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Reviewed by:
  • Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, and Hannah S. Pressman, and: A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany by Aya Elyada
  • Jan Schwarz
Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, and Hannah S. Pressman. Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, December 2012. 360 pp. $34.95. ISBN-13: 978-0814334447.
Aya Elyada. A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2012. 280 pp. $60. ISBN: 9780804781930.

Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture consists of twenty essays by younger scholars. The book is divided into six sections: “Writing on the Edge; Yiddish and the City; Yiddish Goes Pop; Yiddish Comes to America; Yiddish Encounters Hebrew,” and “Hear and Now.” The book highlights the considerable strengths of the transnational and multicultural methodologies now employed in the study of Yiddish. As such, it is part of the current trend in the social sciences and humanities towards transnational and comparative methodologies, as well as a more archive-based approach to examining culture and language. The move away from theory-driven deconstructionism, and gender and post-colonial studies has been particularly evident in Jewish studies. It is also the case that Yiddish studies, and Jewish studies, in general, never succumbed to the dominance of Critical Theory that still holds sway in some English and comparative literature departments in the American academy.

In the introduction, the editors emphasize that the collection represents a new post-ideological endeavor, while acknowledging that whether it is the case “remains to be determined.” (3) The book’s indebtedness to Jeffrey Shandler’s study of post-vernacular Yiddish is the result of an increasing focus on popular culture and symbolic modes of Yiddish language use among American and Israeli Hebrew scholars. The book’s contributors, who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, have steered away from the Holocaust. Informed by postmodern and cultural studies theory, these scholars have viewed the Holocaust with suspicion because of its potential to turn the field of Yiddish studies into one more example of “the lachrymose version” of Jewish history. This is explicitly addressed in the book’s introduction:

Although readers might expect a section on Yiddish and the Holocaust, we have chosen not to create such a rubric. This decision stems from our efforts to rethink the traditional thematic divisions of Jewish studies, and, specifically, to avoid the teleological claim of citing the Holocaust for the end of Yiddish. Thus we have chosen not to pigeonhole this colossal event into an [End Page 201] arbitrary category that would also not do justice to the historical trajectory of the language and culture of Yiddish. Instead numerous—if not most—essays throughout the collection address, both directly and indirectly, the impact of the Holocaust on the development and decline of Yiddish as a vernacular language. By the same token, this volume does not feature studies that focus on many of the so-called canonical Yiddish writers. Indeed, the most current scholarship in the field today often directly challenges canonical constructs.


The trope of “the Holocaust as the end of Yiddish” is reiterated here from the vantage point of contemporary scholarly concerns about the predominance of post-vernacular Yiddish. The fact remains, however, that Yiddish culture from 1945 until at least the 1970s thrived in cultural centers such as New York, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Displaced Persons camps, Lodz, Paris, Stockholm, and Moscow (prior to 1948 and after 1956) in response to the Holocaust. Deemphasizing this fact diminishes the scope and depth of Yiddish culture’s multifaceted post-1945 features.

Nearly absent from the book (Pinsker, Horn, and Finkin’s essays are the exceptions) is the pivotal role played by the Yiddish writer and culture hero that originated with di klasikers, particularly I. L. Peretz. The transformation of Yiddish culture in the 1940s, for example, was facilitated through the revival of Peretz as a cultural hero in connection with celebrations to mark the thirtieth yortsayt (anniversary) of his death in 1946. Peretz became the model for survivor and exilic writers in their...


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