Is Yiddish the language of the Jewish soul?

US Politics
on 18 Comments

The weight of memory, and the histories Jews tell of themselves, the tradition and experience we imagine we are heir to, shape the way the creation and conduct of the State of Israel is considered.

The other evening, I went to see a film, The Golden Age of Second Avenue, a documentary love poem for Yiddish theater in NYC, from 1890s-1930s, narrated by Herschel Bernardi.

The film was shown to promote a project to save Abe Lebewohl’s 1986 Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame, with stars with the names of Jewish theater figures set in the pavement in front of what had been the Second Avenue Deli.

Abe Lebewohl’s Yiddish theater stars, now in front of a Chase bank. (Photo: Abba Solomon)

The film is a tribute to a richly isolated moment in Jewish American history, when, reputedly, the Lower East Side became the most densely populated place on earth outside Asia. The LES filled with Jewish strivers escaping the Russian empire — filled by a flood that ended with the nativist 1924 Johnson-Reed Act controlling immigration to match the 1890 ethnic composition of the US.

Descendents of that movement of Jews have transited to Connecticut or Albuquerque or Marin County, but have in their voices the syntax and timbre of that square mile and moment of NYC. Molly Picon, in the film, said many in her audience never went above 14th St., remaining in that intense cauldron of first-generation Yiddish Americanism.

Narrator Bernardi said Yiddish is “the language of the Jewish soul.” I have to agree with Bernardi that Yiddish — the language of my parents and grandparents — to me sounds like the language of “my people.”

The evening of film was cascading layers of nostalgia, delicious moments of time, pleasure palpable in the film audience, calling out, speaking Yiddish-inflected English. The audience skewed older, and Ashkenazi.

The evening was an exercise in sequential nostalgia, nostalgias for:

  • the turn of the century innocents fantastically replicating in the Lower East Side the intimacy of the shtetl, making new lives in America after the voyage in steerage;
  • hard working tailors and shopkeepers in the1920s and ’30s, raising a generation to get all the education they could, building a solid middle class American Jewry;
  • those children going off to war, defeating Hitler and the Empire of Japan, and coming home to take their part in the post-war American prosperity and plenty;
  • breaking covenants and Gentleman’s Agreements and assuring their fellow Americans, You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s — and that Jewish kids named Mailer, Zimmerman or Ginsberg were as worthy as anyone to be American poets and prophets;
  • nostalgia for the moment when the film was made, 1969, when Jews of achievement were unquestionably triumphant in the United States.

The film showing, with an introductory talk by Abe Lebewohl’s daughter Sharon, was in the Third Street Music School Settlement, in the neighborhood of 2nd Ave Yiddish theaters.

Cornerstone of the Village East Cinema building, built for the Yiddish Art Theater. (Photo: Abba Solomon)

In Bernardi’s film narration, he says the Yiddish theater expressed itself in Yiddish but its themes were menschlichkeit, humanity, in the area from 2nd Ave to Avenue B, in a theater scene encompassing Sophocles to Shakespeare to Ibsen.

American novelist Henry James described visiting the Lower East Side, in his 1907 book The American Scene. What was impressed on him on Rutgers Street was the persistence of identity of these newcomers to his New York.

James waxed on the “intensity of the Jewish aspect” of the LES population. James reacted to the Yiddish-speaking hordes with somewhat prolix verbiage, recapitulating the saying, “Jews are like everyone else, only moreso”:

This, I think, makes the individual Jew more of a concentrated person, savagely possessed of everything that is in him, than any other human, noted at random — or is it simply, rather, that the unsurpassed strength of the race permits of the chopping into myriads of fine fragments without loss of race-quality?  There are small,strange animals , known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wiggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.

…it was a sense, after all, of a great swarming, a swarming that had begun to thicken, infinitely, as soon as we had crossed to the East side and long before we had got to Rutgers Street. There is no swarming like that of Israel once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that has burst all bounds.

The familiarity and identification of American Jews with Yiddishkeit may be a problem and a confusion. Yiddishkeit is Yiddish word meaning Jewishness. And Yiddish (literally “Jewish”) is linguistically an eastern European Hebrew and German-based creole, which was termed a “jargon” before it was dignified as a language.

Confusion can be “a feature, not a bug” if it serves a function. For Jewish nationalists, confusion about the varieties of the world’s Jews helps flatten out the identity, and make it amenable to simplification to a nationality needing a nation-state army and territory.

American confusion of Ashkenazi/eastern European Jews (whose descendents predominate in this country) with Jews as a category is of a piece with the confusion of Jews with Zionists. It is in an effort to homogenize Jews and make them one people in ways in which they are not, for geopolitical purposes.

