Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect
On July 5 of this year, the foremost Yiddish scholar of the postwar generation, an Israeli citizen, died in Warsaw, Poland, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery on Okapowa Street. Just three weeks earlier, on June 15, the new home of the National Yiddish Book Center was dedicated in Amherst, Massachusetts. These two occasions, one deeply redolent of the Old World, the other of the New, one somber, the other ablaze with public celebration, would appear to mark an end and a beginning in the centuries-long saga of Yiddish, the language of European Jews and their descendants. Whether this is truly so, the open-ended history of the Jews will finally determine. In the here and now, we can only register the strange turns this history continues to take, as well as the even stranger conjunction of events and of the men behind them.
The scholar, Khone Shmeruk, was born in Warsaw in 1921, and his early education in that city reflected the cultural ferment of Jewish life in the then newly reconstituted Polish republic. His home, modern in temper, was traditional in religious observance—probably because of the presence there of his maternal grandparents. Though his mother taught Hebrew in a private school, she enrolled her young son in a secular Yiddish school of the Jewish Socialist Bund. Later, he would attend a modern Hebrew school and then a (Jewish) high school where the language of instruction was Polish. At the insistence of his grandfather, he was also tutored privately in Talmud. In short, he had a well-rounded Jewish education before being admitted to Warsaw University in 1938, a year in which many Jewish students felt compelled to stand against the walls rather than sit in the segregated rows to which they had been assigned. Following the German occupation of the city in September 1939, he was encouraged by his parents to flee into Soviet territory, and there he stayed for the duration of the war, moving from place to place.
Returning to Warsaw in 1946, Shmeruk found nothing left of his home. The only members of his family still living were his grandparents, who had moved to Palestine in 1934. Though he considered settling in Warsaw, after marrying in 1946 he and his wife decided there was no future for them in Poland. Discouraged by his grandfather from trying to reach Palestine illegally, he marked time as a teacher in a Jewish school in Stuttgart, Germany, until he was finally able to move to Jerusalem in 1949, a year after the founding of the state of Israel. There his knowledge of Hebrew, which set him apart from most of the other immigrants, got him conscripted into military intelligence. When his superior officer saw an announcement in the paper about a new department of Yiddish at the Hebrew University, he insisted that Shmeruk apply for admission and even advanced him money to pay the fees.
At the age of thirty, Shmeruk thus resumed the university career he had interrupted twelve years earlier, and joined the first Yiddish class at the Hebrew University. It was taught by Dov Sadan, one of the most active Zionist recruiters in Germany and Poland during the 1920′s and 30′s, a prolific and elegant Hebrew writer, and an inspired researcher and critic of Jewish folklore, literature, and languages. Once Shmeruk entered the university, he never left it, taking up a full-time teaching position in 1961, the year he completed his doctorate. He was chairman of the department of Yiddish from 1970 to 1982, was elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences in 1986, and was awarded the Israel Prize, the state’s highest civilian award, in 1996. His was an exemplary career.
What sort of scholar was he? Another student of Sadan’s in 1951, Benjamin Harshav (Hrushovski), is now a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Yale University. The two prize students seemed to divide the field of Yiddish between them, the differences in their approach being more than a matter of method. Even as a young man, Harshav considered himself a child of the transformative revolution in politics and culture that had destroyed the Jewish past. He himself wrote modernist poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew under different pseudonyms, and was attracted to poets at the greatest remove from his own upbringing in Vilna, especially the experimental Americans Aaron Leyeles, Moishe Leib Halpern, and Jacob Glatstein. Shmeruk, by contrast, emphasized the integrative aspects of literary history, as though wanting to evoke through scholarship the interwoven culture that had been torn apart by the war. He was attracted by Yiddish writers who reminded him of his Warsaw home—I.L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer—and responded to the reach for national coherence in literature, writing about it in the works of Sholem Aleichem and the Soviet-Yiddish author Der Nister.
