In January 1906, a woman wrote a letter to a Yiddish daily newspaper called the Forward, to complain that her watch had disappeared. The letter was written in choppy Yiddish; the woman was not used to writing and it was obviously a struggle for her to put her thoughts on paper. The watch was the woman’s only valuable possession. When her son, who supported the family, couldn’t find work, she would pawn the watch so that they’d be able to buy food. The woman suspects her neighbor, an even poorer woman, of taking the watch. She writes “Now the watch lies in the hands of your pawnshop man and not in the hands of my pawnshop man.”
At first, the newspaper editor who read the letter thought the woman had written it in spite, and was trying to shame her neighbor. But on closer inspection, he realized that the letter was actually an exercise in tact. The woman didn’t want to hurt her neighbor’s feelings by confronting her; but she knew the neighbor read the Forward, and hoped to plead with her anonymously through its pages. The letter ends: “I swear on the life of my sick husband that I will remain your friend…just send me the pawn ticket in the mail and I won’t say a word… But give me back my bread.” Continue reading
It took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or “Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it’s not for us at this time.” The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who’d received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—”Would you let your parents read this?” Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: “You can clearly write,” one of them told me, “give us more Holocaust.” After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called “pornography in dialect,” a put-down that didn’t really sting, though I’d have been even happier if the woman who’d handwritten it on the title page put “pornography mit a heksent” instead.
After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I’d done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn’t much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.
They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn’t look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I’d been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.
Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I’d finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. “All of it,” I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.
If he’d ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.
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Plot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I’d written for A Night in Odessa. I didn’t want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I’d been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.
I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book’s setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn’t terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn’t want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed’s early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.
I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren’t supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it’s a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it’s because they’ve aged, but no one learns a thing.
I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don’t keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: “Religious people don’t behave that way.” Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenage boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikveh, it isn’t offensive, it’s merely consistent.
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One of the points I make in my book is that what’s dirty in Yiddish isn’t always dirty in English, and vice versa. Here’s one example that I didn’t have space to include in its entirety.
At Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial in Los Angeles, in February 1963, a Yiddish-speaking police sergeant named Sherman Block translated, for the jury’s benefit, a few of the Yiddish words Bruce had used in his act. What Sherman said, among other things, was that “throughout his narration, suspect [Bruce] interjected the terms ‘shmuck’ and ‘putz,’ which are Yiddish, and mean ‘penis.'”
Bruce disagreed. On the 1965 album Lenny Bruce Is Out Again, he countered:
Shmuk! The word shmuk is a German word. And it means literally in German a man’s decoration. Emes, a boutonniere, a lapel watch. I don’t think, uh—in a Yiddish dictionary, the Harkov [sic] dictionary, it says shmuk: ‘A yard, a fool.’ So there we have the literal—I don’t think the colloquial—any Jew gave it a different inference: ‘You’re acting like a man’s penis.’ I’m not going to be a penis anymore, let Nate be the penis from now on. So shmuk don’t mean shmuk, except to some putz who digs it.
Bruce was a comedian, not a linguist, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is funnier than it is, uh, true. Here’s the relevant entry from Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary:
To native speakers of Yiddish, “shmuk” still has just as much power to offend as “cojones” does in Spanish, or as “cock” or “prick” do in English. But that didn’t stop the word from becoming increasingly prominent in all sort of English-language publications since the 1960s. Here’s the Google n-gram:
You can say “shmuck” in English now on the radio, on billboards, even on a television station as squeaky clean as QVC. So, is it a dirty word or a clean word? Simply depends on who’s listening.
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In my last blog post, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.
Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”
The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.
Since the accusation that “the Jews” sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent – the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.
What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.
The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.
On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”
For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.
When I was researching my last novel, my friend Michael Rohatyn found a book at the Strand he thought I might like: The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes, by Edouard de Pomiane. De Pomiane (1875-1964), a physician, was also one of the most famous chefs and cookery writers of his day. Born Eduard Pozerski, he was born into the Polish aristocracy, brought up poor but refined. Both his parents were Polish patriots who fought against Russian domination of their homeland; his mother fled to France with the young Eduard when his father was deported to Siberia for insurrection against the Russians. Coming of age within the close-knit community of Polish exiles in Paris, he was sympathetic to liberal causes and was a proponent of the Dreyfus cause.
