America Gains a New Institute of Learning

Early last January a letter was found in Brooklyn near a house that had just burned down. Dated 1889, signed Jacob H. Schiff, it had been written to Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph of New York. In it Schiff expressed his displeasure that the rabbi had written an appeal in Hebrew addressed to all Jews, asking that they participate in the centennial celebration of the adoption of the Constitution. The language of the Jews in the United States, he wrote to the rabbi, is English. If it were not, he said, then we would justify the accusation of anti-Semites “that we are a nation in the midst of nations, that we do not adopt the customs of the people among whom we live, that we do not speak their language, that we remain a foreign element wherever we live.”

Some will see it as a historic irony that this letter now reposes in the collection of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (Yivo), which uses the Yiddish language almost exclusively, in its building on 123rd Street, originally erected—by Jacob H. Schiff—for the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This incident is not offered as proof that the Yiddish language marches on regardless of time and circumstance. Perhaps it does no more than illustrate the truth that the life of the Jewish people is full of surprises, ironies, and paradoxes. But whatever it means, there on Morningside Heights, around the corner from Columbia University, is Yivo—a reality. What would have been considered wildly improbable fifty-odd years ago exists today as a full-fledged, highly respected social scientific institution, which is proving itself as productive on American shores as in its native Vilna—whence it came, fleeing Hitler, in 1939. Its latest published work, Hitler’s Professors, by its director, Dr. Max Weinreich, a study of the relation of the German academic world to Nazism, has been widely praised for its authoritative scholarship and keen insight.



Yivo’s Roots

Yivo celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1945—but to understand it we must go back sixty-five years to the period in Eastern Europe shortly after the pogroms of 1881. For the Jews of Eastern Europe, the milieu of 1925, when Yivo was founded, was not essentially different: the central fact in the life of an Eastern European Jew was still the enmity of the surrounding community and the separateness of the Jews.

Although for a while it had seemed that surrender of Jewish identity offered a way out from poverty and humiliation, it soon became clear that assimilation and anti-Semitism were but two blades that sharpened each other. As the Jews penetrated into business, the professions, the schools and universities, as they doffed kaftans and donned modish coats—as assimilation went wider and deeper, the blade of anti-Semitism became sharper. And as the blade of anti-Semitism became sharper, the eagerness to escape its edge by giving up one’s Jewish identity became intensified. At last many

Jews said to themselves: assimilation offers no escape, we must seek something else.

Anti-Semitism and the influence of Marx drove many Jews into the social revolutionary parties. The argument of Trotsky, Axel-rod, and others seemed as convincing as it was simple: the Jewish question is an aspect of the class war; with the abolition of classes the Jewish question will disappear. Let, therefore, the class-conscious Jewish workers and intellectuals forget that they belong to the people of Israel. Let them participate in the struggle for the world revolution as workers, not as Jews. But soon Jews observed that only Jewish revolutionaries were expected to give up national loyalties. And they began to feel that socialist national movements, too, completely neglected specifically Jewish problems. Nor had all Gentile revolutionaries freed themselves from anti-Semitism. The Jewish socialists and social revolutionaries began to insist on being recognized as Jewish socialist groups.

The Bund, formed in 1897, maintained that while Jewish socialists must strive for social justice for all humanity, the destiny of the Jews should not be made entirely dependent on the realization of socialism. The Bund demanded an autonomous cultural status for the Jews, with Yiddish as their language, until such realization.

There were, on the other hand, territorialists and Zionists of many shadings who maintained that, as there could be no nation without a territory, Jews must acquire a national homeland where they could enjoy cultural autonomy. While, in time, the Zionists limited their demands to Palestine, emphasized statehood, and chose Hebrew as their national language, the territorialists sought land wherever available, asked only cultural autonomy, and held Yiddish to be the national language.

The founders of Yivo reflected all these groupings—the Bund and the territorialists, with their insistence on Yiddish, and the Labor Zionists—but chiefly they reflected Dubnow’s philosophy of cultural autonomy and of Diaspora nationalism outside Palestine, with all the variations on these themes.

Until approximately the end of the 19th century, the Jews had been a people held together by a common religion, but now, it was maintained, religion was strictly a matter of individual conscience; it could no longer be considered a national or state or group matter. One might be an atheist and yet a Jew. This is what the enlightenment and the separation of church and state meant.