In fact, Shmeruk had come to the study of Yiddish out of a commitment to an ideology—Yiddishism—which held that the language itself, and the culture expressed in that language, could sustain the life of a secular Jewish community. Just as the Polish tongue expressed Polish identity, so the vernacular of European Jews had been imprinted with the moral and ethical content of Judaism, making modern speakers of Yiddish the carriers by definition of Jewish values. His attitude changed, however, when he began a serious study of the literature. For one thing, by separating Jewish civilization from its religious wellsprings, the Yiddishist movement had narrowed it; no one, Shmeruk recognized, could properly understand Yiddish without encompassing the full Jewish tradition, especially as it expressed itself in Hebrew. For another thing, there was, in actuality, no longer a reservoir of Yiddish literature in Eastern Europe; and, after his own generation, there would be no Yiddish-speaking literary community in America, either.
But the tragic evaporation of the language made it that much more urgent to develop Yiddish as a vital branch of Jewish learning. The pride Shmeruk had once invested in speaking Yiddish, he now reinvested in scholarship, determined to prove to his colleagues that no one could truly grasp the last thousand years of Jewish life in Europe without access to the language in which so much of it had been lived. Although interested in the modern period, he spent a great deal of time in the Bodleian library at Oxford, familiarizing himself with the beginnings of Yiddish literature in the 15th and 16th centuries; some of his most influential works fall into this area. In his passion for scholarly accuracy, he bequeathed to generations of grateful students a model of the scholar-sleuth.
I met Shmeruk in 1967, and got to know him two years later when my husband and I visited Jerusalem. The minute we telephoned from our hotel he invited us over, and even came with his wife, Mira, to escort us. The approach to the Shmeruks’ house was through a dark, overgrown garden and up a concrete flight of stairs, past the apartment of a dentist on the ground floor. At the top of the stairs, a heavy gray door opened onto a long narrow hallway, with a couple of rooms on either side: bathroom and kitchen on the left, two small bedrooms on the right, one of them shared by the Shmeruks’ two daughters.
At the end of the hallway was Khone’s book-lined study, which also doubled as the living room, or salon. This was where he conducted his weekly graduate seminars and did his work. Photos of grandparents looked down from the walls. During most of our visits, the room would be filled with guests: old friends from Poland who had settled in Tokyo or Paris, Yiddish writers, scholars from abroad, local colleagues. The conversation went off in all directions, to the past and future, to Russia and America. After a couple of hours, Mira would place little tables through the room so we could comfortably take our tea with her abundant and excellent desserts. As with so many Israelis I was coming to know, the Shmeruks’ hospitality seemed an expression of their Zionism, providing a home within the homeland.
I recall, perhaps oddly, a pang of regret I felt at being part of this marvelous circle. The regret was not for myself, but for my teacher Max Weinreich in New York, whose loneliness had been made palpable to me when I began studying with him in 1960. Thirty-five years earlier, as a dynamic young scholar, Max Weinreich had succeeded in winning community support for the establishment of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in Vilna. Within a decade, he had helped to shape YIVO into something resembling a Jewish university, with “departments” devoted to history, linguistics, literature, and folklore, economics and statistics, and psychology and education, each engaged in active research and publication. YIVO had also established a branch in New York, and when Weinreich managed to reach the United States at the start of World War II, he turned that branch into the new center.
In New York, Weinreich’s plan was to train a few good doctoral students each year; these learned few, he felt, might change the face of American Jewry. With that goal in mind, he sought permission from the New York Board of Regents to award graduate degrees at YIVO. But he could not persuade his own board of directors to support the project. His discouragement gradually seeped into other areas. When his four-volume History of the Yiddish Language was in its final stages of preparation, he said he did not know why anyone troubled to publish the work since there were not ten people in the world who would read it.
Max Weinreich also told me that, in 1950, he had been invited to teach Yiddish at the Hebrew University. When I asked him why he declined, he replied that having contributed nothing to the development of Israel—as an ideologically serious Bundist, his opposition to Zionism was a matter of record—he could not accept its bounty. But whether personal honor or another form of hesitation dictated his decision, he probably came to rue it. In Israel, research into Yiddish language and literature was booming, and if the idea of a secular Jewish culture had any chance of being realized, it was certainly there.
