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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.”

***

“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.

Enter Max Weinreich, the father of 20th-century Yiddish linguistics. Born in what is now Latvia, Weinreich was raised in a secular, German-speaking household. But he became enamored with the language spoken by the Jews around him at an early age, and after earning a doctorate in linguistics, Weinreich established the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut—Yiddish Research Institute, known as YIVO—in 1925, in his apartment in Vilna. Though YIVO acquired its own building in 1929, the destiny of academic Yiddish has remained fused with Weinreich’s own physical and intellectual journey. The outbreak of World War II found Weinreich en route to a linguistics conference in Denmark, so he made his way to New York, and so did YIVO.

Max Weinreich’s theory of the origins of Yiddish is the one most are familiar with: In the Middle Ages, Jews migrated from France to an area in Western Germany known as the Rhineland. In France they were speaking a language based on Old French with a Hebrew-Aramaic component called Judeo-French, what Rashi refers to as “Loez.” Upon arriving in Germany in the 10th century, these Jews created what Weinreich called a “fusion” language with German. Moreover, explains Paul Glasser in the YIVO encyclopedia, according to Weinreich, “Jews never spoke ‘pure German’ but from the beginning of their settlement in the Rhineland spoke their own language.”

Weinreich was a deeply charismatic individual, whose interests were hardly limited to the Yiddish language. “I think he was a genius,” said Glasser, who was until recently the dean of YIVO and who edited Weinreich’s life’s work, a 700-page History of the Yiddish Language and a corresponding 700 pages of notes. “Certainly based on the breadth of his interests. If you look in his bibliography, it’s not just linguistics, it’s psychology, and it’s literature and it’s history and it’s pedagogy, and youth psychology. He did so much. Would someone else have done it? Probably not as well. He wasn’t the first, but he was the most important in the 20th century for sure.” In addition to his interest in Yiddish, Weinreich published in the Forwertz under the pseudonyms Sore Brener, Yosef Pearl, and A. Berman. His bibliography stands 16 pages long and includes a translation of Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis.

But Weinreich was also motivated by ideology. Even some of Weinreich’s followers concede that his theory reflected the need to stake a claim for Yiddish, on the one hand separating it from German and on the other hand establishing it as more than just jargon, or a debased kind of dialect. “Underlying that for YIVO and for Weinreich was the need to prove the nationhood of the Jewish people in the 1920s and 1930s,” explained Jonathan Brent. Weinreich was also fighting another war on a different front: the language wars of Hebrew vs. Yiddish. Yiddish was part of a Jewish identity that competed with the Zionist narrative on the one hand and the religious lifestyle on the other; Yiddish represented a kind of “Diasporic Nationalism,” as Hillel Halkin, a translator of Yiddish, calls it.

In recent years, Weinreich’s theory has had some push-back. More and more people have begun to acknowledge that Weinreich did not provide any evidence that modern Eastern European Yiddish comes from the Rhineland, nor that it was so old. “All this was a theoretical construction from Max Weinreich, but he provided no corroboration of his ideas,” said Alexander Beider, who has just written a book about Yiddish origins. “I really admire him globally speaking, but at the same time, I think that many general concepts of his are not really linguistic. They are rather ideological.”

“Weinreich had the great fortune that many of the critics of the French theory were dead,” explained Alexis Manaster Ramer, a retired professor of linguistics, in an email, “and above all he was in New York in a milieu which was very welcoming to loud European expatriates like Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Nabokov, Levi Strauss.” Of course, Manaster Ramer concedes, Weinreich was a major scholar, with a vast erudition that no one could match or challenge. But “he was going around advocating a simple and radical idea. That it was basically bunk didn’t bother too many people, since no one had an alternative idea or anyway no one was loudly proclaiming one.”

Though Weinreich died in 1969, by and large his ideas continued to reign supreme for decades—having become even a “kind of a linguistic sect,” in Beider’s words.

