Commentary Magazine


Yiddish

To the Editor:

Permit me to comment on Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s article, “The Rise and Fall of Yiddish” [November 1980], in which she gives a commendable analysis and exposition of Max Weinreich’s monumental History of the Yiddish Language. Her closing statements, however, are not in agreement with Weinreich, nor did Weinreich venture to suggest in his work a prognosis of the “fall” or the “end of the era” of Yiddish. A juxtaposition of a few of Mrs. Dawidowicz’s closing remarks with Weinreich’s statements will reveal these dissimilarities.

Mrs. Dawidowicz: “Once an organic community, indivisible as a people and a religion, the Jews were split apart by religious and class wars, and became estranged from one another by new national loyalties.” “In the remarkable success of Yiddish as a secular vehicle lay the seeds of its decline.” “Evidence is in any case at hand that Yiddish began to decline somewhat after it became a secular language and after its function as a vehicle for yidishkayt was reduced.”

Weinreich, on the contrary, indicates several times the strengthening of Yiddish by the transformed socioeconomic differentiation of the community, by the conflicts between the hasidic and mitnagdic sectors, by the growing influence of secularism: “Not only did the traditional and the secular sectors coexist, but there were also many intermediary groups.” “The rings holding the community did not break asunder.” “In the interbellum period Agudists, Mizrachists, Folkists, Zionists, Poale-Zionists, Bundists, non-partisans . . . sat at one table in the Jewish communities in Poland. There were constant quarrels, but the people as a whole became welded more closely. The oylemshe yidn (this term that had its origin apparently some time in the 19th century, designated not necessarily anti-traditional Jews, but in general ‘the modern’) were accepted as another variant to the many variants that Ashkenaz had had from before. The amplitude of Jewish pluralism became still broader.” “The Ashkenazic community in Eastern Europe emerged strengthened even from these bitter fights, with which Jewish cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries is replete, and the Yiddish language came out enriched.” “The community was highly differentiated as to its social stratification and in its cultural aspiration . . . the struggle did not disrupt the community, it cemented it.”

Mrs. Dawidowicz, in her summation, claims that “the secular Yiddish press, the secular Yiddish schools, and modern Yiddish literature hastened rather than retarded the acculturation of the Jews to modern urban Gentile society.” On the contrary, the Yiddish press, Yiddish literature, theater, and culture, which incidentally once was Mrs. Dawidowicz’s own environment, acted as a bulwark against complete acculturation and helped in the preservation of ethnic heritage. Is it not true that in countries like Germany and France, where secular Yiddish culture did not play a role as an influential medium, it was the religious German and French Jews who styled themselves Germans or French, respectively, of the “Mosaic persuasion” who became so rapidly acculturated and assimilated?

An error on Mrs. Dawidowicz’s part should be rectified here. She disparages the rendering of Weinreich’s use of the term “yidishkayt” as “Jewishness” by the translator, the eminent scholar Shlomo Noble. However, Weinreich himself used this term in an earlier essay (in English), “The Reality of Jewishness versus the Ghetto Myth: The Sociolinguistic Roots of Yiddish,” in the jubilee volume To Honor Roman Jakobson (The Hague-Paris, 1967).

Mrs. Dawidowicz’s final remarks, namely, that language loyalty is artificial and sentimental, and that Yiddish has lost its function as a vehicle of systematic communication are also questionable. While it is true that the numerical strength of Yiddish-speakers has declined and the manifestations of Yiddish may have assumed different forms, love for the Yiddish language and culture is still very strong among thousands of Jews in this and other countries. Yiddish has continued to maintain its strong emotional hold as it did in previous eras. Nor is there anything artificial, or anything wrong, with a sentimental attachment to it. Fifty thousand Jews attended the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Festivals during this past summer in New York City alone, with many more thousands in other cities in the United States. Tens of thousands attend Yiddish theaters—this year there are four in New York-read the Yiddish press, partake of Yiddish cultural events. In the realm of Yiddish literature, we can point with pride to the important Yiddish quarterly, Di Goldene Keyt, edited by Abraham Sutzkever in Israel; the Yiddish monthly Di Tsukunft in New York; the works of two New York Yiddish novelists, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Grade. In his time, Weinreich was gratified that a few colleges had introduced courses in Yiddish—today over 60 colleges and universities are teaching Yiddish in this country, in addition to the Max Weinreich Graduate Center at YIVO. Why, then, Mrs. Dawidowicz’s haste to recite kaddish?

One more word about Shlomo Noble, whose achievement as translator almost matches the author’s. His style and erudition, evinced in the copious specimens and sources of Yiddish from the 13th to 20th centuries; his intimacy with middle-high German, German dialects, the Czech, Polish, and Russian languages; his knowledge of ancient Hebrew, modern Hebrew, and Ivrit in Israel; his familiarity with Aramaic, Dzhudezmo, Ladino, the Old French and Italian Jewish languages and the concomitant vernaculars where Jews resided—all this is a truly breathtaking accomplishment. . . . His faithful adherence to Weinreich’s masterful Yiddish text assures his own immortality and makes his work a milestone in our era.

Joseph Mlotek
Education Director
The Workmen’s Circle
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I wonder how many of us have gone so far as to give way to the dybbuk of linguistic matricide by declaring, as does Lucy S. Dawidowicz, that Yiddish “instead of being a living spoken language . . . has reached the end of its era”?

Surely this will come as quite a surprise to the many loyal readers of the Yiddish-language press, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of ultra-Orthodox parents throughout the world who continue to speak Yiddish with their children in their homes.

And what about the Yiddish theater—bigger and better than ever this year? And the many outstanding Yiddish writers who publish their work on a regular basis? The ones I know personally do not appear to have reached the end of their era. On the contrary, they show every sign of surviving their detractors.

I do not see any justification for making gratuitous remarks about spoken and written Yiddish when the very same energies could be redirected toward formulating programs for keeping the values of yidishkayt alive and well in the hearts and minds of our children and grandchildren. . . .

Kenneth Libo
English Section Editor
Jewish Daily Forward
New York City

_____________

 

Lucy S. Dawidowicz writes:

Denying the bitter reality doesn’t change that reality. My analysis of the rise and fall of Yiddish is, I believe, historically valid. Magical incantations (“Say it isn’t so”) can’t and won’t undo the course of events as they happened, and as I described them. I had hoped that my critics who were my friends would have understood that, but, as I anticipated, they didn’t.

The late John Dollard, of Yale University, whom I met once because he was a friend of the late Max Weinreich, wrote in his classic book, Caste and Class in a Southern Town: “Candid analysis cannot be combined with friendship either in life or social studies.”

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