Both Weinreich and Shmeruk had fought on the same side in the language war—Yiddish or Hebrew?—that split many Jewish communities in the 1930′s. In that war, the choice of language stood for much more profound differences: between those who believed that Jews would flourish in the modern world as a secular minority among the nations, and those who believed there was no longer any alternative to Jewish national sovereignty in one homeland. The destruction of European Jewry and the flow of refugees to Israel resolved this quarrel once and for all. Weinreich had fallen casualty to it. Shmeruk, by contrast, appeared to have survived by, paradoxically, coming to the country where Hebrew had decisively triumphed. This, at any rate, was their own judgment, though Weinreich was unduly harsh in his self-assessment: he did inspire a number of young American Jews to devote their lives to Yiddish, the most notable being his own son Uriel, who pioneered Yiddish studies as chairman of the linguistics department at Columbia. A half-year after his death in 1969, YIVO partially fulfilled Max Weinreich’s dream by establishing a center for advanced Jewish studies in his name.
For his part, Shmeruk put linguistic ideology behind him. He took an open, hospitable approach, both personally and in his scholarly demeanor. With guests, he invariably adjusted the conversation to the most limited linguist in the group. In the same spirit, he taught his university classes in Hebrew, so that advanced students from other disciplines could participate. He published, and encouraged his students to publish, in either Yiddish, Hebrew, or English, and to translate whenever feasible into other languages. He was also the first to encourage young German scholars who were interested in Old Yiddish. Transcending the ideological principles that had once fueled his own passion, he would not allow ancient quarrels to drain energies from the real work to be done.
This is not to say that the language wars were over. Shmeruk’s attitude drew abuse from professional nostalgists. The founder of a Yiddish program at a rival school contended that using Hebrew as the language of instruction was a slight to Yiddish, and the Hebrew University duly received complaints about the “damage” being done by its stellar department. In addition, although Shmeruk tried to keep up good relations with various organizations for the propagation of Yiddish, his attention to scholarship was often slandered as a form of elitism. After one particularly unhappy venture into a public forum, he wrote me that he regretted every moment he had wasted on “tumlenishn un farzorgeray,” on boosterism and drumming up support; he said he lacked the social talent for this kind of activity.
Nevertheless, he did become a public figure, on his own terms. In the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967, a new group of Yiddish writers arrived in Israel. Among them were refugees from Poland who had been newly purged by the Communist regime, as well as the first trickle allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The Shmeruk home came to seem a subdivision of the state’s absorption agency, with everyone applying for advice and jobs. Having lived under terribly difficult conditions during his own first years as an immigrant in Israel, Khone was not too sympathetic to the demands of some of the newcomers for apartments larger than his own. But he tried to find what employment he could for them in various projects he had helped to launch. These included a research center for the study of Polish Jewry; variorum editions of the works of Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem; an annotated bibliography of the Yiddish press; an annotated bibliography of Yiddish publications from the 16th to the 18th century; and various projects devoted to the study of Yiddish culture in Russia. As Israel continued to gather in refugees from Eastern Europe, Shmeruk helped to make the country the cultural repository of the East European Jewish past.
It is common to speak of successive “waves” of immigration to Israel, but Khone’s life reminds me of the undertow beneath the waves. During the many years that he played an important role at the university, and basked in the achievements of his daughters and six grandsons, he appeared to be the poster-perfect Israeli. With his rugged, handsome face, and deep, cigarette-stained voice, he even looked and sounded the part. His infectious energy made it easy to forget how much he himself had lost.
The rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland at the end of the 1970′s brought about a dramatic change in Polish-Jewish relations, and it seemed only natural that Khone Shmeruk, as one of the most active scholars in this area, should find himself at the center of new political as well as cultural initiatives between the two countries. Polish liberals who dreamed of throwing off the Soviet yoke were becoming pro-Israel for different reasons. Israel had demonstrated its strength by defeating Soviet client states in the Six-Day War, and the sight of Soviet weaponry destroyed by the Jews—a people famously more vulnerable even than the Poles—served as an inspiration. Then, too, enough time had passed since the Holocaust for a certain guilt to surface toward the Jews, particularly as there were almost none left in Poland to complicate the simple image of their martyrdom.
Embedded in these considerations was another impulse that affected Shmeruk directly. Polish academics were well aware of the important role played by the Jews in their country’s history and culture, and of the dearth of researchers trained in Jewish sources. Thus, when Shmeruk organized the first trip of Israeli scholars to Poland in 1983, he was warmly received by historians there. From then on, his advice was sought at ever higher levels and with ever greater respect.