In the past two decades, the debate has shifted. One the one side of the debate are Weinreich’s inheritors, who believe that Yiddish originated in Western Germany in the Rhineland and spread east. On the other side of the debate are those who think that eastern Yiddish, with its heavy Slavic influence and Bohemian vowel structure, is different enough from western Yiddish that it must have arisen independently. But because this is Yiddish linguistics, this debate does not exist so much as rage—intellectually, ideologically, and personally.

***

In the Weinreich camp is one of the most esteemed Yiddishists alive today by most accounts, Erika Timm, a professor at University of Trier in Germany. Unlike other German scholars, Timm believes that “Yiddish is one of the ‘Jewish languages,’ in the precise sense given to the term by Solomon Birnbaum and Max Weinreich,” as she writes in a 2004 article in The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages. “Erika Timm proved Max Weinreich’s intuitions,” said Simon Neuberg, also a professor at Trier. She did this by looking at the earliest written sources of Yiddish, including Rashi’s biblical and Talmudic commentaries (which, in addition to 3,000 Judeo-French glosses, contain, astoundingly, 24 glosses in Yiddish), and by analyzing translations of the Bible from Hebrew into Yiddish to show the evolving influence that Hebrew had on the German parts of Yiddish.

Dovid Katz disagrees with Timm on the question of where Yiddish originated within Germany. While he accepts that the Jews in the Rhineland spoke a “Germanic based Jewish language with a Semitic component,” he disputes that this language was Yiddish. Rather, according to Katz, the Semitic component of Yiddish goes back to a sound system consistent with manuscripts from the Danube region, which is further east than the Rhineland, where the true Yiddish originated, while the language spoken in the Rhineland went extinct. In other words, the linguist’s model (east to west) goes in the opposite direction of the historian’s model (west to east).

Furthermore, the Semitic components in this eastern-born Yiddish can be traced back to ancient times. “I was rebelling against the theory that Jews once spoke a purely Germanic language that then over centuries acquired Hebrew and Aramaic purely through the study of Hebrew texts,” Katz told me over the phone from Vilnius. “There’s a huge amount of linguistic evidence for that, that it could not have come from books,” he said, contra Timm. For example, the Yiddish word for details is protim, but the singular, detail, is prat. “The /a/ in prat reminds us of Sephardic Hebrew. I have traced this system of inherited vowel alternations to Palestine in the late first millennium A.D.,” Katz said.

In Katz’s theory, the Jews arrived in what Katz calls “the cradle of Yiddish,” the city of Regensburg, speaking Aramaic. It is this spoken language that provided the source material for the Semitic component of Yiddish, spreading both further east as well as west, to the Rhineland, replacing whatever language the western Jews were speaking. Before this language replacement, the eastern Jews of the Danube region referred to the western Jews of the Rhineland as “Bnei Hes”—those of “h”—because the western Jews pronounced the “ch” sound (the sound that opens the word Hannukah) as “h,” whereas the Bavarian Jews pronounced it as we do—as “ch”—and were called “Bnei Ches.” For Katz, this comes from an ancient pronunciation, brought by Palestinian Jews in a modified form all the way to Germany where it proceeded to become the Semitic component of Yiddish. The “ch” of the Bnei Ches is indicative for Katz of both the ancient origin of Bavarian Yiddish as well as the easterly location of Yiddish’s origin.

Further proof for Katz’s theory comes from biblical words that are replaced later in the Bible by other biblical words, for example, the word chag is replaced by yontif in the Book of Esther; Yiddish takes yontif, not chag. “Yiddish always has the latest historic meaning, which would not have been the case if they had come out of the Bible,” Katz said. Yiddish always preserves the latest, “coming down the line” rather than “jumping out of the text.”

Despite disagreeing with Weinreich regarding the place of origin and language of the Jews immediately prior to Yiddish, Katz views himself as an inheritor of the great Yiddishist. “Ironically, by positing an inherited Semitic component, my own view is ‘more Weinreich than Weinreich’ in some sense,” he wrote to me in an email.

