedroom, the masters poking around the kitchen when the servants were not around. Already in the Bible we find erotic love poetry—the Song of Songs—in Hebrew and apocalyptic prophecy—parts of the book of Daniel—in Aramaic; and alongside the many post-biblical Jewish religious texts of the Hellenistic period that were written in Greek, there is a Hebrew volume from that age called Sefer ha-Razim, “The Book of Secrets,” in which you will find all the black magic needed for success at everything from philandering to playing the ponies. There are numerous such examples throughout Jewish history, many of them fascinating and all of them exceptions proving the rule.

Yet only in the case of Hebrew and Yiddish did these border crossings, at first minor, lead to hostile raids; then to massive incursions; and finally to all-out hostilities. Like two peoples who have lived together peacefully for centuries under imperial control, only to turn on each other in a spirit of combative nationalism with the empire’s collapse, Hebrew and Yiddish ultimately went to war.

This, too, is more than a mere metaphor—for if the “empire” to which Hebrew and Yiddish owed allegiance is but a figure of speech for the rabbinic culture that regulated traditional Jewish bilingualism, the nationalism that disrupted this empire was literal. It was part of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the 19th century as real empires began to crumble—the Napoleonic, the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, the Czarist—and as the Jews joined the universal struggle for recognition and self-determination.

There was no room for bilingualism in this struggle. European nationalism was an offspring of European romanticism, and like its parent, radically monistic. “One people, one language, one land” was the rallying cry of every national movement in Europe, a collectivized version of the romantic vision of autarkic selfhood. For late-19th- and early-20th-century Jewish nationalism, this meant living in Hebrew or in Yiddish, not in both. Either the people who spoke Yiddish would create a literature and a high culture in it, or the people whose high culture and literature were in Hebrew would learn to speak it again. In either case, the old order had to go.

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It is beside the point to look for the historical aggressor or aggressed-against in this war. Although it is common, and perhaps natural, to think of Yiddish as the revolutionary challenger and Hebrew as the ancien régime under attack, that is to take a simplistic view. Both languages, each in its way, were enlisted in support of revolution and tradition. If Yiddish was championed as a live vernacular overthrowing the oppression of a mummified holy tongue, or as the voice of the Jewish worker and woman demanding access to privileges long denied them by a Hebraic ruling class, it was also the flag of those who wished to stay safely put in a familiar Diaspora rather than make a bold new start in Zion as Hebrew-speaking pioneers.

The two languages’ conflict, which began casually and escalated, took place with great symmetry. The first modern Yiddish invasion of the Hebraic domain of belles lettres, the sentimental novels of the Vilna author Isaac Meir Dik, commenced in the 1850′s; the first Hebrew-speaking society in Eastern Europe was founded in 1862 in the Galician city of Brod. In 1864 there appeared Yiddish literature’s first aesthetically accomplished work of fiction, S.Y. Abramovitsh’s Dos Kleyne Mentshele; in 1879 came the earliest serious proposal, put forth in an essay by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, to reinstitute Hebrew as a spoken language in the land of Israel. In August 1897 the first Zionist Congress, most of its delegates ardent Hebraists, convened in Basel; a month later, the anti-Zionist Yiddisher Arbiter Bund, henceforth Yiddishism’s main political arm, was founded in Vilna. By the first decade of the 20th century, a serious Yiddish literature was flourishing in Eastern Europe; in the same decade, Jewish children were talking Hebrew to each other on a daily basis in the agricultural colonies of Palestine. In 1907, Poalei Zion, the less militantly Hebraistic of the two major Palestinian Jewish workers’ parties, declared Hebrew the exclusive language of the Yishuv; in 1908, at a much-celebrated conference in Czernowitz, Yiddish authors like Sholem Asch, Chaim Zhitlovsky, and Hirsh-Dovid Nomberg fought for a (narrowly defeated) resolution proclaiming Yiddish the sole national language of the Jewish people.

