Daniel Heller-Roazen

  • Early Yiddish Texts 1100-1750 edited by Jerold Frakes
    Oxford, 889 pp, £100.00, December 2004, ISBN 0 19 926614 X
  • Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature by Jean Baumgarten, edited and translated by Jerold Frakes
    Oxford, 459 pp, £75.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 19 927633 1
  • The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture by David Fishman
    Pittsburgh, 190 pp, £23.50, November 2005, ISBN 0 8229 4272 0
  • Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture by Jeffrey Shandler
    California, 263 pp, £26.95, November 2005, ISBN 0 520 24416 8

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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in