What this meant to Khone can hardly be imagined. Students who accompanied him on that first trip reported they could not keep up with him as he ran through the streets of Warsaw to show them the sites of his youth. I can attest to this excitement as one fortunate enough to have been included in the second such trip he led in 1986. One morning he marched us to Franciszkanska Street, where a childhood neighbor had shown him how to “read” the cobblestoned entryways to the courtyards of their former homes, now incorporated into the pavement. He counted from the corner to find the entryway to No. 10.
Shmeruk’s sentimental tour was laced with some anger. In Krasinski Park, he showed us the pond where he used to skate and the hill where he sledded, but then pointed out how the Poles had extended the park and the street into what had once been Nalevki, the heart of the Jewish sector. Suddenly one knew that the meticulous care Shmeruk took in his scholarship to fix every date and track down every reference was bound up with this pursuit of his own past, of which nothing remained but what the historian could reconstruct.
I have described that trip before, and it was actually as a consequence of my article about it in these pages (“Poland’s Jewish Ghosts,” January 1987) that Khone’s manner toward me cooled. I, too, was thrilled by the rise of Polish liberalism, and drawn by powerful emotions to the Polish home of my parents and ancestors. It was stirring to explore the physical landscape where so much of Yiddish literature had been created. But in my article I also noted the presence of what I called “the phantom limb”—an anti-Semitism that continued to make its presence felt in Poland long after the Jews had been physically excised from the country. While it was important that Jews protect the visible memory of their past, and promote scholarly exchanges as Shmeruk was doing, I believed they should not ignore the anti-Jewish cast of modern Polish nationalism, including its present-day variety.
Khone did not appreciate my cautionary approach, any more than a lover wants to hear about his sweetheart’s failings. His critical attention was shifting, from the internal contacts between Yiddish and Hebrew to relations between Jewish and non-Jewish literatures, Polish in particular. I did not understand the import of his growing interest, or recognize its every facet. One of them was this: he had fallen in love with a Polish Christian woman, Krystyna Bevis, who shot the documentary film of our trip, and shortly after the death of his wife in 1989 he married her, and she bore him a son. He named the boy Avigdor, after his father.
When Shmeruk officially retired from the Hebrew University in 1989, he began to divide his time between Warsaw and Jerusalem, teaching and guiding research in both places but with the stronger pull coming from Europe. How many reasons, in addition to the fact of his new family, one might offer for his attraction to Poland! He would certainly not have been the first Israeli to chafe at the constrictions of a tight society, or to leap at the opportunity to spend time abroad. Cut off for so many years, he now had access to Poland’s archives and its scholars. A lifelong teacher, he welcomed the chance to pioneer Yiddish studies in a new country: he could do as much, if not more, to protect the Jewish past in Poland by training Polish students in Jewish research as by preparing students for the task in Israel. Jews habitually visit keyver oves, ancestral graves; is it not understandable that Khone Shmeruk, who left his family one day in 1939, should have wanted to forge a link with his martyred parents in Poland?
But I think it was also the enticement of life, not death, that drew Khone so powerfully to Poland: the allure of his interrupted youth, when he was just starting out as a historian with all his years ahead of him. One night during our 1986 trip I returned with Khone from a performance at the Yiddish theater. We were strolling along a tree-lined street (Grzybowska, I believe), and Khone said, “This is where I used to walk with girls in the evening when I was a student.” Before there was a professor of Yiddish there had been a young man who felt the promise of romance and the prospect of greatness and who adored the complications of his city. Now that Poland was free again, what was to prevent that man from starting all over, in the city of his youth, in the university that had once humiliated him; what was to prevent him from creating a new Polish-Jewish symbiosis in his own person?
One of Shmeruk’s most interesting and far-reaching studies concerns the legend of Esterke, which exists in both Polish and Yiddish versions. Obviously based on the biblical book of Esther, the story tells how the Polish king Casimir the Great (1310-70) fell in love with a Jewish maiden and took her for his mistress. This tale has served as a litmus test for perceptions of Polish-Jewish relations. To Polish anti-Semites, the king’s out-of-wedlock liaison with a Jewish concubine has long been a reminder of the perils lurking in their country’s hospitality to the Jews. To philo-Semites, especially in the 19th century, it seemed to confirm the generosity of native Polish impulses.
What interested Shmeruk was something else: the unequal way the story developed in Polish and Yiddish literature. Whereas modern Yiddish writers were aware of and responded to the various Polish versions of the legend, Polish writers in general paid scant attention to the Yiddish. Shmeruk’s study interprets this as still another paradigm for the inequality at the heart of Polish-Jewish relations. But his study itself, simply by virtue of existing, establishes a connection between the two cultures that the cultures had failed to make, and consummates a kind of union between two peoples otherwise doomed to remain apart.
