Holy Yiddishkeit, Batman!


One of the more surprisingly provocative phenomena of Yiddish culture in the post-World War II era is a small paperback entitled Say It in Yiddish, a phrase book for travelers. This volume, part of a series issued by Dover Publications (which includes over two dozen languages, among them modern Hebrew, Indonesian, and Swahili), first appeared in 1958 and is still in print. The book was edited by Uriel Weinreich, then Atran Chair of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University, and his wife, folklorist Beatrice Weinreich.

Almost forty years after its first publication, Say It in Yiddish became the subject of some controversy, when author Michael Chabon discussed it in an essay that appeared in 1997, first in Civilization, a periodical published in association with the Library of Congress, and then, in abbreviated form, in Harper’s Magazine. In his essay, originally titled “Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts,” Chabon both mocks and mourns Say It in Yiddish, which he introduces as “the saddest book that I own” and characterizes as a “tragic joke,” an “absurd, poignant artifact of a country that never was.” Unaware of a potential audience for this volume, whether in the 1950s or today, he tries in vain to conjure imaginary environments in which a traveler might talk to an auto mechanic, dentist, or hair dresser in Yiddish. Accompanying illustrations by cartoonist Ben Katchor depict invented urban scenes with a telephone booth, cinema, bus, ferry, and factory, all sporting signs in Yiddish. “This country of the Weinreichs is in the nature of a wistful fantasyland,” Chabon argues, a contrafactual Europe where “the millions of Jews who were never killed produced grandchildren, and great grandchildren.” Finding this vision “heartbreakingly implausible,” he wonders, “Just what am I supposed to do with this book?”

Chabon does not appear to have researched the history of Say It in Yiddish; had he done so, he would have learned that it was created not at the Weinreichs’ own initiative but at the request of Dover Publications’ founder and president, Hayward Cirker. Cirker envisioned the phrase book as being, in part, of practical value; Yiddish was widely spoken in Israel in the late 1950s, and there were substantial Yiddish-speaking communities in Paris, Montréal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other places where someone who knew only English and had limited or no knowledge of Yiddish might find the volume useful. Moreover, Beatrice Weinreich recalls, Cirker regarded Say It in Yiddish as a symbolic gesture of his devotion to a language that he had learned as a child at home and in schools run by the Workmen’s Circle.

Say It in Yiddish is, arguably, an exercise in artifice—but then, the same can be said for any such phrase book which offers travelers the false promise that it provides sufficient skills for conversing in a language that they don’t know.Even so, this book stands out as an example of the powerful and contentious role of the imaginary in Jewish culture, for Say It in Yiddish and its reception constitute an implicit exercise in imagining Yiddishland. In his incredulous response to the book,Chabon envisions a post-Holocaust milieu saturated with spoken Yiddish as not simply contrafactual but untenable. His is not the reaction of an ideologist—say, a Hebraist or Zionist who cannot accept another vision of Jewish cultural or political nationalism as valid. Indeed, Chabon’s essay evinces neither any particular Jewish ideological convictions nor any awareness of the range and tenacity of Yiddish in the half century since World War II. On the latter issue, Chabon was taken to task by several impassioned letters to the editor that were printed in Civilization and Harper’s. The authors of these letters respond to Chabon by arguing that this “imaginary state” of Yiddish does, in fact, exist. One author, a resident of Brooklyn’s Boro Park, explains that “Say It in Yiddish is available in practically every bookstore” there, and that she uses Yiddish “to communicate with my neighbors, children on the street, my grocer, the bus driver for the local private bus service, and the electrician who rewired my apartment…. We even have Yiddish-speaking cash machines at fourteen branches of our local bank.”

This and similar responses to Chabon’s essay are not merely ripostes from devoted Yiddishists defending the viability of their beleaguered tongue. For what Chabon challenges, ultimately, is not the language’s legitimacy or popularity, but rather the ability to conjure a homeland for Yiddish, with its implications of indigenousness, territoriality, and even sovereignty. Doing so flouts the language’s widespread association with marginality, mutability, or obsolescence, situating it—not only through one’s use of Yiddish, but through one’s convictions and, indeed, one’s imagination—in a place of its own, in Yiddishland.

Say It in Yiddish is neither the oldest nor the most recent example of imagining Yiddishland, which I define as a virtual locus construed in terms of the use of the Yiddish language, especially, though not exclusively, in its spoken form. I once heard a student at the commencement of the YIVO Institute’s Summer Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University—in the late 1980s, I think—define Yiddishland as a place that comes into existence whenever two or more people speak Yiddish. This notion has provocative implications: does Yiddishland flicker on and off during a conversation, vanishing during pauses and interruptions? What is the status of Yiddishland in a conversation in which one party speaks Yiddish and the other responds in another language? Does talking to oneself in Yiddish constitute Yiddishland, or is some sort of community, even a community of two, required? And what about thinking or dreaming in Yiddish?

Adventures in Yiddishland by Jeffrey Shandler, © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press (pages 31 to 34).