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The Mystery of the Origins of Yiddish Will Never Be Solved

How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself

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This is the second of two articles on the origins of the Yiddish language.

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Yiddish, it is an understatement to say, is not simply a language. It’s a culture, an identity, a past both comic and tragic—one that continues to inspire feelings as diverse as shame and pride, loathing and longing, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, and accusations of both. Though Yiddish is not an endangered language, due to the hundreds of thousands of Hasidic families for whom it is still mother tongue, the Holocaust decimated the secular Yiddish-speaking community, casting a shadow over the perceived destiny of the language, a shadow that spreads to discussions of its past. Often thought of as a fusion of German and Hebrew with some Slavic thrown into the mix, the language evokes a deep nostalgia for American Jews; in its weaving together of semitic and gentilic elements, the language seems to encapsulate the tension at the heart of modern Jewish existence and operates as a stand-in for feelings about Jewish Diaspora. As director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Jonathan Brent put it, “The Yiddish language represents the very conflict at the core of Jewish identity.”

It’s a conflict that also exists—or originated, depending on your perspective—in the academy. The main debate among Yiddish linguists is about the origin of the language and coalesces around a single, unexpectedly loaded question: Is Yiddish an essentially Jewish language, one that contained a Semitic component from the start, whose particular combination of Jewish and German elements precisely reflects the dance of contact and seclusion performed by Jews in their European Diaspora? Or is it just another dialect of German?

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“It’s a problem that there’s a close relationship between German and Yiddish,” said Steffen Krogh, a Danish linguist who studies the Yiddish of Hasidic communities in Williamsburg and Antwerp. “It’s like a young girl who has been raped by her father. This girl can’t deny her origins, of course, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her father. This is how many Jews think of Yiddish. But it’s a fact you can’t deny.”

Like Krogh’s overwrought metaphor, the field of Yiddish linguistics is filled with an intensity that often leaves the tourist astonished. In her article about the mysterious origins of the Yiddish language, the late Cherie Woodworth described the field’s dramatis personae as “a very small but committed cadre of scholars”—a wildly tactful understatement. One metonymic step away from the Holocaust’s devastation, the tiny field of Yiddish linguistics has ballooned in importance, becoming a place where both the past and the future of the Jewish people is battled over, one phoneme at a time, through a combination of academic and extra-academic means. Threats of legal action are par for the course. So are character assassinations, pseudonymous academic hits, accusations of lunacy, and denials of the existence of the Jewish people.

It’s gotten worse over time, but it’s almost always been thus. Take one example from nearly three decades ago, a mess that ensnared a large group of some of the field’s boldest names. At the center of it was Dovid Katz, a leading Yiddish linguist. Born in Brooklyn, Katz is the son of Menke Katz, a Yiddish poet who spoke to his son only in Yiddish. Katz then studied Yiddish at Columbia with Marvin Herzog. According to his Wikipedia page, “For eighteen years (1978-1996) he taught Yiddish Studies at Oxford, building from scratch, sometimes single-handedly, the Oxford Programme in Yiddish.” In 1999, he relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania, to work on his atlas of in-situ Yiddish speakers, an ongoing project. He established the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at the University of Vilnius, but he has since left; Katz was discontinued from his post when he became a political dissident for opposing Holocaust obfuscation (about which he wrote for Tablet). He has since had a role as a judge on the British TV series Best Jewish Mum. In addition to being deeply respected for his linguistic contributions, Katz is still remembered by linguists with exalted chairs at American Universities for the parties he threw in the 1970s and ’80s, where friends would meet his father in Brooklyn and speak Yiddish until 8:00 in the morning.

Back in 1985, Katz, then a professor of Yiddish at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, held the First Annual Oxford Winter Symposium in Yiddish Language and Literature. The proceedings were published by Pergamon Press in 1987 in a volume titled Origins of the Yiddish Language. The next year, a review of the book appeared in Language, the very respected journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The review consisted of a scathing critique of many of the papers included, indeed, almost all the papers but the one written by Paul Wexler, a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University. The review, penned by one Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj, concluded that “the infelicitous combination of many inadequate papers and the editor’s laissez-faire policy—which lets pass a plethora of errors in formulation, citation, claims, and typography—cannot be alleviated by the participation of several illustrious Yiddishists.”