But what would take the place of Judaism as a cohesive force? A common spiritual culture, answered Dubnow. A common culture, expressed in Yiddish, said the Galut nationalists. While Zionists despaired of the future of the Diaspora, Galut and cultural nationalism attempted to build a geder, or fence, to protect Jews in the Diaspora from assimilation and from the spiritual erosion that might result from exposure to intense anti-Semitism. Yiddish was to serve as the foundation for Jewish group survival and as the vessel into which Jews were to pour their cultural riches.

This was the cultural picture in the 20’s among those who had drifted away from Torah Judaism, and even some who had not drifted away. With varying emphases, the Bundists, the cultural and Galut nationalists, the Yiddish territorialists, and some Labor Zionists, alike sought positive values for their Jewish life among the nations of the world, and ways and means of strengthening and expressing these values. One of the more important institutions created to implement this program was the Yiddish Scientific Institute.



Yivo’s Founding

One day in July 1924, Dr. I. N. Steinberg, future leader of the Freeland League, entertained some friends in his Berlin apartment Among his guests were A. S. Sachs, Yiddish writer and socialist of New York, and Nahum Shtif, Yiddish philologist and socialist, who then lived in Berlin. Sachs took this occasion to propose the establishment of a Yiddish scientific academy. There was no warm response to the suggestion except from Shtif, who had himself been thinking about such an institution for years. After leaving

Dr. Steinberg’s apartment, Shtif continued to dream and plan, and in February 1925, he prepared and sent out among his friends a memorandum of over thirty pages on the subject. Living from hand to mouth, Shtif was too poor to send out all his copies at once; he sent them one by one as he found money for postage.

That same summer a conference was held to consider Shtif’s memorandum. His friends in Vilna gave it the warmest reception; Sachs had already lost interest in the idea. It was agreed that the Yiddish Scientific Institute should be founded in Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and that branches would be established in other parts of the world. In 1939, following the partition of Poland by Germany and Russia, the American branch took over the Vilna center, and some of the staff members came to New York. Until 1942, the Institute found temporary quarters in the Hias building, then it moved into the old building of the Jewish Theological Seminary, purchased for Yivo by its friends.

What have been and are the aims of Yivo? The answer to this question is twofold.



A Jewish Social Research

SINCE the Jews constitute a distinguishable social group—characterized by a culture different from that of the people among whom they live—they should have, said the founders of Yivo, an institution for research into Jewish social character and problems, and the various aspects of Jewish culture.

The social sciences represent the self-consciousness of a society; through them a community acquires knowledge of itself. As in other fields, the Jewish social sciences would follow the interests and everyday affairs of men, using the methods of exact measurement that distinguish the natural sciences. Nor would they stop with quantitative analysis; a social science study is more than a description of events—it attempts an explanation of change.

Yivo would concern itself specifically with the sociological laws at the basis of Jewish social relations and intercourse, the politics

of Jewish group life, the economic aspects of Jewish life, and the structures and functions of its organizations—its charities, its synagogues, its schools. Historical data and interpretation would be the indispensable source of material for the evaluation of all manner of social processes.

Accordingly, the Jewish social scientist studies the history and techniques of the institutional structure of Jewish communal life by investigating concrete situations. He also pursues studies in such semi-social sciences as social psychology and philosophy, social ethics, and the sociology of education, and the social-science aspects of linguistics—for the history of words sheds light on the history of institutions and modes of thought. He studies the social origins and impact of the arts. All his work is rooted in the conviction that if the Jewish people are to continue to live as a relatively autonomous cultural group, they must make an effort to know and understand themselves.

Nothing Jewish is alien to the Jewish social scientist. While his material is furnished by documents and other forms of historical evidence—customs, traditions, institutions, language, and art forms—the goal of his work and that of his associates is the ordering of the knowledge of periods and institutions in a consecutive and comprehensive view of the community. He is not obsessed with a “great man” theory of history: what he seeks is knowledge of the life forms created by individuals living and working and thinking and suffering together, influencing one another, influencing other groups and being influenced by them.

How do Jews live? How do they make a living? How many Jews are there in a community? What is there birth rate, their marriage rate, their divorce rate, their death rate? How do they stand in relation to others? What do they think? What is their folklore? Their language? Their literature? How do they educate their children? How many intermarry? How many go to the synagogue? What are their charities? What do they read? What are the relations between parents and children? It is to these

and hundreds of similar questions that the Jewish social scientist in Yivo seeks answers.



