The following essay appears as the preface to How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by the authors and published today by Restless Books.
We have to believe in free will. We have no choice.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer
CELEBRATED AND MARGINALIZED, lionized and trivialized, Yiddish is so deeply woven into the fabric of the United States that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize how much it has transformed the world we live in today. It’s a language and culture that’s as American as bagels and Rice Krispies, Hollywood and Broadway, Colin Powell and James Cagney (and connected to all of these, in one way or another). Yet many Americans think of Yiddish, when they think of it at all, as a collection of funny-sounding words. Oy gvald, indeed!
The aim of this book is to present a very different picture of Yiddish, true to its history, as a language and culture that is — like the Americans who spoke, read, and created in it — radical, dangerous, and sexy, if also sweet, generous, and full of life. Its inception is embedded in a radical shift. Some see Yiddish not only as a language but as a metaphor. They note that unlike most other tongues, it doesn’t have an actual address — a homeland, so to speak — or claim, as Isaac Bashevis Singer did when accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, that it doesn’t have words for weapons. And because of its history, it awakens strong feelings of nostalgia. But others see this as an ongoing problem. In particular, it irritates Yiddishists that the language is fetishized, especially by people who don’t speak it.
Since the Second World War, many valuable anthologies have helped American audiences understand the gamut of Yiddish possibilities. Arguably the most influential has been A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954), edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. It concentrated on the Yiddish literary outpouring from figures like the three so-called classic Yiddish writers, Mendele Moykher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, and served as a conduit to connect an American Jewish audience to the pre-Holocaust civilization. Its publication was certainly a watershed: the volume was the manifestation of a collective longing. That anthology looked at the shtetlekh, or small towns, in which Ashkenazi Jews lived for centuries through an American lens, as noble, even idyllic, and with a sense of homesickness, but also as a site of contradictions, violence, and unfaithfulness. Readers simultaneously idealized what Israel Joshua Singer called “a world that is no more” and sought to understand themselves as a continuation, as well as a departure, from it.
Other anthologies of Yiddish literature in translation followed suit. Each concentrated on either a region (the USSR, for instance) or a particular literary genre (such as poetry). These volumes include Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet-Yiddish Writers (1977), also edited by Howe and Greenberg; The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987), edited by Howe, Ruth Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk; Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry (1986); and Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing (2003), edited by Alan Astro. To various degrees, the objectives of these anthologies remained the same.
But in the last few decades, the position of Yiddish in the zeitgeist has dramatically changed. The study of Yiddish thrives in America, among teenagers and senior citizens, the religious and the secular, and everyone in between. Technology has made the language and culture available in wider ways. Young people are studying it. Scholarship related to it is prolific. Its musical rhythms and motifs have been borrowed by other traditions. It is part of movies, television, and radio. And the internet serves up lexicons, memes, recipes, and all sorts of surprising artifacts. Assimilation in the United States has indeed presented Yiddish with challenges, and it has responded impressively, dynamically, demonstrating its flexibility, complexity, and strength.
So what is Yiddish, exactly? First and foremost, it’s a language, a Jewish one. Throughout the thousands of years of their history, Jewish people have spoken many languages, their own and the languages of the majority cultures in which they’ve lived. Hebrew, the language of the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament) and an official language of the contemporary State of Israel, is one such Jewish language, and many others have arisen in other places and times as means of communications for Jewish communities. For example, Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, has been spoken by the descendants of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and Judeo-Arabic has been spoken by Jews throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Yiddish, meanwhile, was the primary Jewish language of Ashkenaz, which is what Jews called northern Europe.
During much of its existence, Yiddish was dismissed as a zhargon, not quite a language at all; this was the common fate of many vernaculars, which were seen as less prestigious than scholarly languages like Latin, and the major European languages like French, English, and German, which had state power behind them. But Yiddish was absolutely a language, one that originated somewhere in central Europe about a thousand years ago, with the oldest extant example of a printed Yiddish sentence dating all the way back to 1272. Written in the Hebrew alphabet, and drawing for its grammar and vocabulary on Germanic, Slavic, Romance, and Semitic languages, Yiddish soon became the vernacular spoken by the majority of the world’s Jews for more than seven centuries, and over those centuries, a language of increasingly popular books and prayers.
In the 19th century, around the same time that languages like Italian and Norwegian evolved into their modern forms, Yiddish hit its stride, flowering into a language not just of commerce and community but of modern theater, journalism, literature, and even national aspiration. At that time, speakers of the dialects of Yiddish — sometimes referred to as Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian Yiddish — constituted large minorities or even majorities in many European cities and in hundreds of European small towns and villages, while many more Yiddish speakers had relocated from Europe to other parts of the globe. The world’s total Yiddish-speaking population just before the Second World War is estimated by scholars to have been about 13 million people.
The language’s fate would be entangled with one of the world’s most brutal tragedies — millions of those Yiddish speakers were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust during the Second World War — but it also flowered almost everywhere that Jews settled, before and after the war: Yiddish newspapers and books were published in Montreal and Montevideo, Cairo and Melbourne, Paris and Cape Town (not to mention Warsaw and New York). While mostly the language has had to survive, unlike most major languages, without a government’s backing, Yiddish was briefly an official language of the Soviet Union and today it is one in Sweden. It is currently spoken, at home and in the street, by more than 400,000 people around the world.
