Like many others of his time, Kafka called Yiddish ‘jargon’. This was one of various names for the language, and Kafka, who knew several, could have used another had he so wished. But ‘jargon’ was an exact name for the unsettled and unsettling thing he took the language of the Eastern European Jews to be. ‘Jargon,’ he wrote, ‘is the youngest European language – barely four hundred years old and actually even younger. It has not yet developed forms of speech of such clarity as the ones we use. It is expressed curtly and rapidly . . . It has no grammars. Those who love it try to write grammars, but jargon is still spoken. It does not come to rest.’
The truth is that ‘Europe’s youngest language’ was a good deal older than Kafka claimed: books in ‘jargon’ were first printed in the mid-16th century. But like German, Italian, English and French, Yiddish was both a spoken and a written language centuries before it ever appeared in modern published form. A prayer book from Worms composed in 1272 or 1273 contains what would appear to be the oldest dated work in the tradition: a single couplet transcribing a blessing in Yiddish. But we also possess glosses by Rashi, the great medieval Talmudic commentator of Troyes, which explain Hebrew terms with reference to words in a vernacular that most scholars today would call Yiddish. Although we cannot date them with precision, they must have been composed in the 11th century. And we also have fables, poetry, oaths, epistles and translations in varieties of the same speech from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The most important of these early attestations are collected in the first parts of Jerold Frakes’s meticulously edited and valuable anthology, Early Yiddish Texts 1100-1750; and they are described and discussed in the opening chapters of Jean Baumgarten’s readable and enlightening Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature. Until now there has been nothing in English quite like either of these books, and together they demarcate a field of medieval and early modern European culture that remains in large part still to be explored. The phrase ‘Old Yiddish’ points to the early stages of the vernacular employed by the Ashkenazic Jews of Europe. The Jews who spoke and recorded the language in its earliest stages called it by different names. Most often it was for them simply taytsh, on account of its proximity to German. But sometimes it was ‘the language of Ashkenaz’ (leshon ashkenaz), named after the country in Genesis, Ashkenaz, with which medieval Jewry identified Germany. It could also be ‘Hebrew-German’ (ivre-taytsh), and, more simply, ‘our language’ (leshonenu).
Modern scholars have also given it various names. ‘German Jewish’, ‘Judeo-German’, ‘Hebrew-German’ and ‘Jewish Middle High German’ are among the more common. The earliest surviving texts certainly suggest that the vernacular could be understood in several ways. Take Dukus Horant, an epic contained in a manuscript dating from 1382. Its language, metre and subject seem to be those of Middle High German poetry, but it is written in Hebrew script. Some scholars have argued that, despite ‘a Jewish tinge’, it is ‘quite simply a piece of German literature’; others have taken it as a first testament to the Jewish vernacular. But not all works of the period are so ambiguous. The same manuscript that records the epic, for example, also contains poems on the patriarchs Abraham and Joseph, ‘Glosses of Gems on the High Priest’s Breastplate’, and a fable in verse about ‘an old lion’ which seems to have a source in a Hebrew work of the 12th century.
Old and new, Yiddish always maintained close ties to other languages. Baumgarten argues compellingly that two forms of multilingualism traverse the entire tradition: ‘internal and external bilingualism’. On the one hand, writers of Yiddish always read and wrote the two older languages of Judaism: the holy tongue, Hebrew, and the language of Rabbinic commentary, Aramaic. Terms, expressions and constructions from both can regularly be found in texts written in the Ashkenazic vernacular. On the other hand, speakers of Yiddish underwent the influence of the languages in whose midst they lived. Jewish forms of speech inevitably came to be marked by Romance, Germanic and Slavic elements and borrowings.
The story of the emergence of early modern Yiddish is a rapid and exciting one. First there are marginal annotations and explanations in a vernacular that goes unnamed, then translations, learned books, legal documents and literature. By the time of the invention of the printing press, the language was ready to become an idiom for a reading community that stretched across Western and Eastern Europe. At the end of the 16th century, Yiddish works were being published in Italy, Bavaria, Poland, Amsterdam and Switzerland. Medieval Yiddish had known both epic and romance, but early modern Yiddish was even richer. Among a host of literary texts, two deserve special mention; they have long been known to experts, but are yet to receive the wider attention they deserve. One is the so-called Bovo-Bukh by Elia Levita: a courtly romance, published in Bavaria in 1541, which adapts the ottava rima practised by the Italian poets to Yiddish. The other is an anonymous romanzo cavalleresco published in Verona in 1594, Pariz un Viene, ‘the first modern work of Yiddish literature’. Baumgarten makes a strong case for the complexity and modernity of both, seeing them as the unrecognised equals of works by Ariosto and Rabelais, Boiardo and Tasso.