Czernowitz and the debate it engendered, though their importance was more symbolic than practical, have been spoken of as signaling the formal outbreak of hostilities between the two languages. True, of the great Yiddish literary triumvirate of Abramovitsh (or Mendele the Book Peddler, to use his pen name), Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz, only Peretz was in attendance there, but for him it indeed marked a watershed. Until then he had been a fully bilingual writer, publishing many of his stories first in Yiddish and then, rewritten, in Hebrew, and many others first in Hebrew and then, rewritten, in Yiddish. Now, he declared in an address to the conference, “The Jews are one people—their language is Yiddish.” Moreover, Peretz told the delegates, if Yiddish was to replace Hebrew as the national language of the Jews, it would first have to appropriate the Hebraic heritage—to accomplish which, he continued, “I propose the translation into Yiddish of all the cultural assets of our golden past, above all those of the Bible—iberhoypt fun der bibl.”

Nearly a century later, Peretz’s choice of words still lacerates. Not the tanakh, not kisvey ha-koydesh, not any of the other Hebrew or Hebrew-derived words by which Yiddish speakers, including Peretz himself, traditionally referred to Hebrew Scripture, but the bibl, a thoroughly Christian term that no Yiddish speaker ever used. Whether or not he consciously intended to stab Hebrew, a language he loved, in the heart, he could not have found a more cruelly pointed stiletto.

In point of fact, the Hebrew Bible had already been translated into old Yiddish in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nor was Yiddish the first la’az language into which the Bible was put by Jews, having been preceded by Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic. The rabbis, while making their peace with such translations, well understood their dangers. (Of the earliest of them, the Greek Septuagint, they had said that the day of its appearance was “as intolerable for Israel as the day the golden calf was made.”) And yet none had ever been part of a supercessionist program to supplant Hebrew in the name of the Jewish people. None was deliberately patricidal. None aspired not only to push back Hebrew’s frontiers, but to sack its ancient citadel by turning its Book of Books, to which every previous la’az translation had been but an approach, into an abandoned ruin, a purely archeological site: a bibl!

In the years between Czernowitz and his death in 1915, Peretz personally began his project of Bible translation with the five scrolls of Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, and the Song of Songs, leaving it to others to carry out the bulk of the work. The task was taken up by Yehoash, the father-in-law of my father’s friend Ben Dworkin. Yehoash was a lyric poet with a religiously devotional bent who did not mean to offend Jews like my father by carrying out Peretz’s program. But my father was a ba’al korei, a reader of the Torah in the synagogue, and a man who knew the Hebrew Bible practically by heart. Although it hurt his intellectual pride to admit it, he too had a devotional soul, and it sometimes poured out absentmindedly.

One of these times was late Saturday afternoons, when he would sit in the darkening living room, watching the Sabbath ebb away and singing the 23rd Psalm to a melancholy melody he knew from childhood. “A Psalm of David: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.” That is the King James Version, and it sounds pretty good to me. The Hebrew sounds better. Recently I came across Yehoash’s Yiddish translation of this psalm. Af grozike fiterpletser makht er mikh hoyern, bay ruike vasern tut er mikh firn: the fat Germanic syllables made me think of a Lutheran pastor. “Di bibl! Di bibl!,” something shouted in me, just as my father had shouted at Ben Dworkin. How I take his side even now.

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But let us leave the great language war at Czernowitz and skip its worst years, those in which it became brutally politicized and, in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in Jewish Palestine, reached an extreme of “linguistic cleansing.” It is hardly necessary to judge these years, since history has done it for us. The Hebrew revival triumphed in Israel. Yiddishism breathed its tortured last—quite literally shot to death—at the 1952 trial of Yiddish writers in Moscow. To read the minutes of this trial, made available in English last year, is to weep once for the fate of the fine writers condemned by it and a second time for what these men were reduced to: groveling betrayers of themselves and their comrades. And it is to weep a third time, and longest of all, for the gullibility of the large part of the Jewish people taken in for so many years by the fraud of the Great October Revolution and its deceitful promises of Jewish cultural independence in the Soviet Union.