Khone must have felt uniquely qualified to help bring about a new rapprochement between Poles and Jews. While Poland was still under Soviet occupation, he had extended many invitations to Polish academics to attend conferences in Jerusalem, making “the West” available under the auspices of Jewish studies. Now that Israel was strong and free, the Jew could return to Poland not as a supplicant but as a benefactor, bringing Western know-how to a society that had stagnated under Communism. Perhaps he even wanted to play out the Esterke romance in reverse, as the munificent Jew coming to the rescue of the Polish maiden.
If so, however, this is not how it felt to those he left behind. During the last stages of his illness, when he deliberately flew from Jerusalem to Poland because that is where he wished to be buried, he imprinted a wound on the hearts of his countrymen. I cannot speak for his daughters, his colleagues, or his students, but I know how his attraction to Poland affected our own relations over the past decade, and how a sense of rejection has compounded my grief. In effect, everything that his postwar life, the land of Israel, and scholarly achievement had brought him could not replace what he had lost in Warsaw. His life also reminds us that, even in the newly constituted Jewish commonwealth, Jewish dreams of exogamy, in both the personal and cultural sense, are not soon likely to fade.
But this brings me to the other and by far happier “homecoming”: the opening in June of the National Yiddish Book Center. In this case, the man behind the event is a young American, Aaron Lansky, who was born and raised in Massachusetts and, after being introduced to Yiddish in an undergraduate course at Hampshire College, went on in the mid-1970′s to pursue a master’s degree in Yiddish literature at McGill University in Montreal, where I was then teaching.
Like all advanced Yiddish students, Aaron soon discovered that there was no place to purchase or exchange books. Teachers might try, as I did, to borrow texts from the few Yiddish readers of their acquaintance, or resort to photocopying poems, stories, even entire novels. Alas, a literature program based exclusively on stapled photocopies is a flimsy thing, no matter how substantial the words on the page.
But Aaron also soon discovered that there were actually thousands upon thousands of Yiddish books available if one knew where to look for them. Elderly or widowed Jews relocating to smaller apartments were often keen to give away their libraries, as were children no longer able to decipher the language of their deceased parents. A student with access to a car could pick up treasures for the asking.
It was this juxtaposition of students without books and books without homes that launched Aaron on the project to which he has since devoted his life. First on his own, next with other volunteers, and ultimately through an organization he created, he collected books from Montreal, New York, the rest of the United States and Canada, and then from Israel, South America, even Cuba. He found suitable space to store the collection, then streamlined the processes of cataloguing and of making the books available for distribution. From this initiative grew ancillary programs: summer training sessions for student interns, start-up Yiddish classes, weekend seminars, a popular journal, a broadcast series of Yiddish short stories on National Public Radio, and so forth. He also saw to it that the books would begin once again to circulate in the world, including in the form of basic collections for university libraries.
As the collection grew to over a million volumes, necessitating several moves from one warehousing facility to another, Aaron and his board decided to construct a permanent home. He first leased a landmark property from the town of Amherst for the symbolic annual sum of one dollar; later, he won almost equally generous terms from Mount Holyoke College; finally he purchased ten acres from his alma mater, Hampshire College, also located in Amherst, for a center to be integrated with the academic program of the school.
The new building, architecturally evocative of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe, is the most beautiful, and certainly the most carefully designed, dwelling place that Yiddish has ever had. But I would go farther: the National Yiddish Book Center must be the most exciting new venture in American Jewish institutional life at least since the founding of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 1954. In the same way that AIPAC identified a problem—the need to protect Israel from Arab assault—and used American lobbying methods to advance its purpose, the National Yiddish Book Center has enlisted the American spirit to help save the Yiddish heritage.
Although Aaron has publicly credited me with suggesting that he situate himself not in a big city, where he would be perceived by entrenched institutions as a competitor, but in the New England area that he knows best, the truth is that I have learned a lot from this young man about the potential of good ideas joined to an entrepreneurial imagination. Watching his team at work, I am sometimes reminded of the story about the New York hasidic peddler, in his long black coat and ear-locks, who goes forth to sell his wares in small towns of the South. Surrounded one day by a flock of curious children, he stares them down: “Vat’s de medder mit you? You never seen a yenkee before?” But the funny thing about this Hasid is that he was behaving like a Yankee. Jews are never more American than when they show initiative on their own behalf. All that Aaron was able to accomplish for the Yiddish Book Center derives from his pride and pleasure in growing up Jewish in New England.
