We're Talking Jewish
By DAVID MARGOLIS
Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish
By Dovid Katz
464 pages. Basic Books. $26.95.
Dovid Katz’s fascinating linguistic and narrative history of
Yiddish posits the mameloshn as a surviving link in an uninterrupted
“Jewish language chain” stretching from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic to the
present. Moreover, though Yiddish is on the UN’s list of endangered languages
expected to flicker out of existence over the next century, Katz sees a vibrant
future for it.
Yiddish, which developed in central Europe about 1,000 years ago, fuses
elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and (as it moved east) Slavic, while
drawing vocabulary from every language among which Yiddish speakers lived.
Deeply imbued with Jewish experience and sensibility—Yiddish means
Jewish, after all—the language encapsulates the meeting of a “language and
people from the Near East with language and people in Europe.” That
confrontation gave rise to a wholly new Jewish culture.
European Jewish culture was “trilingual,” using Hebrew for Bible, commentaries,
and community documents; Aramaic for Talmud and Kabbalah; and Yiddish as the
spoken, and later written, vernacular of ordinary Jews. Books were written in
Yiddish for women, empowering them, and later for men, and still later by
women. As the fortunes of Yiddish improved, even kabbalistic works appeared,
including the core work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, in 1711.
In the end, Jews were dispersed throughout eastern Europe, too, and Yiddish was
the native language of almost all of them.
How did the “modern” Jew arise? Katz blames the German Jews. Western Askenaz
culture declined, partly in confrontation with German anti-Semitism, to which
the Jews’ “secret language” was an “ugly, barbaric ‘jargon’ emblematic of Jews’
lack of civilization.” By the mid-18th century, German Jews
internalized anti-Semitic critiques, and many thought that if they adopted the
German language and became like everyone else, German society would accept
them. The task of molding a form of Judaism palatable to the gentiles was
undertaken by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn,
who was hostile to Yiddish (“this jargon has contributed much to the immorality
of common Jews”) and tried to eradicate it in order to replace it with German.
“Few kinds of hate are as potent as self-hate,” Katz notes correctly,
describing how Mendelssohn and his successors tried to exterminate Yiddish. Reform
Judaism and even German neo-Orthodoxy “focused on the premise of linguistic
assimilation and a German-speaking Jewry,” Katz recounts. But, he adds, Jews
behaving like Germans only infuriated the local anti-Semites even more.
Politics and wars brought some eastern European Jews under the control of
German-speaking anti-Yiddish governments, while others fell under Russian rule.
From both sides, they faced pressures for acculturation, with many programs
against traditional religion and Yiddish supported by Jewish “enlighteners.”
However, in Eastern Europe Yiddish was stronger than the assimilationists.
Indeed, the leaders of the Haskalah—who
were forced, like Zionists later, to use Yiddish because that was the people’s
language while it tried to influence them away from Yiddish—contributed to the
“secular outburst” of a major literature in Yiddish whose rise Katz traces
through the 19th and 20th centuries.
The masters of that secular outburst, like the Zionists who founded the state
of Israel, had been brought up in or close to the Yiddish-speaking
traditionalist environment. The
“traditionally religious Askenazi Jewish society with its internal Jewish
trilingualism,” Katz instructs us, remains the only milieu that can support
Today’s ultra-Orthodox are not proponents of secular Yiddish literature or, for
that matter, of Zionism. Nonetheless, according to Katz, the Yiddish future
belongs to them, not to the university programs and klezmer festivals that have
sparked rumors of a Yiddish revival. Demographic projections indicate that by
the end of the current century, ultra-Orthodox Jews will form the Jewish
majority in the Diaspora, and their insistence on maintaining Yiddish as a
native language, makes its long-term survival “a simple and foregone
The tragedy of Jewish success in the New World has been that American Jews,
among the fastest of groups to cast off their native tongue, generally deprived
their children of the opportunity to learn it. In America, the purpose of the
Yiddish press became to Americanize the immigrants, while the Hebrew day school
system “excluded” Yiddish and its achievements from its curriculum, Katz
American Jewry has largely retained the humanistic and liberal views it
inherited from Yiddish but has held on less successfully to the language’s
deeply Jewish outlook. Katz does not belabor the point, but for a contemporary
reader, the subtext of his history will be American Jewish ignorance of any
Jewish language, growing distance from Jewish culture and traditions, and
separation from a coherent and integrated Jewish community, all of which
A professor of Yiddish language, literature, and
culture at Vilnius University and the author of many books and papers in
his field (including three collections of Yiddish fiction), Katz provides
lively accounts of the migrations of European Jews and the fate of Yiddish in
the USSR and in pre-State Palestine, and he profiles many lesser-known but
important literary and political figures in Yiddish-speaking Europe.
Surprisingly, however, he omits any comparison of Yiddish to other Jewish
languages, such as Ladino or Persian-Jewish. It would have been interesting to
know his opinion as a linguist of whether they are, like Yiddish, complete
languages or only partial dialects, and to have some evaluation or comparison
of their accomplishments.