The Undying Half-Life of Yiddish

By Marc CaplanNovember 23, 2020

The Undying Half-Life of Yiddish

How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert
Sing This at My Funeral by David Slucki

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, when most American Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe, nearly every Jew in the United States spoke Yiddish, but no one gave it any respect. Today, by contrast, everyone is full of affection for Yiddish, even though almost no one speaks it. Though one hears from every synagogue pulpit and reads in most university Jewish Studies mission statements that Hebrew is the eternal and unifying language of the Jewish experience, Yiddish maintains an emotional claim on the descendants of Eastern European Jews, as well as leaving an indelible imprint on the popular culture created by, for, and among these immigrants and their offspring. Is this valorization of Yiddish commensurate with knowledge and appreciation of — or respect for — the language and the culture it created beyond the lexicon of sentimental melodies, off-color jokes, and redefined adjectives? One could gesture to the 2020 Seth Rogen film An American Pickle without having to answer the question further. Emotional relationships can often lead in nonrational directions, seldom directed by facts.

Toni Morrison has cautioned all Americans that no haunting can ever be entirely benign. And to the extent that Yiddish has changed American culture — as Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert assert in the title of their readable and teachable new anthology — it is as a haunting, a ghostly reminder of deceased ancestors, defunct aspirations, and lost causes. To the question implied in the second half of Stavans and Lambert’s title, “how has America changed Yiddish?” the answer is simple: the way that fire changes wood, or a wolf changes sheep. The response to the question in the first half of their title, “how has Yiddish changed America,” is more complicated.

It is worth noting, however, that of all the lands where Yiddish has settled in its millennium of wandering, from its origins in the Rhineland and Bavaria to Eastern Europe and from there, centuries later, to the wide world, only in (North) America could the question of how Yiddish has changed its host be posed. In Israel — where a Yiddish-speaking culture flickered furtively in private homes, backroom business (and Knesset) deals, journals of high culture, and popular theater for decades after the official elevation of Hebrew as the language of state and public life — Yiddish didn’t change the culture; it in large part created that culture. In places such as Argentina or France, the presence of Jews has been so precarious that calling attention to linguistic difference would be a one-way ticket to cultural marginality. Only in (North) America could the non-Jewish comedian Mike Myers create a sensation on Saturday Night Live with a drag performance in which the catchphrase “I’m feeling a bisl farklemt” would be mimicked from coast to coast for nearly a decade. Only in America could an entire album of non-Jewish African American musicians performing Yiddish music be compiled. Only in America could an ad campaign run for decades featuring a panoply of ethnic types — Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos — posing proudly over the logo “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” Jewish rye bread.

For more than a century, anthologies such as Stavans and Lambert’s have presented Yiddish culture to English-language readers. The predecessors of the present volume can be found on the bookshelves of Jewish grandparents and synagogue libraries, and on the reading lists of Jewish Studies courses. Anthologies are always an exercise in public relations, calling attention not just to individual authors but to a collective, in order to make a claim, by whatever means the anthology has been organized, for their essential unity and distinctive significance. They are simultaneously an assertion of strength and a sign of vulnerability. The question of how Jews are represented in the literary marketplace — a marketplace that, as Lambert has demonstrated in his scholarly work, Jews created to a disproportionate extent — reflects the ambivalence between cultural prestige and political fragility that Jews have inhabited throughout the modern era. How does this collection represent the relationship between power and vulnerability that characterizes the Jewish experience in and of modernity? Perhaps with as much ambiguity or indecisiveness as every other anthology.

Inseparable from the volume’s PR work on behalf of Yiddish culture in general is its specific provenance under the auspices of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Famed for its salvaging of countless forgotten Yiddish volumes, which it has made available, online and in print, to successive generations of scholars and performers, the Yiddish Book Center has branched out to conduct interviews with Yiddish speakers (including celebrities such as the game-show host Monty Hall, the actor Leonard Nimoy, and the literary critic Harold Bloom, all of blessed memory), has sponsored translation workshops to make more Yiddish literature available to English readers, and has organized Yiddish-language instruction programs, among many other projects. Beyond its commendable work in “salvage ethnography” on behalf of a perennially endangered language, the Book Center is also among the most significant philanthropic and cultural institutions devoted to what can be called, problematically, “secular Jewish culture” — i.e., Jewish culture independent of religious observance, contemporary Middle Eastern politics, or, at least explicitly, the Holocaust.

