To the Editor:
I share with Ruth R. Wisse [“Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect,” November 1997] the concern of many Yiddish scholars and teachers in America today. While a great deal of attention is being paid to such grand projects as the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which Mrs. Wisse discusses, serious Yiddish-language programs are gradually disappearing from the scene.
A few examples should suffice. New York, the home of over two million Jews, has a few beginner Yiddish classes at Columbia University, Queens College, New York University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva University, with enrollments ranging from a dozen to twenty students. Beyond basic-level instruction, however, classes shrink to a handful of students at best, or simply get canceled for lack of sufficient staffing or funding. Thus, studies of more advanced Yiddish are left to the small summer seminars conducted by the YIVO Institute, which, though adequate, are extremely limited in scope and resources. Outside New York, Brandeis—the flagship university for secular Jewish learning—cannot offer a full-time position in Yiddish. Like many other colleges and universities, it operates with adjuncts, part-time lecturers, or Yiddish speakers willing to teach for a few groshen as a side job.
Jewish philanthropists should recognize this crisis and begin funding Yiddish studies wherever needed. Unfortunately, Jewish-studies departments, even at major institutions, place Yiddish at the bottom of their priorities. As a result, classes, if offered, are often taught by unqualified people. If nothing is done, pretty soon there will be no one to read those wonderful books gathered in Aaron Lansky’s impressive library in the Massachusetts countryside.
Skirball Department of
Hebrew and Judaic Studies
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
Ich bob a gute un a shlechte besurah (translation: “I have good news and bad news”) about Ruth R. Wisse’s “Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect.”
Di gute besurah (the good news): Mrs. Wisse would surely shep nachas from (be proud of) my family. My daughter Chaya was already writing poetry in Yiddish at age six. She now has a career as a teacher of Jewish studies, and most of the schools she has taught in have used Yiddish as the language of instruction. She and her husband are bringing up my grandson, now almost two, as a native speaker of mama loshn (mother tongue); they live in a shtetl (small community) in northeastern Iowa, together with about 30 other like-minded Yiddish-speaking families.
My other eight children have also been (and are being) educated in Yiddish-speaking schools, and are perfectly bilingual.
Di shlechte besurah (the bad news): we belong to that class of religiously committed people whose “robust demographic vitality” Mrs. Wisse (for some unknown reason) attributes to “the blessings of American pluralism” rather than to our own pride and commitment. There are thousands of children today being brought up to speak Yiddish as their primary language. Their teachers all use grammars, dictionaries, and workbooks, but the material produced by YIVO is utterly worthless, since YIVO has made up spelling of its own that contemporary Yiddish speakers are not accustomed to.
As a teenager, I became a dedicated “Yiddishist.” I joined YIVO in 1969 (I was probably the only member under sixty) and taught myself Yiddish in order to read Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer in the original. (I did not know at the time that Singer was already writing in English and then translating it back into Yiddish because nobody read his work in Yiddish any more.) After I became frum (religious), however, I stopped reading Singer. Not because the strictly Orthodox (haredi) “thought police” confiscated my Singer books, but because I felt denigrated and insulted by his frequently obscene portrayal of my religious community.
Mrs. Wisse lauds the National Yiddish Book Center as “the most exciting new venture in American Jewish institutional life since the founding of AIPAC”; its purpose, she says, is to spearhead a revival in “the serious study of the demanding and particularistic civilization that brought Yiddish into being.” Isn’t this “serious study” of that “demanding and particularistic civilization” already well under way in Kiryas Joel, Borough Park, and Crown Heights; Southfield, Michigan; Postville, Iowa; and hundreds of other places across the world?
I am sure that Mrs. Wisse has made many excursions to Kiryas Joel and Borough Park to study the society of native speakers of Yiddish in the same way, I suppose, an anthropologist will mingle with aborigines on a reservation or savages in the wild.
Apart from collecting debris from attics and basements, how does the National Yiddish Book Center plan to bring about a revival of Yiddish culture? By publishing new books (I have a manuscript that has been collecting dust for ages)? Holding classes (where will the teachers come from)? Providing translation services for the inheritors of ancestral Yiddish documents? Holding performances of Yiddish plays or screenings of Yiddish movies?
I am disturbed by Mrs. Wisse’s dismissal of the overwhelming majority of Yiddish-speakers as “too intent on staving off secular influence” to be of any value in preserving the Yiddish heritage. It seems to me that the reverse is true: the operators of the National Yiddish Book Center, not to mention the teachers of Yiddish studies in universities, are so intent on staving off “religious influence” that they shun the very people who are the most capable of assisting their Yiddish revival.
Leah M. Berkowitz
To the Editor:
It is with deep regret that I learned from Ruth R. Wisse’s article of the passing of Khone Shmeruk and his wife, Mira. Khone Shmeruk was my teacher in a Displaced Persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, after the war. I have always remembered him as a unique individual who somehow managed to radiate his love both of children and of teaching.
In her article, Mrs. Wisse also mentions the strange relationship between the hasidim and the Yiddishists. Let me relate a personal experience that illustrates her point.
Some years ago I got lost in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem. Being the son of a fanatical Yiddishist, I knew that in Mea Shearim I would have no language problem. I picked out a handsome young Hasid in full regalia, and in my impeccable (Vilna) Yiddish I asked him to show me the way to the main bus terminal. Very pleasantly he invited me to walk with him, since he was going in the same direction. On the way, he asked me the usual questions one might ask a tourist: Where are you from? Are you having a good time? etc. Suddenly, he stopped, looked at me very intently and asked, “Are you a Jew?” When I answered yes, he gave me the coldest shoulder I have ever received in all my life.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
My correspondents appear to have taken it upon themselves to confirm certain points of my article: Eliezer Greisdorf to recall Khone Shmeruk’s influence as a teacher, for which I thank him; Michael Taub to plead for more Yiddish scholars; Leah M. Berkowitz to demonstrate the contempt of some hasidic Jews for modern Yiddish culture.
I commented in my article on the failure of some secular Yiddishists to translate their love of the language into a love of the people whose language it is; Mr. Greisdorf’s anecdote and Mrs. Berkowitz’s animus remind me that frum Jews may do no better.
The YIVO project to which Mrs. Berkowitz objects is the standardization of spelling, a process that occurs in every literate society, sometimes more and sometimes less spontaneously. The Communists objected to YIVO orthography because it gave special status to loshn koydesh, the holy tongue. Does this pious woman want to delight the enemies of religion by providing, from the Right, a mirror image of their intolerance?