That Yiddishism became tragically identified with this revolution can be explained not only by its ideologically leftward drift in the years after Czernowitz but by the steady demographic and economic erosion of Yiddish life in Eastern Europe and the United States in the period between the two world wars, to the point that only a totalitarian state supporting and enforcing Yiddish culture seemed to many Yiddish writers and intellectuals capable of stemming the tide. But the Hebraists were right. Hebrew alone was the eternal language of the Jews. In the best of circumstances—which, alas, did not prevail—Yiddish was doomed in modern times to go the way of all the la’az languages of the past. Those who, failing to understand this, acted as the political and intellectual accomplices of the liquidation of Jewish culture in Russia, and of the worldwide Communist campaign against Zionism and Israel, did become, for the most part unwittingly, the enemies of their own people.

But return for a moment to the pre-Czernowitz Peretz. There is a little story of his called Sholem Bayis or “A Happy Family,” published in both Hebrew and Yiddish in 1901, whose ending depends on the different nuances of two synonymous Hebrew and Yiddish words. In this story a simple Jew, a water carrier, is hurt to the quick when told by a rabbi—demeaningly, so he thinks—that, in paradise, the wife he loves and is happily married to will be his fisbenkele, his footstool.

Yet the rabbi has meant no disrespect. On the contrary: knowing he is facing an uneducated man, he has simply translated into Yiddish for his benefit the biblical expression hadom-ragloyim—which, though it indeed means “footstool,” occurs grandly in such verses as Isaiah’s “Thus saith the Lord: the heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool,” and the Psalmist’s “Exalt ye the Lord our God and worship at His footstool.” A hadom-ragloyim is no lowly fisbenkele. It is the resting place of God. Although the rabbi may be placing the water carrier’s wife in a position of subservience to her husband, it is the subservience of elevation. But the simple water carrier, unaware of the word’s biblical resonance, takes “footstool” quite literally and returns home to protest to his wife that he will never agree to live in paradise unless he can sit by her side.

The two perspectives, however, are not just the rabbi’s and the water carrier’s. They are those of Peretz’s two versions of “A Happy Family” themselves. For whereas the Yiddish version has only the word fisbenkele and not hadom-ragloyim, the Hebrew version has the reverse. The Hebrew story, in other words, is closer to the point of view of the rabbi, who is not to blame for an ignorant Jew’s comical misunderstanding, while the Yiddish story, egalitarian and feminist in its sympathies, is told through the water carrier’s eyes. You have to read both to get the whole point.

Although a particularly salient example, “A Happy Family” is typical of the ways in which, when it came to prose fiction, Yiddish and Hebrew had different dispositions from the start. The former was more naturally suited to representing ordinary social situations, the latter to conveying the inner life of the Jew steeped in the associative wealth of tradition. And this was especially so because, until at least the 1920′s, the spoken Hebrew revival in Palestine was expressively limited and could not be used effectively in fictional dialogue. This was an awkward situation for the Hebrew writer and one that was often handled by relying heavily on indirect discourse, keeping mimetic representation of actual speech to a minimum.

Reinforcing this was the fact that the two languages appealed, in Eastern Europe, to different audiences. Hebrew readers were themselves products of a rabbinic education, which alone enabled a Jew to acquire a literary knowledge of the language. Although they commonly turned to secular Hebrew literature as an escape from the rabbinic mind, they retained, often unconsciously, many of that mind’s values and were heavily preoccupied with elitist issues of religious faith, Jewish identity, and cultural authority and authenticity. Yiddish readers, a far larger public, were more concerned with everyday social and economic concerns. A curious result of this is that, in the years before World War I, when both Hebrew and Yiddish literature were still largely confined to Eastern Europe and/or to the life of East-European Jewry, the two languages continued, despite their intense rivalry, to observe something of the old division of labor. For while they were now in direct competition, and were being used to describe the same world, it was not a world described from the same vantage points.

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Take, for example, the character known in Hebrew literary criticism as the talush, the “lost soul.” This is characteristically a young Jew who has had a rigorously religious upbringing; experienced heights of adolescent piety; been sent, in recognition of his intellectual talents, to study at a yeshiva, the traditional institute of Jewish higher learning; lost his faith in God in a crisis of intellectual maturation that eventually leads to the abandonment of his religious studies and observance; retained, however, amid the emptiness of loss, a fierce sense of Jewish allegiance; and now drifts, a proud and lonely figure, on the margins of Jewish society, unable to reconnect with the tradition he has broken with or to assimilate into the non-Jewish world.