The Language of Social Research

It is apparent that such a program of Jewish social research can be carried out in any language. In the Yankee City Series, a staff of thirty social anthropologists from Harvard University and the University of Chicago report their five-year study of a northern Massachusetts seaport town. A description and analysis of the Jewish community of the town is included. The study is in English. (See “The Jews of Yankee City” by Harold Orlansky in the January 1946 Commentary.) The Conference on Jewish Relations, headed by Professor Salo W. Baron, has made studies of a number of Jewish communities in New Jersey and elsewhere—in English; and it publishes a distinguished quarterly, Jewish Social Studies, in English. A social scientist may need to know Yiddish, just as he may need to know Russian, Polish, or Indian dialects, depending on the nationality of the group he studies and the language in which the documents he studies are written. But ordinarily the fruit of his research and thought appears in the language of the country in which he works. Why does Yivo in America persist in using Yiddish as the language for its research, publications, and lectures?

Here we come upon Yivo’s second aim—its stressing of the Yiddish language as the living folk-speech of the living Jewish folk. In this strong interest in Yiddish, even in America, Yivo is faithful to a tenet of its basic philosophy.

Yiddish, a language with a history of about a thousand years, was in 1925 the language of about two-thirds of the Jews of the world. In Eastern Europe it was spoken by practically all Jews. It was the language of the family and market place, of folk tales and learned sermons, of schools and Yeshivas.

The Bundists, the Galut nationalists, the Labor Zionists, and the territorialists were socialists who thought in terms of democracy and the life of the common man, and they planned for the life of the great Jewish masses. It is probable that at first the Bundists emphasized Yiddish because they desired to reach the Jewish masses with their propaganda. At that time, Hebrew was looked upon by the Left as a sort of clerical Latin, a language for the elite, the yachsonim; it was associated with obscurantism and orthodoxy. Religion being a strictly private matter, the language associated with it need not be the language of the Jewish people. The Jews as a cultural group had their own language, and this was Yiddish—“portable homeland” of the Jewish people, as it has been called.

Yiddish became the language of Yivo in Vilna because it was the language of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. But this was not the only consideration that led to the choice of Yiddish.

The great masses of the Jews did not wish to lose their identity as Jews. Fathers and mothers wanted their children to remain Jews. But what does it mean to be a Jew if one does not adhere to Judaism as a religion? An agnostic or atheist non-Jew, living in a Christian community, still can and does celebrate Christmas and Easter, and can and does observe Sunday as his day of rest. The Christian who gives up Christianity may suffer only a small change; but the Jew who gives up Judaism gives up a religion that was also a way of life.

The place of Judaism as a religion was to be taken by Yiddish and Jewish culture. Through these, the Jewish people would be able to maintain their energizing spiritual memories; intimate spiritual communion between a Jew and his people, between parents and children, would be possible. Jewish culture and Yiddish would serve as means of fighting assimilation, and would give the Jew inner strength with which to stand up against anti-Semitism.

In a word, the Yiddish Scientific Institute was established to help the Jew and the Jewish community to know and examine themselves—through Yiddish and social research. For the Jews, said Yivo, social research and Yiddish are the two sides of the same coin. The impulse behind both is not apologetic, as is the case with so much “minority” cultural activity, aimed at validating, through establishing “contributions” to America, the right of the minority to belong. Its interest is in ministering to the self-understanding and inner strength of the Jewish group.

Indeed, those who superficially assume a kind of narrowness on the part of Yivo because of its use of Yiddish will find that it has nothing to blush about in respect to parochialism of interest and point of view as compared to the Jewish historical research and sociology sponsored by the time-honored and presumably more “Americanized” Jewish institutions. In fact, many feel that it is Yivo that has broader horizons and the more integrative approach as it studies the relationship of various phases of Jewish life to general society.



Yiddish in America

When one observes the work of Yivo, visits its archives and library, attends its conferences, speaks with its workers and directors, one becomes impressed with the fact that here is the traditional devotion to the study of Torah transferred to social research. Here are the same love of learning, le-shmo, for its own sake, the same respect for objective scholarship, the same readiness to sacrifice comforts for the sake of knowledge, and the same optimism.