Early modern books, however, were not only printed in Old Yiddish; they were also published on it. Like English, French, German and Italian, the ‘language of Ashkenaz’ became the object of scientific and systematic study. Already in 1514, a press in Augsburg brought out ‘the first published study of the Yiddish language’. Elia Levita himself contributed to the study of the idiom to which he entrusted his literary works, publishing a number of studies in which he compared the language of the German Jews with German, Hebrew and Latin. They were not the last of their kind; many more, by Jews and by Christians, would follow. All but forgotten today, Old Yiddish, in short, was by the 17th century a vernacular in bloom. It had its authors and its readers, its scholars and its students. It was soon to have its enemies.
The Enlightenment was not kind to Yiddish. ‘Beginning in the second half of the 18th century,’ Baumgarten writes in his conclusion, ‘Old Yiddish literature underwent a progressive decline and loss of quality. Most of the texts that made up the essential readings in Jewish households were no longer in print, an obvious sign that Jewish literature was entering a new phase.’ The Jews of Western Europe were starting to leave the ghettos; many felt it was time for them to leave their old language too. For the thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, it was a matter of principle: the way to reason was through German or Hebrew – which meant an escape from Yiddish. Moses Mendelssohn was the classic example. He repeatedly castigated those who spoke and wrote in the old Judeo-German tongue, ‘that corrupt language’, as he called it, ‘that stammerers’ tongue, which is so repugnant to those who are capable of correct, elegant and pure speech’. He held the old idiom to have ‘contributed to the rudeness of the common man’. Introducing his translation of the Bible into correct 18th-century German (which he still wrote in Hebrew script), Mendelssohn declared himself hopeful that ‘good results’ would follow ‘from the growing usage of the pure German vernacular among my brethren’. It was an Enlightened battle-cry, which resounded among Jews from Germany to Russia: ‘Pure German or pure Hebrew . . . But not a mixture of languages!’
Centuries after becoming a language of literature and thought, the ‘language of Ashkenaz’ was now denounced as no language at all: as a ‘mixture’, not pure ‘German’ (taytsh) but ‘wooden German’ (hiltserne taytsh), ‘synagogue speech’ (shulhoyf loshn), ‘pudding language’ (kugl loshn). Old Yiddish, in short, was now ‘jargon’. The view was forcefully espoused by the Jewish thinkers of the Enlightenment, but it resonated with claims advanced long before by non-Jews. Christian writers had already disparaged the Jewish language as no more than a perversion of good German; now the claim acquired scholarly legitimacy in Jewish circles. The founding Jewish scholars of Judaism largely agreed: ‘jargon’ might be useful for reaching the unlettered, but in itself it was the cipher of social isolation and degradation, the language of the ghetto, ‘repugnant and hateful’, as A. Geiger claimed; ‘half-animal’, as H. Graetz was famously to write in his History of the Jewish People. This idea continued to find favour among non-Jewish writers too. The 19th-century scholars who discussed the language defined it for the most part as a hybrid, an unnatural mix, a linguistic parasite, an artificial language close to the slang of criminals. (One of the most important treatments of ‘Jewish German’ is in fact a treatise on thieves’ cant: a four-volume work published by a police inspector from Lübeck between 1858 and 1864.)
The 19th-century assault on ‘jargon’ produced a reaction. Even as Jews were now exhorted to write in a pure tongue, be it German or Hebrew, writers resisted, and their resistance led to the flowering of modern Yiddish literature. This is the chapter in the history of Yiddish that has been told most often. The three founding figures were all born in the second half of the 19th century: S.Y. Abramovitsch, alias Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and Izhok Leybush Perets. These future masters of modern Yiddish had started out in more major tongues: Abramovitsch and Sholem Aleichem in Hebrew, Perets in Polish. For a long time, to write in Yiddish was considered ‘a disgrace’, as Sholem Aleichem later recalled. Only in the mid-1880s did the language become a respected literary idiom, but even then it was the subject of polemics. ‘I have always considered the survival of this dialect in the mouths of our people as the most unfortunate phenomenon of its historic existence,’ Y.L. Gordon, perhaps the greatest Hebrew poet of the century, announced in 1889. ‘It is the badge of shame of the hounded wanderer, and I consider it the duty of every educated Jew to do what he can to see to it that it is gradually erased and vanishes from our midst.’
The question was more than simply literary. Each language promised different political possibilities. Yiddish was above all a language of the people, associated with women and the uneducated. Hebrew was the tongue of traditional Jewish learning, and with the advent of Zionism it promised a national idiom to a people until then divided. German, Polish and Russian, by contrast, offered the Jews a way from isolation to assimilation, cultural as much as linguistic. These multiple associations are all incisively reconstructed and investigated in David Fishman’s The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture. This is a brief but compact book, divided into two parts that concentrate on two roughly contiguous historical periods: tsarist Russia from the end of the 19th century to 1914, and Poland between the wars. It gives a vivid sense of a language that flourished in the first decades of the 20th century.