“I write,” writes Yirmiyah Feuermann, a typical talush and the narrator of Yosef Chaim Brenner’s autobiographical Hebrew novel In Winter (1901), “for myself and in secret”—and indeed Yirmiyah lives largely in silence, having no one to talk to. And yet while such figures are so common in pre-World War I Hebrew fiction that you might assume them to be the representative type of their generation—there are recurrent variations of them not only in Brenner but in at least a half-dozen other major Hebrew writers—you can search the Yiddish literature of the period practically in vain for them.

No, the Yiddish literature of this period talks obsessively. It talks, quite literally, most of the time, a high proportion of its pages consisting of dialogue or monologue—sometimes, as Abramovitsh’s Mendele the Book Peddler says of himself in the late Ted Gorelik’s magnificent translation of Fishke the Lame, until “the gab is sure to come running out at my mouth apace, like meal out the bottom of a tore bushel sack of feed.” It talks because this is what ordinary Jews do when they get together, and because it is bursting with the liberating realization that this talk—this servant talk—is at last fit matter for the printed page.

Here, in Gorelik’s translation, is Mendele introducing Fishke to us—or rather to the friend to whom he is telling the tale:

At the brick bathhouse in Glupsk, a young feller I know has been earning his keep for the longest time now, from ever since he was little. Name of Fishke, Fishke the lame, to be more precise, on account of him being crippled, you see. Ever hear of him? No; thought not. . . . So, who’s this Fishke feller anyway? You’re maybe asking, I mean, where’d the feller come from? how’d he come to be there, in such a place? Well, sir, somehow it just never occurred to anybody, nor to me, to even ask. So that part of it’s a blank, pretty much. Though what else you expect? For here you have this poor article of humanity knocking about the place; and maybe he’s even got a name—say, Fishke, or whatever—but, well, after all, he’s no different from any of the rest of the wretched cast-offs in our midst which are his equal, and which are forever cropping up among us; and seemingly overnight, as well, and fully formed, like so many mushrooms after a rain, with all their features and parts already pricked out, and in place. . . . See, there are all these poorfolk amongst us have taken to nesting in every sort of odd out-of-the-way hovel and hole-in-the-wall cubby, where they quietly breed away unseen, bringing babies into the world in dark squalor. And, well, whyever shouldn’t they?

And now listen to what happens when this same passage is translated into Hebrew by Abramovitsh himself twenty years later, and then retranslated by me:

In the bathhouse in Kislon [Mendele's Hebrew name for Glupsk] there was a lame fellow named Fishke, a fixture from the time he was young. Just who and whence was he? That’s a question neither I nor anyone asked. What did it matter? So God’s world also had in it a Fishke, one more wretched soul no different from all the others who sprout like so many shiny toadstools or mushrooms, so that, though each has a form, a complexion, and even thoughts of his own, you hardly notice him or how he’s grown. Our beggars are begotten and betake themselves to their dark corners to beget more beggars on the sly, and who even knows they’re there? Let them spawn to their hearts’ content!

Abramovitsh’s Hebrew was as innovative as his Yiddish, and was greatly admired by his contemporaries for its richly layered ease. And yet even when he is talking, the Hebrew Mendele is being essayistic. He is less verbally impetuous than his Yiddish counterpart, less comically entangled, more concisely calibrated and judiciously balanced. Like Peretz but more so, Abramovitsh—who began writing in Hebrew, then shifted to Yiddish to compose all his major works, and then rewrote these works in Hebrew—is the same and yet a different author in each language. It was this difference, in part, that impelled him to go back and forth between the two languages, because he could not be his full self in only one of them.