But can Yiddish culture itself ever be truly secular, insofar as its linguistic and rhetorical markers are drawn exclusively from 1,000 years of Ashkenazic Jewish liturgical and pedagogical practice? The anthology finesses this question in ways similar to the larger approach of the Yiddish Book Center. It is divided, loosely, into sections devoted to immigrant politics, language politics, foodways, memories of Eastern Europe, the generation gap between immigrants and their children, and the relationship of Jews to other ethnic groups. Interspersed amid song lyrics, personal reminiscences, and brief oral histories, along with entries on kosher Chinese cuisine and a non-kosher recipe for potato latkes served with Mexican mole sauce, are classics of Yiddish literature and critical essays by such luminaries as Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Cynthia Ozick (Ozick’s essay on the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, written in the 1980s for The New Yorker, ranks among her most perceptive writing, in any genre). The breadth of topics fits well with the Yiddish Book Center’s mission to popularize Yiddish culture ecumenically, far outside the Eastern European context from which many Jewish immigrants, in ways conscious and unconscious, sought to escape by coming to the United States. In short, you don’t have to speak Yiddish to participate in Yiddish culture, and like the Levy’s rye commercial, you don’t have to be Jewish, either.

The anthology is fast-paced and entertaining, representing Yiddish culture in North America — primarily but not exclusively the United States — beguilingly for a general readership. One wonders, though, about the anxieties that may have motivated such a project, and how these anxieties might be more visible now than they were when the book was assembled, before the current social and economic collapse sparked a new consideration of what it means to be a “hyphenated” American, as Jews for the most part have identified themselves. What does it mean in 2020 for Jews to be “off white,” to be beneficiaries of white privilege, while also being uncomfortable, for the most part, with identifying with whiteness as such? One aspect of this necessary interrogation is coming to terms with the white privilege that Ashkenazic Jews have taken for granted in the US at least since the barriers to Jewish integration were gradually lifted in the 1950s and ’60s. Another aspect, however, is reevaluating the Jewish culture that existed in the United States before those barriers came down.

What emerges from such a consideration, although Lambert and Stavans never address this explicitly, is an understanding that the Ashkenazic cultural nationalists who established Yiddish language institutions in the United States (and throughout the world) were the functional equivalents of what in contemporaneous African American culture were known as “race men.” Committed to avant-garde aesthetics or radical politics (often both), they cultivated a mode of address, whether linguistically or culturally, that was exclusive to their own marginalized communities. Because of this exclusivity, they have mostly been omitted from broader surveys of global or national modernisms. Although an understanding of modernist art, for example, is likely to include Marc Chagall, how many readers of world literature know of Chagall’s Yiddish-language literary collaborator, Der Nister? Equally apposite, when one thinks of literary modernism in the United States, the names that leap to mind are F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein — but seldom Nella Larsen or Wallace Thurman. These comparisons highlight the prospect that, to a figure such as Der Nister or Wallace Thurman, canonization among larger audiences might have been irrelevant, since they only had the opportunity to address their own communities. But for readers today, these figures should matter. And, although the editors of this anthology understand the importance of Yiddish culture in the United States, they leave unexamined the ways in which the modifiers “Yiddish” and “American” bespeak an unequal playing field, as much as they do a catalytic interaction between the two.

Far away from the United States, one such Yiddish “race man,” the local Bundist leader Jakub Slucki (1901–1978), emigrated from post-Holocaust Poland to Melbourne, Australia. And now the historian David Slucki, Jakub’s grandson, contemplates his grandfather’s legacy and the broader experience of living among the vestiges of Yiddish-speaking Melbourne in a moving memoir, Sing This at My Funeral: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons. Rather than devoting his narrative to the political history of the Jewish Labor Bund, a radical political party devoted to anti-Soviet socialism and anti-Zionist nationalism, or the psychological significance of growing up among Holocaust survivors and other Jewish refugees, the author structures his memoir around the emotional significance of fatherhood and the family: his relationship with his father Charles Roger Slucki, referred to throughout the book by his nickname “Sluggo,” and Sluggo’s relationship to Jakub. Also urgent are Sluggo’s recent, unexpected death and the author’s own experiences starting a new family and relocating (temporarily) to the United States.

Though the author’s recollections are personal and intimate, both Slucki’s father’s and his grandfather’s life trajectories were informed by the history that brought them to Australia; thus, collective grief and trauma find personal expression throughout the memoir. The book’s title refers to the admonition of both patriarchs that the Bundist anthem Di Shvue (“The Oath”) be sung in their memory. The specter of Yiddish culture in Poland, and Jakub Slucki’s murdered first family, haunts the three protagonists of the narrative. Indeed, Sluggo believes in ghosts, but not in God. The ghost is a transitory, transitional belief, poised between the physical and the metaphysical; ghosts are earth-bound creatures, angels or ghouls. They are the specter of Yiddish that haunts Australian Jews even more intimately than it does the American Jewish culture extolled in Stavans and Lambert’s anthology, though because of the insularity of the Melbourne community, the impact of Yiddish in Australia is more muted than it has been in the United States. Slucki’s book is uncannily illustrated — photos of the author, his father, and his son would be impossible to differentiate without captions, which is apt for a book about ghosts, since one face can be seen superimposed over another, and the past always leaves its haunting imprint on the present, particularly a present that becomes past the moment a photograph is taken.