But Yivo has not been able to establish the same close connection with the Jewish community as a whole that it enjoyed when its center was in Vilna. So we come to the heart of Yivo’s problem in the United States.

A Jewish social research institute in Eastern Europe, if it was to be a grass roots institution, had perforce to choose Yiddish as its language. Today, in the United States, there may be a million or more Jews who know Yiddish, but only few make an effort to teach the language to their children at home or in school. The Eastern European Jewish centers have disappeared; immigration to the United States is, and seems destined to remain, negligible. The life cord between Yiddish and the Jewish masses has been severed. How can a scientific institute devoted to Jewish social research, that chooses Yiddish for its language, be said to manifest a popular orientation if the people it works among no longer speak Yiddish?

The first of the two reasons, then, for the original choice of Yiddish in Vilna does not, one would think, obtain in the United States today.

As time goes on, Yivo, in order to make its findings available to other scholars and to American Jews, will need to publish its studies in English. A beginning in this direction has already been made: Yivo’s study of the classification of Jewish immigrants to the United States has been translated into English, as well as its investigation of the contributions of German scholars to Nazi theory and practice—Hitler’s Professors, referred to earlier. In the near future it will publish a collection of short stories and essays by Peretz in Yiddish, together with an English translation. The Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science, a collection of English translations of Yiddish papers, just published, foreshadows Yivo’s development into a bilingual institution.

One says “bilingual” because Yivo will not give up Yiddish. The second reason for the original choice of Yiddish still is, and will remain, valid. Yiddish should be studied and used, as much as circumstances permit, as the repository of much that is culturally and spiritually valuable to the Jewish people. Furthermore, to a considerable number of Jews, it will always provide the answer to the problem of Jewish survival. The religious Jews will continue to have Judaism in its many different phases. Zionists will have Jewish nationhood, directly or vicariously. Yiddishists will have Jewish culture and Yiddish.

No one who respects the human spirit could wish to see Yiddish die out. The Jew in the United States who lacks Judaism, Zionism, Jewish culturism, or Yiddishism to give content to his Jewishness, to serve as a bridge from generation to generation, to act as a shield against anti-Semitism, would seem to face a tragic plight—as indeed many American Jews do today.

Viewed in such light, Yivo’s insistence on the use of Sholom Aleichem’s language in the United States represents a positive value in American Jewish life. From the standpoint, moreover, of a rich cultural pluralism, of which Professor Horace M. Kallen has written so eloquently, and which represents the full development of freedom in the philosophy of Jeffersonian democracy, Yivo’s Yiddish has some notable values to contribute. No totalitarian notion of a mechanistic melting-pot should stand between American Jews and these truths; we have no right to consider any language or culture foreign to America except one that pretends to exclusiveness.



The Yivo Record

While there may be differences of opinion as to the future of Yivo’s language, there can be none as to the high value of its social research program for American Jews. Yivo has conducted its work in a spirit of strict impartiality, without taking any position on religion, Zionist politics, capitalism, or any other controversial issue; it has tried to do its work with complete objectivity.

Yivo’s work in economics and statistics is directed by Jacob Lestchinsky, former leader in Labor Zionist circles in Europe, and a pioneer in the collection and interpretation of the statistical aspects of Jewish life. (His first work was a social study of a Jewish small town in Russia.) Research in psychology and education is directed by Leibush Lehrer, psychologist, a recognized theoretician of non-partisan Jewish culturism. He is a graduate (M.A.) of Clark University. Max Weinreich is general research secretary. A philologist and social psychologist with a Ph.D. from Marburg, he has been a Rockefeller Foundation fellow. He, together with Lestchinsky, Lehrer, and Jacob Shatzky, was among Yivo’s six or seven founders.

These men, together with Elias Tcherikower, who died recently, and a number of assistants, have been able to produce a body of notable works during their six years in the United States. “The Saga of America’s ‘Russian’ Jews” by Solomon F. Bloom in the February 1946 COMMENTARY evaluated the first two volumes of Yivo’s monumental study of the Jewish labor movement in the United States. Another important work is Dr. Joseph Kissman’s studies in the history of Rumanian Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries. Especially important are the sections dealing with Jewish emigration from Rumania up to World War I, and the Jewish labor movement in Rumania until the end of the 19th century. His description of the saga of the fussgeyers, or wanderers, groups of Jewish workers and small traders who walked from Rumania to Hamburg and there took boat for the United States, deserves to become part of Jewish folklore. One should mention also Dr. Shatzky’s study of Jewish educational policies in Poland during the sixty years following 1806; a two-volume work on the Jews of France, edited by Tcherikower; Dr. Raphael Mahler’s study of the struggle between Haskalah and Hasidism in Galicia in the first half of the 19th century; Shlomo Noble’s study of Chumesh-Taytch, the language of the traditional Yiddish translation of the Bible; the many important contributions in the quarterly periodical Yivo Bleter; and the philological studies in the quarterly Yiddische Shprach.