We might never know when the very first Yiddish speaker arrived on American shores, but it’s clear that a substantial number of speakers had already arrived by the middle of the 19th century, and that they quickly found their way to almost every corner of the developing nation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an enormous wave of European immigration brought hundreds of thousands and then millions of Yiddish speakers. Free from some of the strictures imposed by European governments, American Yiddish speakers created newspapers and theaters, and before long they had built one of the most vibrant centers for Yiddish culture in the world.
At the height of the language’s American popularity in the 1920s, a handful of different Yiddish newspapers circulated hundreds of thousands of copies every day, and Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue, in Manhattan, seated thousands of spectators every night. Also, as the primary language of a vast immigrant community of poor laborers and their upwardly mobile children, Yiddish became a crucial part of American politics — at a moment when socialism, anarchism, and communism competed for Americans’ votes with more familiar political orientations — and of American business, entertainment, cuisine, and speech.
In short, America, famously a nation of immigrants, was the site of many of Yiddish’s greatest triumphs — a Nobel Prize, best sellers, and theatrical smashes, as well as political movements that changed the way people everywhere work. As specific as its history might be, like any language, Yiddish is, for all intents and purposes, infinitely capacious: you can say anything in Yiddish that you want. And of course, in America, all kinds of people have done so: factory owners and communists, Hasidic Jews and Christian missionaries, anarchists and political fixers, scientists and quacks. To dive into the diversity and complexity of American Yiddish culture, as this book invites you to do, is one wonderful way to appreciate the wild possibilities of life in the United States.
This anthology showcases the rich diversity of Yiddish voices in America, and of the American culture influenced and inspired by Yiddish. It is made of poems, stories, memoirs, essays, plays, letters, conversations, and oral history. Many of the authors represented here were immigrants themselves who remained loyal to Yiddish in the new land. Others are their offspring, the so-called kinder for whom the language was a link to ancestors and a source of inspiration and provocation, or people from a variety of backgrounds, Jewish and not, who learned the language and made it their own.
Much of the material included here comes from the publications or collections of the Yiddish Book Center, a nonprofit organization working to recover, celebrate, and regenerate Yiddish and modern Jewish literature and culture, which was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, then a 24-year-old graduate student of Yiddish literature (and now the Center’s president). In the course of his studies, Lansky realized that untold numbers of irreplaceable Yiddish books — the primary, tangible legacy of a thousand years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe — were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. So he organized a nationwide network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors) and launched a concerted campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books before it was too late. Since its founding, the Center has recovered more than a million books, and published Pakn Treger (The Book Peddler), the Yiddish Book Center’s English-language magazine that features articles, works in translation, profiles, and portfolios about Yiddish culture. Not exactly “the best of Pakn Treger,” but drawing on its rich archive and the Center’s other collections, this anthology offers landmarks and sidelights of American Yiddish culture to give readers a spirited introduction to what Yiddish America has been and can be.
The book does not attempt to present this material in chronological order or to make a single argument. Like many anthologies, this one wants to be a smorgasbord. We offer the nexus between American and Yiddish culture, in English translation — with full knowledge of how complex, and also generative, translation can be. This anthology’s animating hope is that its readers will make connections between its heterogeneous content, browsing and skipping and finding surprises everywhere.
To that end, the 63 entries have been organized into six distinct parts. The first, “Politics and Possibility,” explores immigrants’ initial encounters with America. It features scenes of ritual and tradition in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side and explores the ways children of immigrants ventured out into Harlem, the Bronx, and well beyond. The selections reflect how, around the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish culture in New York emanated from a community whose first concern was survival, and who had to decide what that struggle for survival implied about politics, ethics, and culture. For example, a watershed moment in the history of Yiddish in the United States took place in 1923 when Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance (written in Yiddish in 1906) opened, in English, on Broadway. The play represents a setting that was as shocking to audience members then as it would be today: a brothel operated by a Jewish pimp and offering the services of Jewish prostitutes.
The realities of Jewish participation in sex work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are complex and tragic, and what Asch’s play captures, with stark symbolism, is the tension between the noble aspirations of Jews of that time to holiness and purity, and the degradations imposed on them by the struggle to earn a living under discriminatory regimes. The play included much that shocked its audiences, including a scene in which a young, supposedly innocent girl is seduced by an older, female prostitute — posing the question of what would happen and what would change when the old authority structures, derived from the rabbis and from Christianity, crumbled away. The second act of God of Vengeance appears in this part. So does a letter written in 1936 about a female athlete who successfully transitioned to male, written to the editor of Forverts, arguably the most important immigrant publication in the United States, in which readers looked for answers to daily questions about becoming American: In what way is this nation also mine? How much tradition am I ready to sacrifice on the road to gaining new rights?