Like the migrations of the Slucki family, the Bund is also transitory: the author notes that his grandfather’s older sister had turned from Bundism to communism, then Zionism. There is something inevitable about such a transition, insofar as Bundism served, for Jews of the early 20th century emerging from the shtetl into the modern world, as a “gateway” ideology, committed neither to religious belief nor to an effacement of Jewishness; it was parochially Jewish yet also internationalist. Bundism is defined by its contradictions, as a transitional movement always will be. The Bund is therefore a source of romanticism among disaffected Jews today because, unlike Zionism or communism, no crimes can be fairly reckoned to the Bund’s historical ledger (the movement never acquired sufficient power to be guilty of anything) and because the transitional character of the Bund — from tradition to modernity — stands as an alluring model for a Jewishly inflected transition from modernity to the current postmodern historical condition for which a name and self-definition have yet to emerge.

Memoir is the only valid form in which this history can be told, because the case of a third-generation Bundist — the recollection of an ideology that was both vanguard and retrograde, cosmopolitan and provincial, even in its heyday — is so anomalous that it can only be transcribed as a personal reminiscence. And yet the anomalies embodied in the saga of the Slucki family are representative of Melbourne’s unique status as a Jewish community shaped by Yiddish-speaking Polish survivors who, unlike survivors incorporated uneasily into larger centers in Israel, Canada, the United States, or Argentina, made commemoration the defining trait of their community. Melbourne today is, like the Bund, a place that continues to feel both cosmopolitan and provincial, intimate in its diversity, an assemblage of parts incompletely integrated, yet which are all the more fascinating and engaging for their dislocations.

David Slucki is not the first person to wrestle with the overdetermined burdens of transplanting Bundism from the original milieu in which it could no longer exist to an environment where it could never have been imagined taking root. He is not even the first Slucki to grapple with this; he therefore quotes from a letter his grandfather wrote in September 1948:

My dear brother Mendel, I want to tell everything about my life, and I will do my best to do just that. […] But don’t forget that writing to you is a brother who went through a lot; a devastated, bloodied brother who has only courage left after such a life. A member of the masses of Jewish people that met such a terrible misfortune, such a great catastrophe that no other people in history has endured.

As moving as it is to see a survivor struggling to summarize his experience of the catastrophe so soon in its unsettled aftermath, it is disconcerting to see the ideological interruption — like a paid political advertisement — involved in affiliating himself with “the masses of the Jewish people, of the Jewish working class.” Jakub Slucki was a persuasive and elegant writer, but this recourse to ideological formulas, characteristic of people from his community (and not only from the Bund), can all too easily veer from eloquence to grandiloquence, as if the refuge of lofty sentiments can avoid emotional confrontation either with a long-lost brother or with the feelings of rage, guilt, and inconsolable grief that must have been crouching constantly in his doorway.

There is another — more complicated, perhaps more generous — way of looking at the uses that Jakub Slucki and so many of his generation made of ideological formulas, a way that can serve as summary not only for David Slucki’s valuable and eloquent memoir but also for the variety of voices so well captured in Stavans and Lambert’s anthology. Ideology can stand in the way of emotional engagement, but it can also substitute for emotional engagement when such connections would require confronting feelings and experiences that would devastate the subject. Ideology was a defense mechanism for survivors like Jakub Slucki, but the overdetermined investment in ideology stands as a placeholder for feelings that are unnamable because they signify experiences that are unspeakable. This is true for all the ideologies that successive generations of Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought with them all over the world.

It is equally relevant for the odd ideology of a contemporary Yiddishism that operates among English-speaking (or Hebrew-speaking) Jews, many of whom know or speak no Yiddish. This Yiddishism creates a spectral connection with the past, just as any ideology stands as a spectral substitute for the social, institutional, and interpersonal bonds that constitute politics and culture. Ideology cannot substitute for politics, but it is the necessary precondition for politics. Nostalgia for Yiddish culture is an ideological gesture. Slucki’s memoir, together with Stavans and Lambert’s anthology, provides a valuable antidote to the illusions of nostalgia, and for that reason each volume is salubriously and exemplarily political.


Marc Caplan is a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Yale University. In 2003, he earned his PhD in comparative literature from New York University. He is the author of How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms (Stanford University Press, 2011), a comparison of Yiddish and African literatures.

LARB Contributor

Marc Caplan is a native of Louisiana and a graduate of Yale University. In 2003, he earned his PhD in comparative literature from New York University. Since then he has held professorial appointments at Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and Yale as well as visiting fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, the Universität Konstanz (Germany), the Center for Jewish History (New York), and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). In 2011 he published How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms, a comparison of Yiddish and African literatures, with Stanford University Press. His second book, on Yiddish literature written in Weimar Germany, considered in comparison with contemporaneous German literature, critical theory, and film, is currently under review. In fall 2018 he was a Senior Research Fellow at the IFK in Vienna, Austria, and in spring 2019 he is a visiting fellow in the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wroclaw, Poland.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!