Israeli-American anthropologist Smadar Lavie said, “…the extent of Israel’s intra-Jewish racial divide is unfamiliar to most progressive Jews abroad. …Since the arrival of Ashkenazi Zionists in Palestine In 1882, and since 1948, the Mizrahim have been expected to relinquish their Arab or Mediterranean culture and family structure and their non-European mother tongues.”

Lavie describes Israeli society as both hiding and manipulating those divisions: Ashkenazim are the urban, well-heeled elite, live in the high-value “center,” and that Mizrahim live more in the “periphery” and development towns. She poignantly describes how Mizrahi anger at their status is turned to anger at “Arabs,” reinforcing a bitter denial of commonality with Palestinians.

In the United States, Jewish culture has come to mean Eastern European Yiddish-speaking culture, from the mass immigration that began in the 1880s, overwhelming the stories of other American Jews, stories beginning in 1654 when 23 Sephardim (Jews descended from the Spanish expulsion of 1492) arrived in New Amsterdam from Brazil.

With the rise of Zionism, Jewish identity came to be State of Israel-identified. In 1946, sociologist Sidney Hook warned that American Jews “cannot orient their life to activities halfway around the world.”

Really, most don’t, but when they think of the State of Israel, may imagine a land of delis and Yiddishkeit.

​Drenched as we sometimes​ are with Yiddishe kitsch, ​from ​tales of the Goldene Medina to the Broadway “Fiddler,” we forget that​ poet Emma Lazarus who wrote “The New Colossus,” of the statue in New York Harbor welcoming teeming huddled masses yearning to breathe free, was of a Sephardic family that had been in America since before the revolution. ​

About Abba Solomon

Abba A. Solomon is the author of “The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein's Speech ‘The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews.’” His website is abbasolomon.com

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18 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    September 21, 2017, 12:15 pm

    NETFLIX DVD:
    The Golden Age of 2nd Avenue
    1968 NR Rated NR 1hr
    Average of 801 ratings: 3 stars
    This documentary chronicles the early 20th-century halcyon days of Yiddish theater in New York City, featuring photos, music and archival clips from historic Yiddish films, as well as candid interviews with luminaries such as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Narrated by noted Broadway and Hollywood actor Herschel Bernardi, the program also includes performances by Paul Muni, Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz and other Yiddish theater icons.
    Cast: Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, more…
    AVAILABILITY: Very long wait
    LINK ➤ https://dvd.netflix.com/Movie/The-Golden-Age-of-2nd-Avenue/70122495?strackid=6fafc3fed8962411_1_srl&trkid=201891639

    • JLewisDickerson
      September 21, 2017, 12:19 pm

      P.S. 2ND AVENUE EL & 3RD AVENUE EL MOVIE FOOTAGE:

      steelo
      Published on Jul 4, 2012
      Hosted by the late transit historian Roger Arcara , this film goes on a trip up both the eastside 2nd & 3rd ave. el lines . Going first to QUEENS via the Queensboro Bridge branch, then uptown to the Bronx via the Bergen Avenue Cut-OFF. The second part of this movie takes a trip up the 3rd Ave EL in MANHATTAN & THE BRONX . The 2nd Ave. EL was abandon in two parts , north of 60th st. in 1940, south of 60th st in 1942. The BERGEN AVE. CUT-OFF operation was taken over by the 3rd Ave. line until 1946 , then the structure was torn down around 1950. Not counting some branches which was eliminated in earlier years., the 3rd ave line south of 149th st was abandon in the early to mid 1950’s .north of 149th st the mainline of the 3rd ave. line not counting branches was abandon in Apr. of 1973.

  2. DaBakr
    September 21, 2017, 2:49 pm

    No. Yiddish is the language of the khazzer soul. Anyone who is a zionist in addition to Ashkenazi has no soul to begin with.

    • Mooser
      September 21, 2017, 5:47 pm

      ” Anyone who is a zionist in addition to Ashkenazi has no soul to begin with.”

      You ought to know. Zionist golem, something like that?
      “Are we not men? We are Zio!”

  3. jon s
    September 21, 2017, 5:13 pm

    Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Yiddish:

  4. yonah fredman
    September 23, 2017, 3:27 am

    Tongue in cheek: Yiddish is the Jewish language of the past. Arabic is the Jewish language of the future.

    • Mooser
      September 23, 2017, 11:44 am

      “Arabic is the Jewish language of the future.”

      And poor old English? Feh on English. No relevance to Judaism whatsoever.

      • Mooser
        September 23, 2017, 1:11 pm

        In fact I think we can take it as read that the Jewish experience in America has no relevance in any way shape or form, and is best forgotten.

      • catalan
        September 23, 2017, 2:18 pm

        “In fact I think we can take it as read that the Jewish experience in America has no relevance in any way shape or form, and is best forgotten.” Mooser
        Well I am planning to convert. That way I can be a nice Christian guy and Keith, Annie and Yoni would like me. I would lose access to the Jewish power networks (no easy jobs and money and all) but would gain so many friendships.