A central question for Yiddish speakers in America, as for most immigrants, was precisely a question about language. Each one had to answer for herself how much she should depend upon and defend the language of her childhood and tradition, and how much she should embrace a new language — English — with its strange possibilities. Such questions had especially large stakes for writers, artists, and politicians. “The Mother Tongue Remixed,” the second part of this anthology, concentrates on the vicissitudes of the Yiddish language as it adapted to the new territory. It features reflections on what happens in the classroom to make Yiddish survive, and the role dictionaries and other authoritative entities play in the continuation of life for the language.
Part two also includes appreciations of figures like Leo Rosten, a humorist who became famous for his efforts to codify “Yinglish” — the blend of Yiddish and English that became common in midcentury America — and some concrete examples of the playfulness with which Yiddish can be deployed, as in the case of Stanley Siegelman’s poem “The Artificial Elephant.” People often get defensive — or prescriptive — about the right ways and wrong ways to speak a language (and of course that kind of attitude has its value), but very often the story of Yiddish in America, even linguistically, has been a story of playfulness and irreverence.
The third part of this volume, “Eat, Enjoy, and Forget,” focuses on one of the avenues through which the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews has had the broadest impact in America: food. In an immigrant culture, assimilation in the culinary dimension is about experimenting with flavors and ingredients in order to satisfy evolving palates. Those experiments quickly moved from Jewish homes out into restaurants. In the 20th century, delicatessens became staples of every major American city, and bagels triumphed across the country. American companies like Maxwell House and Crisco understood that they could profit by serving a hungry Jewish market. More recently, as nostalgia for Jewish cooking has found its way into haute cuisine, dishes such as latkes have fused with other ethnic favors (say, chocolate-based Mexican mole) to create new tastes that reflect the complex families and histories of Jews in America. Over the decades, classic Ashkenazi dishes have undergone changes in the way they are cooked, in how they are presented, and in what they are accompanied with during a meal. In a 1988, 14-minute short film by Karen Silverstein called Gefilte Fish, three Jewish women of the same family, an immigrant grandmother and her American daughter and granddaughter, explain how each prepares the dish. The first describes the labor-intensive process of cooking it, which she learned from her own mother, starting with the purchase of a living fish — “to make sure it is fresh.” The last just acquires a bottle of the Manischewitz brand before serving it on the table.
The fourth part, “American Commemoration,” focuses on the wide array of Yiddish literary voices in America. It includes translations from the Yiddish of a short story and a lecture by the American Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, still the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — and examples of poetry, fiction, and literary essays by many equally talented but less widely celebrated Yiddish writers, including Chaim Grade, Jacob Glatstein, Anna Margolin, Blume Lempel, Peretz Fishbein, and Celia Dropkin. Almost all American Yiddish writers of that generation were born in Europe, and they naturally drew upon European models as well as Anglo-American ones in developing their verse and prose. It’s not surprising that their narratives frequently take up the experience of dislocation, whether by explicitly telling stories about being an émigré in a land with little patience for the past, or more implicitly by exploring the complications faced by Jews and others in the 20th century.
The fifth part of this anthology, “Oy, the Children!,” considers the descendants of Yiddish speakers, who went on to roles of increasing prominence in American culture. Inheritors of the immigrants’ pathos, their offspring built upon that legacy to make their own marks. In many cases, like Cynthia Ozick’s story “Envy: or, Yiddish in America” (1968) or Joan Micklin Silver’s film Hester Street, they did so by depicting the experiences of Yiddish speakers; artists who did so include novelist Michael Chabon and playwright Paula Vogel, both of them winners of the Pulitzer Prize. In other cases — for example, Hollywood actors Leonard Nimoy and Fyvush Finkel — they distilled the humor or charm of their Yiddish-speaking families and milieus and transformed them in one way or another for wider consumption. Among many other celebrated artists of recent decades, this section also includes graphic artists and storytellers whose drawings depict an older, Yiddish-speaking generation in unexpected and moving ways.
Finally, the sixth and last section of the anthology, “The Other Americas,” explores Yiddish as it flourished not just in the United States but through the American continent, from Canada to Argentina. (The word “America” comes from Amerigo — in Latin, Americus — Vespucci, the Italian cartographer, navigator, financier, and explorer who in 1501–’02 sailed to Brazil and the West Indies.) The language thrived in these regions, too, and continued to link Jews who had come from the same communities in Europe but found themselves in very different situations after immigration. These selections help to suggest some of the ways in which the story of Yiddish in the United States wasn’t unique but rather part of a larger set of phenomena that involved the establishment of Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.
Each of the entries is introduced with a brief contextual headnote, and a timeline presents some fascinating and representative historical events — but, again, this isn’t a history. It’s most of all meant to be a grab bag, an opportunity for readers to get a little lost and to discover something that they weren’t expecting. It showcases the rich diversity of Yiddish voices in America and of the American culture influenced and inspired by, and created as a result of, Yiddish and its speakers and their descendants. They pushed Yiddish — its sound, its sensibility — to utterly unexpected regions in the continuation of its epic story. By doing so, they have changed America.
Josh Lambert is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center and visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009) and Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture (2014).