To be sure, the Amherst of Aaron’s student years was not the Amherst of Emily Dickinson. At least initially, what influenced his attraction to Yiddish was as much the campus culture of the 60′s as the puritan or pioneering spirit of his native region. One is reminded here of another witticism, this one by Ronald Reagan, who, when asked whether he had ever visited a Communist country, replied, “No. But I’ve been to Massachusetts.” If the early postwar years had encouraged pride in a strong America and, among Jews, in the new and resilient state of Israel, by the late 1960′s the student movement was idealizing anti-American revolutionaries like Che Guevara and applauding the Arab war against the Jewish state as part of the struggle against bourgeois imperialism.
Among some Jewish students, this atmosphere bred, rather peculiarly, an attraction to Yiddish. They saw it, sentimentally, as the language of Jewish socialism and of Jewish poverty, hence acceptable in the recycled leftist terms of the day. Young Jews protesting against corporate America or against the so-called imperialist war in Vietnam; young Jews forming an identification with victim-hood; even young Jews in revolt against their own “patriarchal” religious civilization imagined they could find in Yiddish and in “Yiddishkayt” an alternative and wholly innocent mode of identity.
Khone Shmeruk, reflecting on his own youthful Yiddishism, once noted the appeal to many modern Jews of “lost causes.” He used the English phrase to designate that gray area between involuntary failure and the voluntary preference for powerlessness. My own awareness that students were being drawn to Yiddish as an emblem of political martyrdom coincided with Aaron Lansky’s years of study at McGill.
What is objectionable about associating Yiddish with lost causes? For one thing, as Shmeruk rightly perceived, it represents a perversion of historical truth. Yiddish first came into being in Europe as the vernacular of a religious Jewry that was so very cohesive and culturally autonomous that it could generate a language of its own even while living alongside and interacting with speakers of other languages. Indeed, Yiddish could have come into being only as the language of a religious civilization: without the need for a separate calendar, kitchen, judicial courts, and customs, Jews would have had no reason to create or to maintain a separate tongue.
It is true that, in interwar Poland, a Yiddish culture thrived that was largely secular, and also that nonreligious Jews there were slower to take up the majority language of their country than were their counterparts in Russia, Western Europe, or the United States. But that was mostly because their citizenship was being cruelly curtailed. The Yiddishism of the youthful Max Weinreich and Khone Shmeruk was a means of deflecting Polish anti-Semitism by raising Jewish national consciousness; it had its counterpart in an equally militant Polish Zionism, and a reinvigorated Orthodoxy. Had they been welcomed as citizens, most secular Polish Jews would have chosen to become full participants in Polish culture. And had Jews been able to gain the political entry they sought in Poland through their many vying parties, they would have become rich, powerful, and famous instead of remaining oppressed and poor.
These days, Jewish (and non-Jewish) spokesmen for gays and lesbians, feminists and neo-Trotskyites freely identify their sense of personal injury with the cause of Yiddish. They thereby commit a double fault, occluding the moral assurance and tenacity of Yiddish culture in its own terms and, by attributing value to weakness, retroactively defaming the Jewish will to live and to prosper. A student who seeks in this debased image of Yiddish a substitute for Jewish civilization as a whole not only traduces the past but can become, himself, a caricature.
No one is more aware of these conundrums than Aaron Lansky and his young staff at the National Yiddish Book Center. Their task is not simple, for the founding purpose of the center—namely, the rescue of unwanted books—testifies to the failure of a secular Jewish culture in the Yiddish language: had it been possible to sustain such a culture, these books would still be sitting proudly in the homes of readers. How will the center deal honestly with the hollowness of secular Jewishness if it draws its main support from a nostalgia for that hollowness?
When asked whether he was going to attend the dedication of the new building, my brother David Roskies, who teaches Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said, “Of course. If I couldn’t be at the opening of the YIVO in Vilna in 1925, I can at least attend the opening of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.” This lovely formulation offers a framework for continuity with the past of the kind American Jews so badly need. But the analogy between Vilna and Amherst also brings into bolder relief the latent challenges to Amherst.