      • Mooser
        September 24, 2017, 12:05 pm

        .” I would lose access to the Jewish power networks…”

        Yes, but they aren’t the only power networks. There’s always Russian or Ukrainian money to launder, there’s always right-wingnut welfare, or both.
        You’ll do fine.

  5. Naftush
    September 24, 2017, 3:40 am

    How precious to drag-and-drop the American-Ashkenazi narrative into Israel’s intra-Jewish tussles. As for the author’s claim, “…the extent of Israel’s intra-Jewish racial divide is unfamiliar,” maybe that’s because inter-group exogamy has made it statistically insignificant since the late 1980s.

  6. Nathan
    September 25, 2017, 4:54 am

    “In 1946, sociologist Sidney Hook warned that American Jews ‘cannot orient their life to activities halfway around the world’.” Well, of course they can, and reading the Mondoweiss website is proof that the sociologist’s “warning” is absolute nonsense. Many American Jews are focused on Israel – whether this focus is one of identification or whether this focus is one of animosity. In both cases, Israel has provided a tool through which American Jews can express a sense of participation in the drama of Jewish history. The definition of Jewishness as “religion only” is not quite interesting enough for many, many Jews. The focus on Israel is a way of renewing the sense of Jewish peoplehood – and this is true also for the anti-Israel club.

    Abba Solomon tells us that “Yiddish – the language of my parents and grandparents – to me sounds like the language of ‘my people’.” How nice. It is an admittance that, indeed, being Jewish is a peoplehood experience. Not too long ago, the Yiddish language was understood to be the symbol of a Jewish national identity (even for the anti-Zionists and the non-Zionists). It is worthwhile to google the “Czernowitz Conference of 1908” and to read the manifest of Yiddishism.

    The article is very careful not to mention the word “Hebrew”. There is a mention of the Mizrachim in Israel having to abandon their “non-European mother tongues”. In Israel, all the waves of immigrants adopted the Hebrew language – and this is a gigantic success story. I understand that in an anti-Israel article the most normal sociological phenomenon (the successful integration of immigrants in their new society) must be presented as “bad”. Anyway, people in Israel are quite proud to be Hebrew-speakers. The re-birth of an ancient language is really a unique story.

  7. Naftush
    September 28, 2017, 8:48 am

    Re Hebrew, I’d go several steps farther. Throughout the dispersion, Hebrew was (and is) in use for all purposes other than conversational vernacular. Those who see it as limited to prayer and religious study ignore or belittle the vast breadth and national contents of those activities. The revival of vernacular Hebrew in Eretz Israel occurred with such speed that one should jettison the idea of Hebrew ever having been dead. It was and remains the Jewish national superglue.

    • eljay
      September 28, 2017, 9:34 am

      || Naftush: Re Hebrew … It was and remains the Jewish national superglue. ||

      Judaism is necessarily the “Jewish national superglue”. The religion-based identity of Jewish would not exist without it.

      • Mooser
        September 28, 2017, 6:47 pm

        “Judaism is necessarily the “Jewish national superglue”. The religion-based identity of Jewish would not exist without it.”

        But Judaism is divided into at least three incompatible, never reconciled “denominations” not to mention several more antagonistic sects and extremist sects espousing violence. There’s no religious unity, no agreed-upon liturgy and a very confused, uncodified morality. No centralized authourity, and no hierarchy.

        Seems like a prtty fragile basis for a nation. Most religions have smaller ambitions these days, but you never know pan-Judaism may grow to be a worldwide force.

      • eljay
        September 28, 2017, 9:05 pm

        || Mooser: … But Judaism is divided into at least three incompatible, never reconciled “denominations” not to mention several more antagonistic sects and extremist sects espousing violence. There’s no religious unity, no agreed-upon liturgy and a very confused, uncodified morality. No centralized authourity, and no hierarchy. … ||

        Superglue ain’t what it used to be… :-(

      • Mooser
        September 29, 2017, 1:25 pm

        “Superglue ain’t what it used to be… :-(“

        Well, there was an essential ingredient which could only be obtained from non-Jews. And there was so much of it around for so long, too!
        But now they are getting really really selfish about supplying it to us.

    • Mooser
      September 28, 2017, 6:28 pm

      “It was and remains the Jewish national superglue.”

      Then we are in deep trouble. And what portion of the Jews alive today speak Hebrew? And in what way does Hebrew obligate or force us to do anything for Israel?

      Oh, wait, I know! Let’s test all who identify as Jews on their Hebrew knowledge, and kick out all who fail! Then, you can all superglue your tongues to…oh, forget it.

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