On the other side of the spectrum are those, like Alexandre Beider, who has a doctorate in applied mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Beider believes that western and eastern Yiddish are simply too different to have a common origin. Rather, Jews spoke German dialects until the 14th century, when gradually their dialects became different from those of their co-territorialists. “From the sources documented, we see no trace of any fusion of Hebrew and German before the 15th century,” Beider told me on the phone from Paris, where he lives. Beider started out life as a mathematician and theoretical physicist in the former Soviet Union but found himself drawn to Jewish history. He is the author of six books of reference, of which two are about Jewish first names and four about Jewish last names.

But Beider is not even the most far afield from Weinreich. For when fields are weak and orthodoxies reign, a fringe tends to develop; in Yiddish linguistics, that would be Paul Wexler.

***

Wexler is a professor of Yiddish at Tel Aviv University who holds the controversial position that Yiddish is neither German nor Jewish but a Slavic language with German and Hebrew words slotted into Slavic grammar in a process called “relexification.”

Wexler began by refuting Weinreich’s claim that the Jews came to Germany from France by disputing the French origin of the Romance elements in Yiddish. He argued that there is no way that these words could have been derived from French, based on the existence of components that French doesn’t allow. Instead, Wexler believes and has argued extensively that Yiddish is a Slavic language with a new German and Semitic lexicon. “It’s pretty straightforward,” he told me on the phone from Tel Aviv University. “If you take the Yiddish text and translate it to German and Polish, you immediately see that the grammar of Yiddish is exactly like Polish. It’s like a mirror image of Polish.”

“The syntax and phonology of the language are predominantly Slavic,” he argues in a 2012 article in a Slavic philology periodical. “There is very little in the grammar of the language that is unambiguously German.” For example, where German requires an umlaut when adjectives go superlative (strongàstronger would be starkàstaarker), Yiddish does not (starkàstarker). “The lack of umlaut in Yiddish,” Wexler argues, “has its origins in the Slavic languages.” He also shows that certain words in Yiddish have significantly different meanings than their German counterparts, for example, where German has bluehen—to bloom—Yiddish has blien; but when you add the prefix ver in German or far in Yiddish, you get radically different meanings: verbluehen means to wilt, while farblien means to begin to blossom. Furthermore, the “so-called ‘Hebrew’ component turns out to be neologisms formed from existing Old Hebrew roots invented mainly by Yiddish speakers,” Wexler argues. “The situation with Slavic is exactly the opposite; the number of genuine Slavisms far outweighs the number of ‘Slavoidisms’ in Yiddish, thus suggesting that Slavic is the oldest component of Yiddish.”

‘I deny the existence of the Jewish people. Ninety-five percent of the Jews are of Iranian origin.’

The word Ashkenaz itself, he argues, only acquired its present referent—Jews of Germany—after the 11th century. It comes from a biblical word that signified the Scythians, in other words, the Iranians; for Wexler, this provides a crucial clue as to where the Jews came from and who they were prior to this date. Indeed, Wexler does not believe that the Jews were forced out of Palestine in the Roman period, but rather, that the Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of Iranian, Turkic, and Slavic converts to Judaism.

And here’s where things get thorny. “I deny the existence of the Jewish people,” Wexler told me on the phone. “Ninety-five percent of the Jews are of Iranian origin.” But Wexler insists that he did not set out to prove such an extra-linguistic thesis. “This was not my goal. It turns out to be the logical conclusion of my linguistic theories.”