His ethnographic book about Polish Jewish culture and cooking, written in 1928, was originally entitled Cuisine Juive; Ghetto Modernes (Jewish Cooking; Modern Ghettos). It is, perhaps, the weirdest book I have ever read. A tantalizingly vague recipe for Carpe a la Juive (“Take a large, live carp. Kill it…”) follows a horrifying description of a pogrom, relayed to de Pomiane by a museum guide who had survived the massacre by hiding under a heap of hay in which his sister suffocated overnight: “A corpse, belly ripped open, lay with its guts wrapped around its neck…A child wandered aimlessly, haggard, mute, crazed, its body beaten to a pulp.” Continue reading
Yesterday I wrote that my novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is “pretty darn Jewish.” In truth, that’s only half the story. There are two cultures in my novel, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century: the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Syrian immigrants who lived in what’s now New York’s Financial district.
When I started writing this book, I was incredibly daunted at the idea of writing about a culture that wasn’t my own. At a guess, I know slightly more about Syrian culture than your average American Jew: my husband is Arab American, so I married into the knowledge, as it were. But it’s one thing to know the foods and the holidays and the etiquette, and to learn how to say salaam aleikum and shukran and insh’allah when the cousins visit. It’s quite another to create fictional characters who belong to that culture, hopefully true to life and free of generalizations. I really, really didn’t want anyone to read my book and cringe, like a British person watching Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
And as soon as I started to research, it became all too clear just how little I knew. The residents of “Little Syria,” as it was called, weren’t Muslim but Christian, mostly Maronite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox from what’s now Lebanon. I’d always been flummoxed by the various and subtle differences between Christianities, and now I felt even more daunted. I tried to plug my ignorance with books and informational websites, and often ended up more confused than when I started. I went so far as to order a back issue of a Catholic magazine that had an article I wanted to read. Before long they’d given my name to every Catholic mailing list in America. One charity even mailed me a rosary. I still have it, hidden in the back of my sock drawer, as though from God’s prying eyes. How the hell do you throw out a rosary?
After a while I’d read enough to feel like I could start writing. It was important to me that the Jewish and Syrian sections of the book be roughly equal: in length, in weight, in the importance of the characters. I didn’t want one side of the book to be merely a catalyst or booster for the other, like the stalwart friend in a romantic comedy. This led to a number of interesting decisions. After some back and forth, I decided not to use any Yiddish sayings in the book. If I couldn’t say it in Arabic, then I wouldn’t say it in Yiddish either. (I had a couple of salaam aleikums in there before someone told me that only Muslims say it, not Arab Christians—exactly the sort of mistake I was looking to avoid.) I tried to use religious and cultural details sparingly, because a little goes a long way, and I wanted to keep my blunder opportunities to a minimum.
And frankly, my fears weren’t confined to the Arab-American half of the book. I grew up Reform, but most of the Jewish characters in my book are Orthodox, which sometimes feels to me like a different religion entirely. It did help, a little perversely, that I’d often find multiple and conflicting answers to a question. Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes, and the same thing happened when I’d try to pin down an Arab Christian detail. We Jews don’t exactly have a monopoly on that particular trait.
Eventually I decided not to obsess so much over the impossibility of truly knowing something that I myself haven’t lived. The only other option would be to worry myself to a standstill—and that was one thing I wasn’t willing to do. By its very nature, writing a book is an act of hubris. Here are my ideas, you say, and they’re worth your money, time, and attention! But it’s also a leap of faith: trust your intentions and stay true to the story, and the effort will be worth it. I’ll leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded.
In Irena Klepfisz’s remarkable poem, “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” the speaker presents different female identities in the form of a Yiddish vocabulary list. The poem toggles seamlessly between Yiddish and English, but gradually, the bilingualism of the middle stanzas gives way to a series of incantations solely in the mame-loshn of Yiddish.
Here is Klepfisz’s haunting final refrain:
She dreams / she dreams / she dreams. What strikes me about these verses? The insistent female pronoun,zi; the fact that the poem has shifted irrevocably into Yiddish; the notion that a poem all about language ends with a verb not indicating speaking or singing, but rather, dreaming.