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Nor was he alone in this. Apart from Peretz, Mendele, and (to a lesser extent) Sholem Aleichem, the number of bilingual Hebrew/Yiddish authors around the turn of the 20th century is staggering. By no means were all of these writers equally committed to both languages. Many experimented briefly with one before settling permanently on the other, choosing it because they felt it expressed their deeper selves—because they were Zionists or Diasporists, or because they identified with Jewish tradition or revolutionary socialism, or simply because they were living in a Hebrew or Yiddish environment. Indeed, in the years right before and especially after World War I, as Yiddish and Hebrew began losing their stylistic complementarity, they took on a new geographical complementarity, Hebrew literature coming to convey the experience of Jewish Palestine and Yiddish literature that of Eastern Europe and the United States.

Still, there was no end of exceptions, zigzags, more complex loyalties. Sholem Aleichem, who wrote little in Hebrew, was a Zionist; Peretz, who wrote much in it, was not. Uri Nisan Gnessin traveled to Palestine in 1907, wrote from there to his father, “The Jewish soul is in the Diaspora, not here,” and proceeded to return to Russia, where he wrote his great Hebrew novellas. The essayist Hillel Zeitlin vigorously defended rabbinic Judaism—in Yiddish. In 1919 the Hebrew fiction writer Eliezer Shteinman published a Hebrew manifesto in Russian entitled “The Hebrew Communist” and calling for “a red Hebrew culture.” Avraham Sutzkever has lived in Israel for the past 55 years while writing poetry in Yiddish alone. Gabriel Preil, a shy and secluded New Yorker, was still publishing wonderful verse in both languages in the 1980′s, long after the Hebrew and Yiddish literary scenes had both vanished from the city. The young Uri Tsvi Greenberg wrote expressionist Yiddish poetry in Warsaw after World War I and was prominent in Yiddish literary circles. In 1923, he said goodbye to all that in a poem entitled “In the Kingdom of the Cross” and left for Palestine within the year, where he joined the ultra-nationalist Zionist Right—which in those days led, sometimes violently, the fight against Yiddish. Most of his verse was henceforth in Hebrew, but he never stopped writing Yiddish poems and in 1939 he was briefly back in Poland editing a Yiddish newspaper.

Such inconsistencies were legion. They point to the fact that, although the Hebrew-Yiddish language war was real, it was not fought by the real writers. It was fought by the ideologues, the politicians, the organizers, the theoreticians, the literary hacks. It is no accident that every one of the important Soviet Yiddish writers, many of whom—in the early years, at least—were true believers in the revolution, kept away from the anti-Hebrew campaign conducted by the Yevsektsia, the “Jewish division” of the Communist party; no accident that when, in 1927, the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was fractiously split by a proposal to establish a chair in Yiddish studies, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, the very symbol and pride of Hebrew literature, came out (albeit unsuccessfully) in favor.

Whatever their politics, the Jewish writers of Eastern Europe did all they could to avoid being torn apart by the bitterly contested divorce of Yiddish and Hebrew. Many refused to choose between them. Many who did choose, chose heavy-heartedly; their selection of one language was not a rejection of the other. How does a writer reject a father-tongue or a mother-tongue?

The most tragic thing about the language war was that it pitted one Jewish nationalism against another, the most Jewish Jews against the most Jewish Jews. Yet it was not a war between two literatures. The truth of the matter is that there never were two literatures. In the words of a 1918 essay by Ba’al Makhshoves, the pen-name of the Yiddish literary critic Isidor Elyashev:

[W]e have two languages and a dozen echoes from other foreign languages, but . . . we have only one literature. And therefore the reader who seeks to become acquainted with the currents of Jewish life, to comprehend the spirit of the Jewish individual and multitude and how they find expression in Jewish literature, that reader does not separate Hebrew writers from Yiddish ones. . . . All are representatives of our literature, all embody a piece of Jewish life in their writings; all of them are Jewish artists.

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I would like to second the motion. The great language war between Hebrew and Yiddish is over, but against the advisement of Ba’al Makhshoves, it has left behind it a map with a partition line. On one side we have the Jewish Commonwealth of Hebrew Letters; on the other, the Jewish People’s Republic of Yiddish Literature. Although the borders between the two are open and travelers can and do cross them, each country retains its own government, its own customs officials, and its own police force—or, to step out from behind the metaphor, its own departments of literature, curricula, scholars, and critics. Sholem Aleichem? Down the hall and to the left. Agnon? That’s at the other end of the campus.

