The Canadian Jeiwsh News

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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Young academics study Yiddish history and culture

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The majority of Jewish victims of the Shoah were Yiddish speakers. One-third of the Jews of the world were killed in the Shoah, but they comprised a much higher percentage of the world’s Yiddish speakers. While the Jewish people have, thank God, managed to recover and thrive since then, many fear that the Shoah was essentially a deathblow for the Yiddish language.

Optimistic Yiddishists find signs of life for the Yiddish language. One of the most surprising ones is the resurgence of interest in Yiddish in the academic world. The number of students actually studying the Yiddish language at most universities is low, but the number of professors researching and writing about Yiddish language, literature and culture is growing quickly.

For example, a new collection of academic essays has recently been published: Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture, edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman. It contains 19 scholarly articles about Yiddish, all written in English, mostly by young academics.

Categories include “Yiddish and the City,” “Yiddish Comes to America,” and “Yiddish Encounters Hebrew.” Although the editors explain in the introduction why the Shoah was not one of the groupings they used, nevertheless, their decision is puzzling, since the relationship between Yiddish and the Shoah shines through in a number of the essays.

My York University colleague, Kalman Weiser, has a fascinating article here about tensions within YIVO (the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut [the Yiddish Scientific Institute, later renamed in English the Institute for Jewish Research]) between 1939 and 1940. The Amopteyl (short for Amerikaner opteyl or American Division) of YIVO took hesitant steps to move control of the organization and its publications to New York, at the time the city with the largest number of Yiddish speakers in the world, from the group’s head office in Vilna. The YIVO office in Vilna was not pleased. It continued to see Europe, not the United States, as the centre of Yiddish culture and it was not willing to cede YIVO leadership to the Americans. Weiser’s essay sheds light on the question of how much Jews in either the U.S. or Lithuania understood in 1939-1940 that the cultural dominance of Eastern European Jewry was over and that their physical end was near. Weiser highlights some of the curious ways that Lithuanian and American Yiddishists regarded each other then. In March 1940, the New York Yiddish newspaper Forverts wrote: “The problem with our America is what is called here making ‘a living,’ and in the present time it diverts much time and causes much concern. It is, however, different in Vilna. There, they don’t make a living. The means don’t exist… Therefore, they have more time and more patience for scholarly work.”