Dovid Katz, who had edited the book under review, was furious. “We all knew it was Wexler by the style and the argument,” Katz told me on the phone from Vilnius. He called Sarah Thomason, the longtime editor of Language and a professor of linguistics at University of Michigan, demanding a retraction. He insisted that Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj’s review was published under a pseudonym, a practice not looked upon kindly in academic discourse, especially when the review lauds one’s own work and pans everyone else’s.

Thomason said she was soon inundated by complaints. “I got really tired of getting phone calls from England from Dovid Katz and his people,” she recalled. But Thomason felt compelled to pursue the matter due to the seriousness of the allegations and got in touch with the person who had peer-reviewed Slobodjans’kyj’s review. She told him of Katz’s allegations against Wexler, “And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I thought you knew who wrote it.’ I said, ‘You might have mentioned that!’ He said, ‘Well, suppose you knew who it was, what would you do?’ And I blew up. ‘What would I do? People publishing reviews of books they contributed to, published by enemies of theirs—in my journal? No! I would raise the roof!’ ” Thomason said that it became clear that Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj was “a pseudonym for someone who didn’t like Dovid Katz. Otherwise why would he write it? Everything pointed to Paul Wexler, but since he never admitted it to me, I couldn’t put anything in the journal.”

Thomason decided to do some sleuthing. The review had come postmarked Waltham, Mass., so she asked her daughter, who was studying at Harvard, to go to the address supplied and see if Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj existed. When her daughter knocked on the door, it was opened by Paul Wexler’s mother-in-law.

‘By the time I got out of that mess, I hoped never to hear about Yiddish linguistics again’

“She was a quick thinker,” Thomason recalls. “She said, ‘Yes, he exists,’ ” and went on to assert that Slobodjans’kyj was staying with Wexler and that Wexler was helping him out. From Thomason’s perspective, whether he was a real person or not was almost beside the point. “It didn’t matter if he existed,” Thomason said. “He didn’t write the review.”

Thomason said she can’t remember at what point Katz started to threaten to sue her, but she thinks it had to do with a remark she made to the effect that Yiddish linguistics seemed to be an extremely contentious field. But when Katz threatened to sue, the Linguistic Society of America got involved, afraid of losing their insurance. “The threat to sue me over a book review!” She recalled recently, still dumbfounded. “I don’t know if you know how bizarre that is.”

Eventually, Thomason published a correction, and then an apology: “In Volume 64, Number 4 (1988) of this journal, a review appeared of a book edited by Dovid Katz entitled Origins of the Yiddish Language. The name of the reviewer was given as Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj. The Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America now has strong reason to believe that a Yiddish language scholar named Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj does not exist and that the review was submitted pseudonymously. The Executive Committee apologizes to our readers, Dr. Katz, and the contributors to this volume. Neither the editorial office of the journal nor the Officers and Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America played a knowing role in this matter.”

Years later, when Thomason found herself introduced to Wexler at a conference, she refused to shake his hand. “My conclusion was, these people all deserved each other. They were all pretty unpleasant. By the time I got out of that mess, I hoped never to hear about Yiddish linguistics again,” she said, adding: “It’s too bad, because it’s a really interesting field.”

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“Academic Yiddish is a very strange thing,” Dara Horn, a Yiddishist and novelist, told me. “There’s this self-consciousness to Yiddish. No one believes that it’s a language. The people who are speaking it don’t believe it’s a language. There was an inferiority complex attached to Yiddish,” Horn explained, because literacy and religious texts were associated with Hebrew, the status language in terms of scholarship and literature.

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The Mystery of the Origins of Yiddish Will Never Be Solved

How an academic field—marked by petty fighting, misguided ideological debates, and personal proximity to tragedy—doomed itself