Then came the darkest moments in Jewish history. Three-quarters of the Yiddish speakers in the world were killed by the Nazis and their European allies. Those who remained had limited chances to transmit their language. In the Soviet Union the efflorescence of Yiddish culture came to an abrupt end in the early 1930s, if not sooner, with the creation of Birobidjan, the ‘autonomous Jewish region’, meant to be colonised by deported Soviet Jews. For the Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union, linguistic assimilation quickly became a necessity. But those European Jews who found their way to Palestine after the war were to discover that there, too, their language had been definitively set aside. Decades before the war in Europe, a ‘language war’ had been waged in the Holy Land, and Yiddish had lost. ‘New Jews’ were to speak a new national idiom proper to a new nation-state: a language suited to the ‘Muscle Jewry’ (Muskeljudentum) imagined at the start of the century by Zionists such as Nordau, in clear opposition to the weak and passive Jewry of Europe. Hebrew, the original tongue of all Jews, was to be revived: ‘jargon’ had to go. It was a consciously executed programme. Rachel Katznelson, who was born in what is today Belarus and who immigrated to Palestine in 1912, observed in 1918: ‘We had to betray Yiddish, even though we paid for it, as with any betrayal.’ By 1922, when the British Mandate recognised Hebrew as an official language of Palestine, with no mention of Yiddish, the old European tongue was already well on its way to the margins of the Jewish state.
What then became of Yiddish? Jeffrey Shandler has presented elements of an answer in Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture. He starts by recalling the drastic diminution of Yiddish speakers after the war. But he is unwilling to grant that ‘Yiddish after World War Two’ is ‘a sad story’. He argues that while it has by now generally fallen out of use as a vernacular, ‘recent Yiddish cultural undertakings’ show ‘the proliferation of other forms of engagement with the language’. His book is a catalogue of sorts of these many forms, which he takes as signs of the emergence of a specifically ‘post-vernacular’ vitality. Some involve specific practices, such as increasing study of the language, the popularity of klezmer music, new Yiddish summer camps in the United States, correspondence and discussion about Yiddish on the internet, and the formation of new Yiddish organisations, such as Yugntruf, founded in 1964, and ‘Queer Yiddishkeit’. But many of the witnesses to the new ‘postvernacular’ are from the recent past, reproduced in copious illustrations: a web page announcing a Yiddish society in Japan, a refrigerator magnet advertising a Yiddish newspaper, a promotional card for an all-female ‘Klezbian Ensemble’, a lapel button enjoining us to ‘Dress British, think Yiddish.’ Shandler interprets them all as proof that ‘Yiddish speech has been professionalised, aestheticised, academised and ritualised.’ He takes this to be a cheering fact. ‘Rather than regarding this development simply as a loss,’ he writes, ‘in which Yiddish has devolved into a kind of denatured lieu de mémoire, I find it both more useful and more encouraging to view the semiotic disparities of postvernacular Yiddish as defining a distinctive cultural enterprise in its own right.’
‘Enterprise’ seems in this case a particularly apt term. It is as if Yiddish had become above all an item to be exhibited and sold: a sign of the distant past to be bought by those eager to appropriate it today. Shandler himself suggests as much when, in a section on ‘Yiddish as Fetish’, he approvingly cites Marilyn Halter’s claim that today people ‘construct their identities through purchase’. Adventures in Yiddishland clearly celebrates this new ‘purchase’. One might well choose to be less enthusiastic about the transaction, as well as the market in which it takes place. But it is worth wondering in any case why Yiddish should be so valued. There are dimensions of the ‘fetish’ Shandler does not explore. One is psychic and involves the investment of both Americans and Europeans in a culture that, half a century after its near total annihilation, can be safely deemed long gone. Another is political. Ever since the definition of Hebrew as the sole Jewish language of the state of Israel, the cultivation of Yiddish, implicitly or explicitly, has been one of dissent. After 1948, to continue to speak and to write Yiddish has been to call into question a struggle which ended long ago, but whose effects continue to be felt today.
The term ‘postvernacular’ may in any case be premature. Shoppers constructing ethnic identity through ‘purchase’ can take for granted that Yiddish is no longer a language in which they might express themselves. But others speak and write it every day. How many? The question has yet to be settled, since we lack precise statistics. The people to whom they would apply seem in any case a far cry from the world that produced the Jewish Enlightenment, socialist Yiddish culture and mainstream Zionism. Today’s speakers of Yiddish are in large part the ultra-Orthodox of Brooklyn, London and Jerusalem. Many of those for whom the old language has been ‘professionalised, aestheticised, academised and ritualised’ would rather pretend the living speakers were not still there: Yiddish was to have been the language of a vanished world. Some experts indeed ignore the fact that Yiddish remains a mother tongue among the young, claiming, if they have to say something, that it is ‘impoverished’, or that it does not represent a viable community and can therefore be set aside. But the fact remains that today some 200,000 copies of newspapers in Yiddish are printed in New York alone every week, and their readership grows each year. Where will it lead? It is too soon to say. Unsettling and still unsettled, the stateless Jewish language has yet to come to rest, and it may be younger than we think.