A proper evaluation of Yivo as a social science research group can be made only in terms of the achievements of the social sciences in general. Does Yivo make use of all the tools that have been developed by the social sciences for a better understanding of social processes and how they affect groups and individuals? Particularly now, when it is established in the United States, where investigations in the social sciences are in general more elaborate and carried on with greater attention to the refinements of methodological techniques, does such a question-implying as it does the further question as to the interrelation between Yivo and the social sciences in America—become important.

A good opportunity for the evaluation of Yivo is given American social scientists by the appearance of the Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science, a volume of translations into English of work published by Yivo in the past few years. In certain spheres—history, folklore, economics and statistics, linguistics—the work of Yivo scholars has always ranked with the best done in this country. In the fields of sociology and social psychology, Yivo seems to have turned to American work with great interest, and, judging from the evidence in the Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science, is rapidly assimilating the best American techniques.



The Future in America

We find, for example, “The Effect of Culture Change Upon the Personalities of Second Generation Reservation Indians” by David Rodnick, a careful study in a field only recently opened by American and British anthropologists—the impact of cultural changes on personality. The author points out that the experience of Indian children parallels that of the children of Jewish immigrants. Samuel Koenig, who made a pioneer investigation of an American Jewish community, contributes “Methods of Studying Jewish Life in America,” which utilizes experience gained in the elaborate studies recently made of American communities. Moses Kligsberg, in his paper “Socio-Psychological Problems Reflected in the Yivo Autobiographical Contest,” reports on a favorite form of Yivo project—a contest in autobiographical writing conducted for the purpose of getting life histories for socio-psychological analysis. This work, begun by Yivo in Europe, ties in with a recent trend in American work, where we find the life-history being used more and more to supplement less intensive types of study. Here, Yivo is in a position to benefit from American techniques as well as supply leads to American workers. Leibush Lehrer, in “Jewish Elements in the Personality of the Jewish Child in America,” reports on an investigation into the extent and form of Jewish consciousness in Jewish children of different ages and backgrounds. Again, this investigation ties in with similar work on children of different nationalities and races, and shows how profitable the interaction between Yivo’s work and the work of American social scientists can be.

In addition to its own publications, Yivo has a library with over 50,000 books and more than 6,000 volumes of periodicals. It also conducts a Research Training Division, on both graduate and advanced-undergraduate levels. The courses in the Research Training Division cover a wide range of the tools and knowledge necessary for research in Jewish social studies. Thus, in 1945-6, courses were announced in Elementary Yiddish (Israel Knox), advanced Yiddish composition (Roman Jakobson, Judah A. Joffe, and others), problems of Jewish social psychology (Leibush Lehrer and Max Weinreich), history of Yiddish literature (S. Charney-Niger, Sol Liptzin, and others), elementary and intermediate Hebrew (Shlomo Noble), the Jewish community in the United States (Nathan Goldberg, Abraham G. Duker, Alexander H. Pekelis, Nathan Reich, and others), Jewish art (Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein), Jewish sociology (Nathan Goldberg, Samuel Koenig, Jacob Lestchinsky), and Jewish history (Jacob Shatzky, Rudolph Glanz, and others). Perhaps no other institution in America gives such a wide range of courses in purely secular Jewish studies.

Although Yivo has accomplished much, it should be able to achieve even more in the future as the Jewish communities in the United States arrive at self-consciousness and feel the need of fuller knowledge of their own history and character. At that point, they will undoubtedly be forced to look to Yivo’s techniques and trained staff. The Jewish community of each “Yankee City” may well demand a “Yankee City” analysis of its own. When American Jewry begins to take to heart the Socratic injunction, “Know thyself,” when it learns that the unexamined life is not worth living, then the pursuit of self-knowledge will inevitably bring it to the door of Yivo.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link