Other linguists have not taken kindly to the Slavic hypothesis, nor to its author. “I have no impression that Paul Wexler is searching for the truth,” said Beider. “Sometimes I even wonder if he himself believes in what he writes. If he is not believing, but making a provocation, his writings of the last 20 years are oriented just to prove that Jews are not Jews. In this case, there is nothing to discuss.” Indeed, though he has a following amongst non-specialists, most linguists disagree with Wexler. “I respect him as a linguist, but I don’t agree with him,” said Steffen Krogh. Simon Neuberg called the relexification theory “very adventurous” but said ultimately it “seems more of a marketing trick.”

And, one imagines, that bizarre journal dust-up didn’t endear him to his colleagues in the field. When I asked Wexler if he was Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj, there was a pause. “No,” he finally said and offered a litany of facts about the mysterious Pavlo. “I know him vaguely. He was in America. I met him, I can’t remember at the moment how. He was interested in Slavic literature and language, his main specialty was Russian. He was Jewish. I know that he went back to Ukraine in the ’80s for family reasons. I think one of his kids had cancer. After that, I lost contact.”

For his part, Manaster Ramer has come to believe that Wexler and Weinreich—ostensibly two opposing poles on a spectrum—are in fact part and parcel of the same culture, one that puts the cart of ideological conclusion before the scientific horse.

***

Alexis Manaster Ramer was not easy to find. Now in his fifties, Manaster Ramer was born in Poland to Holocaust survivors and emigrated at a young age to the United States. He emerged onto the field of linguistics as a young prodigy in the 1980s when he got his doctorate at the University of Chicago. It is hard to imagine his equal in terms of linguistic credentials. He was the first person to organize a conference on the mathematics of language. He has published on Australian, Eskimo, Austronesian languages, Indo-European, Uto-Aztecan, Nostratic, Altaic, Haida-Nadene, Pakawan/Coahuiltecan, Tonkawa-Nadene, Vedic and Homeric poetics, and medieval Yiddish. Despite this, he is currently unaffiliated with any institution. He taught linguistics at University of Michigan and computer science at Wayne State University before he was forced to retire due to a mysterious illness. He was subsequently honored by a worshipful festschrift titled The Linguist’s Linguist: A Collection of Papers in Honour of Alexis Manaster Ramer. He now splits his time between Bulgaria and Venice Beach, Calif., and if you catch him on a good day, he will indulge questions about Yiddish linguistics and answer them with lengthy, often furious emails that ultimately make surprising, even unnerving, sense, methodically devastating the arguments of others.

For instance, Manaster Ramer takes issue with Wexler’s claims that Yiddish is a Slavic language. Per Wexler, Yiddish’s lack of umlaut proves that it could not be descended from German. But Manaster Ramer argues that by that logic, neither English nor Dutch would be considered Germanic languages, and neither would many German dialects, since they too have lost their umlaut in many of the same places where Yiddish has. Languages consistently lose their umlauts through contact and evolution. The loss of a feature like an umlaut is a sign of a language’s distance from its source—the umlaut-bearing German—rather than its closeness to another source—the non-umlauted Slavic.

Along similar lines, the fact that Yiddish has some words that have evolved beyond recognition as German, while its Slavic words are still highly recognizable as Slavic, is another sign that the Slavic influences are later, not earlier, as Wexler claims. Word-change is an example of something that happens to languages as they stray from their sources. The less time a feature or an influence, like Slavic, has been in a language, the less time it will have to evolve and the more similar the words will be to the source. The more time a feature has been part of a language, the less like its origin that feature will be. “The Romance elements of Yiddish are often quite evolved beyond their Romance sources,” Manaster Ramer writes in an email, “and similarly the German ones. The Slavic ones much less so. This is the opposite of what Wexler’s theory predicts.”

Manaster Ramer also disputes Beider’s claim that Yiddish could have originated in two places. “There is no way Jews in Eastern Europe could have independently invented the very specific Romance and Hebrew features and western German Jewish names,” he wrote in an email, “but they could easily have changed their German to agree with that of their eastern German neighbors over hundreds of years of interaction in both eastern Germany and Bohemia.” Features of a language can change in one generation; that doesn’t make the new version a different language than the old. An analogy: John F. Kennedy, Jr. didn’t pronounce the final “r,” which his children then reintroduced into their speech. By Beider’s logic, they would be speaking different languages. (Beider calls this a misunderstanding of his theory, which posits only that the German aspects of Yiddish arose independently, but that the Romance and Hebrew features came from the West.)