For example, at the opening of the center there were mistakes in a Yiddish sign and in the few Yiddish phrases with which some participants sprinkled their speeches. Mistakes are surely correctable, and any non-native speaker is likely to make them, but they signify that not even the champions of Yiddish culture in America are truly at home in the language, and this in a civilization that has historically prided itself on literacy and intellectual achievement. In the Poland of Khone Shmeruk, guardians of Yiddish set themselves the highest possible linguistic standards, in part to counteract the generally low repute in which Yiddish was held by the cultured classes. It is clearly much harder to do this in America. Indeed, since American culture at large is so indifferent to standards of excellence, the temptation to make do with mediocrity will be almost irresistible in a field where ignorance rules.
The National Yiddish Book Center, being a popular facility, geared the opening of its new building to amkho, “the people,” rather than to a cultural elite. Whereas the YIVO ceremonies in Vilna were conducted in Yiddish by the greatest historians and scholars of the day, the Amherst ceremony included not even token representation from the fields of contemporary Yiddish literature and scholarship. The novelist Chava Rosenfarb happened to be present in the audience, but she was not introduced to the audience or asked to speak. This was consonant with the “outward” rather than “inward” nature of the ceremonies: a Yiddish speaker would not have been understood by the vast majority of the audience, and a speech from within the Yiddish world would have brought something “alien” to this American event. In essence, the opening ceremonies thereby confirmed that Yiddish in America is a contradiction in terms, and that, for its part, Yiddish comes alive only when it serves the particular needs of a particular community.
Of course, Yiddish-speaking communities do exist and thrive in the United States. What is more, their demographic vitality testifies much more powerfully to the blessings of American pluralism than does the National Yiddish Book Center, or any other American Jewish institution. The trouble is, the bearded hasidic Jews of Kiryas Joel or of Boro Park in Brooklyn have no interest in the secular Yiddish tradition that is on display at the center, or in retrieving the books generated by that tradition. They would say, rather, that the discarded volumes are the logical consequence of the secularized culture that produced them, or, worse, that when language ceases to be a vehicle for the service of God, it becomes an instrument of idolatry.
Still other complexities were evoked by the opening ceremonies in Amherst. In one inadvertently suggestive gesture, the rabbi who pronounced the prayer of thanksgiving was a representative of the Reform movement, the German-based branch of American Judaism that historically was the most distant from Yiddish and the most hostile to its tribal sense of nationalism. Having lost its own universalizing heritage in America, Reform has clearly begun to feel at home with a Yiddish that is now mostly ethnic coloration.
The irony of this particular inversion would not have been lost on Yiddishists of an earlier generation. “Beser a bord on a rov eyder a rov on a bord,” Jews used to quip when religion began to lose its reflexive authority and they could no longer count on knowing who was who: better a beard without a rabbi than a rabbi without a beard. This expressed preference for an untutored traditional Jew over an educated modern one took fully into account the often rewarding tensions between the old and the new. But today the Jews of Boro Park are too intent on staving off secular influence to enjoy the twilight zone between faith and skepticism, and as for most secular Jews, they possess so little of the Jewish heritage that they can hardly appreciate its paradoxes.
But I do not mean to close on so grim a note. Problems and all, it is a wonderful thing to celebrate Jewish creativity in a beautiful new building, in a warm and welcoming environment. Yiddish, especially, deserves a haven other than in cemeteries. Though there is more than enough terror and tragedy inside the books that crowd the shelves of the National Yiddish Book Center, in their new setting one is reminded that they also contain funds of delight, beauty and humor, wisdom and love.
In the latest issue of the center’s quarterly magazine, Pakn Treger (“Back Packer”), Aaron Lansky answers his own query, “How do we revive Jewish literature?” with the answer, “Only by reviving Jewish life.” Perhaps, indeed, the new guardians of the Yiddish legacy will be able to harness some of the sentiment surrounding their project and direct it toward the serious study of the demanding and particularistic civilization that brought Yiddish into being. That path may certainly begin with a visit to the National Yiddish Book Center. It may even begin with a visit to the Jewish cemetery on Okapowa Street in Warsaw, where lies my much-loved friend and mentor Khone Shmeruk. Only, it had better not end there.