To the Editor:
Reuven Frank’s letter [January], far from impugning my own (and the COMMENTARY editors’) command of Yiddish, is actually a splendid illustration of my assertion [Letters from Readers, October 1976] that “one is not born a Litvak but rather, as a result of deficient upbringing, stoops to that condition.”
Mr. Frank’s distinguished father apparently tried to shield his child from admittedly unpleasant regional prejudice, for the truth of the matter is that tsaylemkop, an epithet commonly hurled at Litvaks by their Galitzianer neighbors, has nothing to do with the Litvak’s mispronunciation of Yiddish. (That is quite another matter.) In retrospect, one wishes Reuven Frank had been taught instead the virtue of consulting reference books.
Nahum Stutchkoff’s classic thesaurus, Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh, a work edited by Max Weinreich, the great Yiddish philologist, and published in 1950 by YIVO, that august citadel of academic Litvaks, groups tsaylemkop under three rubrics. The first (No. 363) is entitled “lies, falsehoods, swindles.” The second (No. 339) is “tsaylemkop [i.e., ‘cross-head’], shmadkop, meshumedkop [both mean ‘apostasy-head’].” The third (No. 613) is called “lack of faith, heresy, apostasy.” That was my sense of the usage, which is also confirmed by a Yiddish saying cited on p. 165 of the volume, “two Jews and a Litvak are riding [in a cart].” Not all connotations of tsaylemkop are negative: there is also an entry for it in rubric No. 339, “wisdom.”
All of which adds up to a composite stereotype of the Litvak tsaylemkop. He is seen as a skeptic, not overly honest, and not very pious, but also as a man of impressive erudition. Clearly, then, Reuven Frank, although of Litvak parentage, cannot himself be called a Litvak. A neo-Litvak, perhaps, but not a true Litvak.
University of Illinois