As for Katz, Manaster Ramer believes his argument is actually brilliant. “This is exactly what linguists are supposed to do,” he said: come up with a theory based on facts. It’s one of the cleverest arguments in the field, he said—one that has been underestimated because “there is no Aramaic lobby.”

But Manaster Ramer also thinks Katz is wrong. He points out that the Maharil, a 14th-century Talmudist from Mainz in the Rhineland, used the word yontif, too, in which case, this can’t be proof of the Danube thesis. Furthermore, the Kaufmann Haggadah, a Sephardic Haggadah from the 14th century, also has the vowel change we see in prat/protim; if this is the case, this can’t be unique to the Danube region and thus cannot rule out a Rhineland origin for Yiddish.

And what of the Bnei Ches and the Bnei Hes, which provided evidence for Katz’s claim that Yiddish originated in Regensburg and replaced the Rhineland dialect? These don’t necessarily lead to Katz’s conclusion, Manaster Ramer said. Katz assumes that because western Jews ultimately stopped being Bnei Hes and selected the pronunciation of Bnei Ches means either that the population of Bnei Hes was replaced, or that the remaining Rhineland Jews replaced their entire language. But there is another option—they could have simply changed this one feature of their language, just like JFK’s kids. Even if Yiddish had originated in the Rhineland and moved east, as Weinreich argued, there is no reason that the Rhineland population couldn’t have corrected their language from Hes to Ches to fit their texts at some point, or been influenced by an influx of Ches-pronouncing Jews from another country, both of which are consistent with Jewish behavior throughout the ages. Indeed, transcriptions of people’s names from the Danube region show Hes pronunciation as late as the 14th century, suggesting that even in the east, the Ches pronunciation is not a modification of an ancient pronunciation, but rather itself a 14th-century linguistic change. Indeed, this was Max Weinreich’s theory on the subject.

Rather, Manaster Ramer believes that Roman Jews speaking a Romance dialect, not French but related to it, lived in both western and southern areas of what would become Germany. When the German tribes invaded the Roman territories, these Jews learned perfect German.

His evidence for this comes from the Romance words in Yiddish, as well as certain names that bear features that couldn’t possibly have come from French. For example, Beyle was a women’s name frequently found among the victims of the first crusade. The name is almost certainly not French, because if it were, the vowel would be short to accommodate the double consonant, like in the French version—Belle. Beyle implies a Romance dialect that has a long vowel, rather than a long consonant. Another example would be the word sterdish—defiant—which looks German because of the suffix but can’t be of German origin, or it would begin with sht. But it also can’t be French because the Old French word begins with a vowel—estordie—meaning a crazy action.

And those Old French words and names usually cited as evidence that the earliest German Jews spoke French probably entered the language centuries later than is claimed. Take for example the word most often cited to prove the French origin of the Ashkenazi Jews: cholent, the slow-cooked, slow-digested Sabbath food. Received wisdom tells us that this word is mentioned in some of our earliest sources of Yiddish, such as the writings of Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, otherwise known as the Or Zarua, who lived from 1200-1270. But if one looks at the text of the Or Zarua, one sees immediately that the word cholent is glossed. The Or Zarua, visiting his Rabbi (one of the Rabbeinu Tam) in France, describes the practices deployed by French Jews for heating “their cholent, in other words, tamun.” Rather than proof that Ashkenazi Jews called the beans and meat mixture cholent, the Or Zarua provides quite the opposite, proof that his readers called it something else. In other words, while the French word did eventually become a Yiddish word, it is not evidence for anything approximating an Old French origin for the Ashkenazi Jews.

