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Where Did Yiddish Come From?

An explosive debate erupts from footnotes suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews are Europeans

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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This is the first of two articles on the origins of the Yiddish language. This week, the late historian Cherie Woodworth provides an outstanding explication of the origins and historical stakes of the split that is roiling modern Yiddish scholarship. Next week, staff writer Batya Ungar-Sargon profiles the academic personalities and their battles in the field of linguistics.

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There are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers today, perhaps even half a million, but the shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, where Yiddish was woven into the fabric of everyday life, have faded into dust. Yiddish was born in about the 10th century and thus rounded out an even millennium before being pulled under by the tide of history. If you want to know 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 footnotes. 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. 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. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreich’s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he 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.

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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. Those with their eyes fixed on the future optimistically advertise a Yiddish Renaissance, as in Dovid Katz’s Words on Fire. And Yiddish lives 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. Rabbi Benjamin 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 already entered American English: not just bagel and klutz, but also heymish, yortsayt, and yok.

Yiddish as a venue for the hip cultural cognoscenti, Jewish or not, is far from its life in recent (that is, 20th-century) history: Jewish intellectuals often treated Yiddish with contempt, and the State of Israel subjected it to “overt and profound linguistic antagonism” as the state promoted Hebrew.

Hip and funny Yiddish is also far from its life with native speakers today, who are largely isolated, some by choice, others by geography and poverty. Isolation is the very reason why they still speak Yiddish. Yiddish speakers are found in the last remnants of Jewish villages in Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine. Ethnographers, led by Indiana University historian Jeffrey Veidlinger, are trying to record their voices and memories for the Archive of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories before they die out. Yiddish speakers are also found in the self-isolated communities of the Orthodox Jews of Williamsburg, New York, and in some very Orthodox communities in Israel (the Haredim, who reject the state and its language, Hebrew), but these speakers are far from eager proselytizers of the language. Yiddish is taught as a foreign language at a handful of universities in the United States and Europe, including Indiana University, UCLA, Columbia, and Oxford. Yiddish-language institutions such as the Vilnius Yiddish Institute have received funding from cultural preservation commissions in the European Union. The language also lives in the fantastically mundane Alaska of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where the hardened detectives, street junkies, shabby chess masters, and dowagers all speak Yiddish, though we are, sad to say, given their world only in American English, for Chabon himself is of the rootless modern American generation.  As Dovid Katz, one of the champions of modern Yiddish, recently admitted, “for anyone to whom modern Yiddish and its literature and culture are dear, the most bitterly painful time is the present,” because the last native speakers of prewar Europe—writers active into their 80s, 90s, and some, even, beyond—are dying.

It is hard to speak or write dispassionately about the tongue that the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom (whose first language was Yiddish) called “a murdered language.” It seemed that all the attention for Yiddish fell, deservedly, on its recent history and imminent future, and its origins long past posed few unanswered questions of academic or general interest. This settled and accepted story was due to Weinreich’s legacy and his seemingly definitive study, which is now being challenged in an explosive way by an Israeli scholar, Paul Wexler, who, like Weinreich, is a linguist. Wexler has been marshaling his arguments for two decades to make the radical, implausible, impossible argument that Yiddish did not come from Germany but from the Slavic lands, and the East European Jews came not from the Rhineland but from Persia via the Caucasus and the Khazar steppe. This challenge to Weinreich’s historical narrative is academic and impersonal for Wexler but deeply personal for most of Wexler’s readers. To understand why, you have only to look more at Weinreich’s biography and his grand project to preserve the lifeblood of pre-Holocaust Jewish culture.

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Max Weinreich was born near Riga in the last years of the Russian Empire. Like the Oxford scholar and political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who was also from the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia of Riga, Weinreich grew up in a German-speaking home in this multiethnic city where German was the language of educated discourse and Russian the language of politics and administration. He became fascinated with Yiddish as a young man. He studied at St. Petersburg University, received a doctorate at the University of Marburg, and in 1925 founded the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (YIVO) in Vilnius (Wilno)—the center of Yiddish culture. Weinreich was YIVO’s moving spirit: he named it; its headquarters were Weinreich’s apartment; he was the core of its staff. “His determination was a powerful engine that propelled him forward relentlessly. … He could create worlds if he decided to do so,” recalled his colleague Lucy Dawidowicz. “His most distinctive physical features were an irresistible smile … and his penetrating eyes, which … saw everything, even deep inside you.” Weinreich was a leader who could gain the allegiance of those great and small on behalf of his beloved Yiddish. He convinced Sigmund Freud to become a member of the honorary YIVO board; Albert Einstein was also a member. This single-minded devotion to promoting Yiddish, both the academic discipline and the popularizing zeal, comes through clearly in his History.

In September 1939, Weinreich was in Denmark at an academic conference with his older son, Uriel, when war broke out. He, wisely, did not return to Vilnius, and his wife and younger son joined them abroad. Weinreich became a professor of Yiddish at City College and re-established YIVO in New York City. Max Weinreich died in 1969; his son and heir to the calling, Uriel, predeceased him by two years. YIVO still operates today as a thriving center of scholarship on Ashkenazi Jewish culture. History of the Yiddish Language was Weinreich’s life work, not only in that it summed up decades of research. More than 750 pages of footnotes may seem excessive and self-indulgent, but to philologists there is no more passionate expression of devotion. Weinreich had both the ardor and the blindness of a lover; he wrote his magnum opus all in Yiddish, which was neither his native language nor one that could find more than a handful of readers.

Despite this seeming insularity, many of the most important arguments made in Weinreich’s History have seeped into, even permeated, Jewish Studies and from there migrated to popular global Jewish self-consciousness. Weinreich’s basic story of the beginnings of Yiddish in the Rhine valley and its centrality in creating a European Jewish culture are repeated everywhere, and without question. But the pillars of Weinreich’s argument are too broad, their foundations in a millennial-old history too unstable, to be as unshakable as his subsequent readers have made them seem—a fact that Weinreich knew very well. He was too careful a scholar to buy into a simplistic view, as the publication of the notes now clearly reveals.

Weinreich’s first innovation in the History was to argue, against apparent common sense and abundant personal experience, that Yiddish was formed not through isolation but through constant interaction combined with a chosen separateness. The walled-off ghettos of 18th-century European cities, although they preserved Yiddish, were not the environment that gave it life. Weinreich’s innovation was to argue that “Jewish otherness”—and the language that goes with it—“cannot be the result of ‘exclusion’; it is not even the result of exile.”

Where others had persistently told the story of confinement, prejudice, and persecution, Weinreich spoke of independence, self-government, selfassertion, and community building. It was undeniable that “without communal separateness there is no separate language,” and so the separateness of the Ashkenazi community was necessary for Yiddish to arise. But the modern explanation for that separateness, according to Weinreich, got the story exactly backward. Nineteenth-century Jewish activists, demanding rights of citizenship, created the story that the Jews had been locked in ghettos since the Middle Ages, “and thus excluded from society at large and its intellectual development; in this forced isolation”—an influential Jewish assimilationist argued—“both their mode of life in general and their language in particular became corrupted.”

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Where Did Yiddish Come From?

An explosive debate erupts from footnotes suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews are Europeans