When I have been most immersed in learning a language, I have begun to dream in that tongue. It happened to me in Israel when I was studying Hebrew intensively, and when I was taking Hebrew-only grad seminars. And it happened to me during my YIVO summers, too. These dreams were vivid and surprising. I recall myself speaking and hearing others speak, and being quite conscious within the dream of the linguistic situation. Never, to my knowledge, did I break the spell and begin to talk in English instead.
Languages permeate our beings, our psyches, our worldviews. Cognitive psychologists and sociolinguists tell us that languages directly impact how we construct reality. The way we perceive and remember our lives can be linked to the grammar of our mother tongues.
And somehow, through a complex combination of synapses, signals, and syntax, languages can shape the hyper-reality of dream space, too.
To sleep: perchance to dream . . . in Yiddish.
I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.
Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America, and Cold War politics.
Finally, Professor Gennady Estraikh came into the room and revealed his reason for convening us: he wanted us to plan a graduate student conference about Yiddish, featuring the new generation of scholars in the field. The eventual conference, “Yiddish / Jewish Cultures: Literature, History, Thought in Eastern European Diasporas,” was held at NYU in late February of 2006. Attendees came from as far as Finland, Italy, Poland, Jerusalem, and Cape Town to speak on panels with names like “Performing Yiddish Identities” and “Diasporic Expressions.”
With a klezmer band serenading us at the conference’s concluding reception, we toasted our hard work. However, the end of the conference was only the beginning of a six-year process to grapple with the phenomenon of new scholarship on Yiddish.
In the ensuing years, Lara, Shiri, and I continued the debates we had begun in Professor Estraikh’s seminar, arguing about the evolution of Yiddish Studies and its contemporary meaning both in academia and in popular culture. Gradually, the NYU seminar table was replaced by Skype and conference calls; we each left New York one by one, heading to New Haven, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Marriages were made and babies were born, sometimes appearing wide-eyed on computer screens as we teleconferenced across the country. We each wrapped up our respective degrees and continued to talk (and talk, and talk) about Yiddish.
It is a conversation that I hope to continue for a very long time.
When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.
It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish—not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations, and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.
Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh(holy tongue) components of Yiddish.
However, I had never heard anything close to a fluent conversation in Yiddish prior to that first YIVO summer. I had heard a smattering of Yiddish words and phrases growing up, the typical exclamations about so-and-so’s marvelous punim (face) and polkes (thighs), protections against the evil eye, and of course, food-related words. These were the linguistic traces left by the heritage of my father’s family, Litvak shtetl-dwellers who migrated to southern Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.
So how did I, Hannaleh (as my Yiddish diminutive nickname went), end up choosing to study Yiddish? Part of it was simple academic necessity. I had just embarked upon doctoral work in modern Hebrew literature at NYU. Early Hebrew writers, dedicated cultural activists scattered among cities like Berlin, Odessa, Warsaw, and eventually Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, were dazzlingly multi-lingual and, in some cases, translated their own work from one language to the other. Learning Yiddish was one way I could start to understand the variegated world they inhabited.
Beyond the disciplinary usefulness of Yiddish, however, I remember having the distinct feeling that something big was happening with Yiddish in the early twenty-first century. Among my cohort in Jewish Studies at NYU, which included budding historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and literary scholars, everyone was taking Yiddish. Newspapers started reporting on the increased interest in Yiddish on college campuses. Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch, detailing the language “in all of its moods,” was a New York Times best-seller.
More broadly, in the early 00’s, the culture of Eastern Europe was having a moment. The klezmer revivalevidenced a growing fan base for the musical heritage of Eastern Europe. And the success of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated showed us, on the page (in 2002) and the silver screen (in 2005), that readers were thirsting for a back-to-the-shtetl fantasy. Foer’s book articulated our collective compulsion to return, retrace, and recreate the folkways of shtetl life—and, as this Forward article explains, actually resulted in the reconnection of people who had lived in Trochenbrod, his grandfather’s shtetl in Ukraine.
By studying Yiddish, singing songs about potatoes, immersing myself in the worldview of Yiddish speakers from bygone days, I too was part of this whatever-it-was—a trend? A movement? A renaissance?
Or maybe a homecoming, as it often felt when I opened up my notebook to write a Yiddish composition for my teacher. Little did I know, as I conjugated my first Yiddish verbs on a warm summer day in 2003, that this incredibly heimish (homey) language, which seemed to fit me like a second skin, would eventually become the focus of a major academic project—but that is a subject for another blog post.