Still Outwitting History


The following essay was written in 2000 by Aaron Lansky. A longer version appeared in Pakn Treger magazine.

Max Weinreich, arguably the greatest cultural historian of the Yiddish language, was delivering a lecture in Finland on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland.  That lecture saved his life. Weinreich made his way to New York, where he began training a new generation of Yiddish linguistic and literary scholars.

Many thought Weinreich’s task in America was hopeless: How could one possibly re-establish Yiddish or engage in serious Jewish scholarship here in the new land? Once, when a student asked him why he persisted, he answered simply: “Because Yiddish has magic—it will outwit history.” I think he was right: Yiddish continues to outwit history, although it does so in ways very different then those Weinreich might have imagined.

For example, among mainstream Jews Klezmer music has won unprecedented popularity. But the best Klezmer musicians are not just reprising Aaron Lebedeff’s “Rumania, Rumania” and turning somersaults on the stage. Instead, they’re creating modern music authentically derived from old-world roots. Yiddish theater is also undergoing a revival, not only the Folksbiene, but through artists like Tony Kushner, who produced a new, English-language version of The Dybbuk, and visionaries like the late Joseph Papp, who founded a whole new Yiddish theater.

There’s more. Old Yiddish movies are being restored. Yiddish is taught as a credit course in at least 40 universities around the country. There are hundreds of adult education courses. And you can now study Yiddish intensively in the summer at Columbia and Oxford, in Israel, Paris, and even Vilna. Look at our own success at the Yiddish Book Center, where almost 30,000 members make us one of the largest and fastest growing Jewish cultural organizations in the country.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as a passing fad: nostalgia, sentimentality, a lachrymose connection to the past, or a superficial search for roots. I don’t doubt that these are motives for some. Nor am I complaining, because I’m confident that no matter why people are attracted to Yiddish culture initially, once they get there they’ll find out what’s really inside. But clearly nostalgia alone is not enough of an explanation for all that’s going on. Look at me and my colleagues and many others studying Yiddish today—we’re far too young to be nostalgic about Yiddish culture!

I think there are several obvious—and several complex—reasons for what’s happening. I’ll start with the obvious: Yiddish produced an amazing literature. Especially since 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in literature, more and more people have begun to recognize that fact. Inherently modern, Yiddish literature gives voice to the great themes of human experience: the emergence of the individual from a collective society, generational conflict against a backdrop of social upheaval, war and peace, power and powerlessness. As Bashevis Singer once said when asked by a New York Times reporter to account for his own popularity: “It is because I give Jews what they want most: sex, Torah, and revolution.”

Of course, an important factor behind the growing appreciation of Yiddish literature is that more Yiddish books are becoming available in English translation. Still not enough, of course: even now we estimate that only one-half of one percent of Yiddish literature— one out of every 200 Yiddish titles—has been translated. There’s a Yiddish expression that says, “Ale kales zenen sheyn, ale toyte zenen frum”—“All brides are beautiful and all dead people are pious.” In the years after the War there was a natural tendency to eulogize the world that had been destroyed, and therefore to translate only those books which showed that world in a softer light. The Yiddish titles most full of conflict and contradiction – that is to say, the best of the literature—were often overlooked. It’s only now that the selection criteria are changing, and although we still have only a forshpayz, the slightest inkling of what’s there, there are enough new translations to whet the appetite for more.

I think the second reason for the increase of interest in Yiddish culture is historiographical. The field of Jewish Studies has changed radically in recent years. Just 20 years ago it was still called Judaic Studies, the legacy of an assimilationist model born in 19th-century Germany. Judaic Studies meant the study of Judaism: religion and  theology. Today the field is called Jewish Studies, which means not only the study of Judaism but of Jews, in the full constellation of their experience. Once Jewish scholars, following the lead of those in other fields, began expanding their horizons to include social and cultural history—the story of how Jews actually lived their lives—the use of Yiddish sources became imperative. We see evidence of this transformation every day at the Yiddish Book Center: when we began in 1980 there were only a handful of significant Yiddish library collections in all of North America. Today we have established or strengthened collections of Yiddish literature at 450 major libraries in 26 countries around the world. And, as if collecting 1.5 million books were not enough, we are now investing $5 million to digitize Yiddish literature, to ensure its availability forever.

Literature and historiography are two obvious reasons for embracing Yiddish culture. But for young people, for people who are not scholars, there’s something more compelling still: a growing sense that Yiddish is “cool.” In downtown New York right now, for example, there are new clubs where young people in their twenties get together and try to replicate or invent a rollicking Yiddish atmosphere.

This ongoing growth of Yiddish appeal is complex—it is the result of crucial changes within Jewish culture. I believe there is a growing sense on the part of many Jews that something is missing from modern Jewish life. We’d have a hard time coming up with an exact list of what we’ve lost. Try intellectuality, social consciousness, historical awareness, dialectical thinking—in truth the list will always be inadequate because what’s missing is very hard to define. It’s something quintessentially Jewish, and its gaping absence is a critical reason why so many are reaching out to Yiddish.

Yiddish is a repository of a thousand years of Jewish sensibility and experience. It’s axiomatic: if you want to know who you are, you have to remember where you’ve come from. But even more than providing a portrait of its own time and place, the potential of Yiddish, and of Yiddish literature in particular, is that it elucidates a process, a dialectical formula through which Jews have adapted throughout history, and a key to our continuing evolution. I believe Jews are instinctively drawn to Yiddish: not to indulge in nostalgia, but to reclaim the dialectical totality that’s missing from modern Jewish life. How do we live our lives as Jews in a modern world? In authentic Jewish fashion, Yiddish offers no absolute answer. But it gives us a profound way to ask the question, and I think that’s exactly what we need to assure our survival and continuing evolution. It’s in that sense that I believe Yiddish does have magic, and that with a little luck it just may outwit history after all.