I do not make light of the need for institutional frameworks and academic specialization. Nor does teaching Sholem Aleichem and Agnon in different survey courses necessarily mean erecting an iron curtain between them. But what do we do with Peretz? Teach the Yiddish Sholem Bayis and the Hebrew Sh’lom Bayit, as it is nowadays pronounced in Israel, in different buildings too? Create the fiction, more fictional than anything Peretz ever wrote, that these are stories written by two different authors and that a fisbenkele and a hadom-ragloyim never meet? Or the even greater fiction, widely accepted today, that there is only one Peretz, a Yiddish one, of whom the Hebrew Peretz was a mere shadow?

Of course, Peretz is a special case; he turned his back on Hebrew at Czernowitz, and the institutions of Hebrew literature have retaliated by neglecting him to this day. But the institutions of Hebrew literature have also been, to this day, antagonistic toward Yiddish literature as a whole. They have viewed it—as I did, too, for many years—as a Hebrew literature manqué, a literature that would have been written in Hebrew had only its writers understood their national duty. Much of it has never been adequately translated into Hebrew; little of it has been absorbed by the Israeli literary consciousness; almost none of it is taught in Israeli schools. Great Jewish novelists and poets like Sholem Asch, Moyshe Kulbak, and Katya Molodovsky are not thought of by Israel’s intellectuals as being “ours” in the way that Agnon or Brenner or Leah Goldberg are.

And yet not only are they “ours,” they grew up in one house with Agnon, Brenner, and Goldberg and had the same parents. The very differences between Hebrew and Yiddish writing—what I have called their complementarity—only demonstrate that they are two halves of one whole. Of what other two literatures can this be said? You do not need to be familiar with Dickens’s London in order to know Balzac’s Paris, but you are not fully acquainted with Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke unless you have also been to Agnon’s Szybusz.

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Nevertheless, the Jewish language war had to be fought. It had a right side and a wrong side. It was a conflict between two political and cultural conceptions of the Jewish future, of which one represented a catastrophic misjudgment.

At bottom, Yiddishism was a radical amputation of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish history. In place of Hebrew, the only language common to Jews in all times and places, it proposed a Judeo-German that most parts of the Jewish world did not speak. From the demographic mosaic of that world, with its Sephardic Jews, Middle-Eastern Jews, Central Asian Jews, Italian Jews, French Jews, Dutch Jews, Middle-European Jews, and English-speaking Jews, it crowned as the “real” Jews the Yiddish-speaking population of Russia, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states alone. Eastern Europe, a region first settled by Jews in the Middle Ages, was now the true Jewish homeland. And of a Jewish past 3,000 years old, the first two-thirds, in which Yiddish did not exist as a language, was to be effectively discarded.

Peretz’s “The Jews are one people—their language is Yiddish” was an absurd self-contradiction. But the attitudes of Yiddishism live on, not only in the voguish sentimentality of much of the current revival of interest in the Yiddish language but in Jewish intellectual circles as well. And for that reason, Yiddishism can be said to have survived the disappearance, in all but ultra-Orthodox circles, of Yiddish itself.

These attitudes, in their contemporary form, can be enumerated. They include the belief—buttressed by the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict—that Zionism was a mistaken political strategy for the Jewish people; that a strong identification with Israel need not be a central feature of Diaspora Jewish life; that minority status in the Diaspora is the optimal Jewish cultural and spiritual condition; that the political interests of Diaspora Jews lie in the forging of alliances with as many “progressive” and left-wing causes as possible; that solidarity with non-Jewish victims of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and other injustices is more important than solidarity with other Jews; and that the very notion of other Jews, of that klal yisra’el or collectivity of the Jewish people that all Jews are responsible to, can be trimmed at will to suit one’s ideological proclivities.

Few serious Yiddish writers would have shared these attitudes. The distinction between Yiddish culture on the one hand and, on the other, Yiddishism or the neo-Yiddishism that has succeeded it, is elementary. If I myself needed many years to realize this, that is perhaps only because, as a boy in my family’s living room, I heard the shots of a small skirmish at the end of a long war and mistook the nature of the foe.

_____________

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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