So, if the Jews who started speaking Yiddish originally spoke German, how and when did the Semitic component enter the language? The question itself is unscientific, said Manaster Ramer, ignoring as it does the historical context in which Yiddish came to be, which incidentally was a time in which German too underwent a similar process, incorporating loan words from Latin. Indeed, said Manaster Ramer, the influence of Latin on German was far greater than the Hebrew and Aramaic influence on Yiddish, “and yet no Yiddishist seems to asks, why does the massive Latin influence on German not mean that German is not German, if the much smaller Hebrew influence on Yiddish is supposed to mean that Yiddish is not German,” he wrote in an email. Any language spoken by polyglot people can incorporate words from their second or third language at any time. Furthermore, he said, almost all of the Hebrew and Aramaic words in Yiddish are accretions added to the language after the 13th century.

***

In the end, what’s clear is that the field of Yiddish linguistics is certainly weakening. “There are no graduate studies in Yiddish in the United States anymore. And it’s almost gone in Israel. There’s a little in Germany and a little in Warsaw, which is very problematic if you think about the Jewish people,” said Rakhmiel Peltz, director of the Judaic Studies Program and professor of sociolinguistics at Drexel University. “I’m in a university that has graduate programs in inhalation therapy! There’s no Yiddish, but there’s inhalation therapy.” Peltz said that this is in part due to the fact that there is no distinction between the training experts receive and that of students.

But it may also have to do with the desire some had to distance themselves from the mamaloshen. Professor Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University from 1980 to 2008, used to tell a story about giving an academic lecture that his mother attended. At some point during the lecture, she turned to someone and said, “Kuk nor vi er shvitst”—Look how he’s sweating. “If your mother is saying that over your shoulder, it’s not easy to jump into the Yiddish pool,” Peltz concluded.

“The standards are a lot lower,” both today and in comparison to other fields, admitted Katz. “The professors writing are professors of Slavic, or a mathematician. It’s a lively field, but I don’t believe the debates are at the level that they were a generation ago, when there were major incumbent professors of Yiddish who have now died.”

As a result, Manaster Ramer believes the field of Yiddish linguistics tolerates and even encourages charlatans, whose work is treated with seriousness. As he explained in an email, “When you read Mein Kampf, you do not respond by saying Prof. Hitler has made a cogent and important case for Jews being vermin who should be exterminated, however on p. 250 we note that his discussion of whatever the fuck it is is perhaps not documented sufficiently, and we might consider the alternative theory that they are merely scum who deserve to be put to slave labor or slowly starved to death, although of course in light of his powerful arguments passim, very likely the former hypothesis is correct after all. This is the kind of mealy-mouthed and indeed respectful reaction that even the most irresponsible and incompetent work in this field gets. And this makes the situation much worse than if blatant error and deliberate misrepresentation were simply ignored the way scientists often simply disregard pseudo-science.”

Manaster Ramer—like many of the other prominent Yiddish linguists—certainly has reason to be emotional about Yiddish. His mother survived the war partially due to the fact that she was a native speaker of Polish and didn’t have the distinctive Yiddish accent, which is precisely what sent many Jews to their graves as the surest means of identifying them as Jews. (Her horrific experiences during the Holocaust are chronicled in a 1983 video from the Holocaust Memorial Center oral history project.) The lack of accent, coupled with the fact that neither of his parents looked stereotypically Jewish, enabled them to pass as Catholic Poles.

But, as people like Manaster Ramer might argue, allowing personal connections to morph into ideological motivations is the opposite of science—and the tendency to do so on the part of so many in Yiddish linguistics is what’s dooming the field. Steffen Krogh—who defined Manaster Ramer’s approach to Yiddish as “completely unsentimental”—remembers once confessing to his friend that he was worried about the future of Yiddish.

“He said to me,” recalled Krogh, “ ‘Steffen, I am only worried about its past.’ ”

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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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