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Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 97-123

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Beyond the Mother Tongue: Learning the Meaning of Yiddish in America

Jeffrey Shandler

The children from my neighborhood
all come to me to learn Yiddish:
I tell them not to open their books,
I want to look at them and read
their faces as if they were pages
in a book; I want to know and be known,
so this is how I talk to them
without ever saying a word.

--J. I. Segal, "Teaching Yiddish" 1

Discussions of modern Yiddish culture often come to an abrupt end in 1939, 1945, or 1948, with any later phenomena characterized as vestigial. There are obvious and compelling reasons for the conceptualization of modern Yiddish culture as having, in essence, terminated in mid-century. Nevertheless, Yiddish has a significant presence in Jewish life after World War II, Stalin's liquidation of Soviet Yiddish culture, and the establishment of the State of Israel, albeit a presence much different from that of the prewar, pre-state era. Although there has been a general decline in its use as a vernacular, especially outside of Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox communities, Yiddish continues to serve as an important cultural resource: a subject of study, an inspiration for performers, a literature increasingly accessible through translation, and a glossary sprinkled through the speech of Jews and non-Jews. [End Page 97]

Because the United States became, by default, home to the largest Yiddish-speaking community in the wake of the Holocaust, a consideration of the language's place in modern Jewish life during the second half of the twentieth century must inevitably be centered there. This, of course, constitutes a radical reconfiguration of the geography of the Yiddish Diaspora in the pre-World War II era, in which America figured as a peripheral locus--its rapid growth and remarkable productivity notwithstanding--far removed from the language's East European epicenter. This change of perspective is not only geographical but also cultural; the postwar course of Yiddish is driven less by European Jewish sensibilities than by distinctively American notions of immigrant culture, identity politics, and multilingualism. American idioms inform Yiddish culture even when it is imported back to Eastern Europe from the United States. 2

Moreover, the transformation of Yiddish is exemplary of a much larger phenomenon of late-twentieth-century Western culture--what David Lowenthal has characterized as "a newly popular faith: the cult of heritage." 3 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has theorized this widespread practice as a "mode of cultural production" that creates "some-thing new" from the sites, objects, events, and practices of the past, transforming their value and giving them "a second life." 4 The heritage mode constitutes a distinctive approach to engaging with the past that seems especially appropriate to the case of Yiddish culture in the second half of the twentieth century. Lowenthal describes heritage as "invoked to requite displacement" that is inherent in modernity: "Beleaguered by loss and change, we keep our bearings by clinging to remnants of stability." Indeed, he asserts, "legacies at risk are cherished for their very fragility"; today, "endangered dialects," like rare zoological species, are spoken of by their protectors "in the same legacy lingo" as Old Master paintings. 5

Thus, as fewer American Jews speak or read Yiddish, its symbolic value here has escalated. Many who profess a profound, genuine attachment to Yiddish also admit that they do not really know the language; moreover, they do not see their lack of fluency as interfering with their devotion to Yiddish. Such professions of attraction to the language can--and often do--provoke the ire of staunch Yiddishists. "�Every Yiddish speaker feels outraged' at the misuse of the language," asserts Mordkhe Schaechter in a recent Wall Street Journal feature on the widespread (and often malapropistic) adoption of Yiddish terms in American culture. 6 Although this phenomenon can prove distressing for fluent speakers and champions of Yiddish, it nonetheless poses for scholars of language and culture intriguing questions. How, and to [End Page 98] what extent, can a vernacular continue to be part of...


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