- Where Did the East European Jews Come From?An Explosive Debate Erupts from Old Footnotes
"We the children of immigrants had lots of languages to speak and we spoke them with relish," Saul Bellow wrote in the New Yorker in 2005. Language was a weapon of sorts in Chicago's play yards, and the children eagerly armed themselves. "We were prepared, braced, to answer questions in half a dozen tongues. The older children had not yet forgotten their Russian, and everybody spoke Yiddish." For Bellow, though he penned his masterpieces in English, Yiddish meant an allegiance. It was vibrant, pungent, and alive. Now the immigrant communities of the Bronx and Chicago, where children used Yiddish to taunt outsiders, have disappeared. The shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, where it was the fabric of life, have faded away to dust.
There are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers today, perhaps half a million. Some Yiddish enthusiasts claim as many as four million. Yiddish was born in about the tenth century and thus rounded out an even millennium before being pulled under the tide of history. If you want to know [End Page 107] not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreich's History of the Yiddish Language—but be sure to read the notes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.
Weinreich's original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death.1 A partial translation into English—without the notes—was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yale's new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreich's work—the notes are longer than the text—thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. (What? Only a decade? If you are the typical non-scholar, you could say this with Yiddish-inflected irony. If you are a philologist or historian, however, you might say this with sincerity and admiration.) The notes are not just the formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader and essential to understanding Weinreich's many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he not only supported his conclusions but also gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America.
Popular histories struggle to simplify the story, as in the rambling and superficial Yiddish Civilization or the painfully breezy Story of Yiddish, which claims that Yiddish has been no less than the Jewish savior.2 Those with their eyes fixed on the future optimistically advertise a Yiddish Renaissance, as in Dovid Katz's Words on Fire.3 Yiddish lives, too, in the popular imagination, fed by humorous tidbits meant for cultural tourists who want a taste of a fabled world: Yiddish with Dick and Jane, If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It in Yiddish, Yiddish for Dogs, and Just Say Nu, which boasts that it can list 13 names for the human buttocks, from polite to prurient.4 Rabbi Benjamin [End Page 108] Blech, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Yiddish, dictates a list of dozens of must-know Yiddish words, which he claims have...