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Inventing Yiddish: Observations on the rise of a "debased" language.

In a New York times magazine article last year, Jonathan Rosen described the resurgence currently enjoyed by Yiddish in the United States. Evidence of this new interest in the language includes not only an increase in Yiddish courses at U.S. colleges and the growing popularity of Yiddish literature, but also revivals of Yiddish theater and klezmer music. But the recent upswing in the popularity of Yiddish, Rosen reported, has provoked vigorous disagreements over the historical meaning of Yiddish and the implications of the language for contemporary Jewish identity.(1) As two recently reprinted books on Yiddish literary history make clear, such debates over the cultural status of Yiddish have an extremely rich and complex heritage. Syracuse University Press has reissued Dan Miron's A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (1973) and Nahma Sandrow's Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977) as part of its Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art series. Both these books are of great value to anyone interested in the modern history of the Yiddish language, as they demonstrate the tremendous efforts required to legitimate the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of Yiddish and, relatedly, the extent to which literature in Yiddish mediated between the competing demands of the intelligentsia and the masses, both in Europe and the United States.

Miron's A Traveler Disguised offers a nuanced line of argument concerning the development of Yiddish literature in nineteenth-century Europe. He focuses on the work of Sholem Y. Abramovitsh (1836-1917) to demonstrate the unique cultural position of Yiddish in the mid- to late-1800s. Although reference works and anthologies still typically refer to Abramovitsh by his ostensible nom de plume, Mendele Moykher-Sforim (alias "Mendele the Bookpeddler"), Miron insists that this practice obscures the crucial fact that Mendele is a fictional creation, a persona that must be distinguished from - rather than merely collapsed into - the identity of the author Abramovitsh. Miron argues that this is more than just an issue of nomenclature and that we need to keep Mendele separate from Abramovitsh in order both to view accurately the status of Yiddish in the nineteenth century and, more importantly, to understand the ways in which Yiddish literature became a viable art form.

Although we now take the existence of a Yiddish literary tradition for granted, Miron notes that Yiddish was far from the natural language of choice for Jewish writers during the mid- to late 1800s. "Yiddish was not part of [these writers'] notion of literature and . . . they had to overcome certain inhibitions in order to conceive of it as such."(2) The status of Yiddish in the mid-nineteenth century derived from the cultural project of the Jewish intellectuals, the maskilim who sought to enlighten the Jewish masses throughout Eastern Europe and who viewed Hebrew as the proper medium for such education. Hebrew, the maskilim stressed, was appropriate for the higher forms of communication, particularly as contrasted with the vulgarity of Yiddish. Since the explicit goal of the Jewish enlightenment, or Haskala, was the intellectual and moral uplift of the Jewish masses, no instrument but Hebrew could be used. But in his book's pivotal chapter, "A Language as Caliban," Miron tells how a range of fiction writers came to employ Yiddish, a language that had been widely dismissed for its hybrid qualities - "disfigured German blended with disfigured Hebrew." The fulcrum on which this crucial shift took place was the eastward movement of the Haskala. Although the maskilim still held Hebrew to be a far superior language, writers wishing to use literature as a means of moral uplift faced a serious problem: As the Haskala movement entered Poland and Russia, less of the population understood Hebrew. In order both to maintain a viable audience and to combat its chief rival-the mystical thought of hasidism - the Haskala reluctantly turned to Yiddish.

In recounting the decision by the maskilim to reach the Eastern European masses by writing in Yiddish, Miron makes two important claims about the advent of a Yiddish literary tradition in the nineteenth century. First, Miron challenges the widely held contention that M. Lefin-Satanover, famous in part for translating the Bible into Yiddish, had as his purpose the establishment of a permanent tradition of Yiddish literature in the nineteenth century. "To consider [Lefin-Satanover] as the conscious proponent of the cultivation and literalization of Yiddish literature," Miron writes, "is to attribute to him intentions he probably could not have had, intentions quite alien to the whole context of the Haskala movement at the time."(3) Lefin-Satanover's brilliant biblical translations, Miron insists, were not meant as demonstrations of the aesthetic possibilities of Yiddish, but rather as a means of making the Bible available as a tool for battling hasidism. The case of Lefin-Satanover is, for the purposes of Miron's project, particularly important in that it illustrates a second key point about Yiddish: Even maskilim who used Yiddish for literary production were far from embracing the language; rather, they planned to use the language only temporarily and only for specific political purposes. Furthermore, these political goals required that writers use Yiddish primarily as a vehicle of farce and mimicry - in short, to ridicule their opponents "with their own instruments," as one writer put it. Standing on such tenuous ground, Yiddish could only serve the maskilim by revealing itself as a "debased" language. Even as Yiddish gained greater acceptance as a literary language, Miron suggests, the "aesthetics of ugliness" could never be wholly divorced from the ideological demands placed on the Yiddish language, and thus the notion of Yiddish as an inherently parodic language persisted throughout the nineteenth century.

Writers like Abramovitsh, therefore, were necessarily distanced from their literary voice in Yiddish works. These writers belonged to the intelligentsia - for whom Hebrew remained the preferred language for authorship - while they wrote to reach the Yiddish-speaking masses. Thus, although readers and critics consistently make the interpretative leap that conflates Abramovitsh with Mendele, the linguistic status of Yiddish in fact made the gap between author and persona quite distinct. While Miron describes the ideological and cultural reasons for this gap, he also discusses how the very sound of Yiddish affected the tone of its literature and, moreover, the author/persona relationship: "A language of public communication and not of meditation, [Yiddish] functioned only in actual speech, that is dramatically. A Yiddish work, whether it was meant to be read aloud or not (and more often than not it was), had a distinct vocal quality; it was written for recitation - if only in the imagination - with the proper intonation and gesticulation. When the writer or his persona spoke it, they addressed an audience, explicitly or implicitly; when a person talked to himself in it, he treated his consciousness as a stage."(4)

This literary self-alienation was central to the relationship between Abramovitsh and Mendele, Miron explains, and any understanding of the birth of modern Yiddish literature must come to terms with precisely how Abramovitsh viewed his own literary persona.

Perhaps the most striking quality of Miron's account is its ability to wed broad cultural history with close textual analysis, as when he turns his attention to the prologue of Abramovitsh's Dos vintshfingerl ("The Magic Ring"), which Miron regards as "one of the most compact and significant pieces of fiction in nineteenth-century Yiddish literature""(5) Examining the narrative point of view of this introduction, Miron points to the deftness with which Abramovitsh utilizes the interplay between statement and counterstatement. The prologue is dominated by two primary voices: Mendele the Bookpeddler and Hershele, a Russian Jew who returns to the shtetl after a series of illuminating and prosperous adventures. As Miron explains, this structure of the "native's return" was a staple of nineteenth-century Jewish literature, especially in the maskilic sense in which the returning (and enlightened) native signals the triumph of the principles of the Haskala.

Miron's reading of the prologue underscores a central premise of his interpretation of Abramovitsh, which is that neither Mendele nor - in this case - Hershele should be taken to "speak for" the viewpoint of Abramovitsh. Rather, Abramovitsh utilizes Hershele and Mendele to capture the shifting forces within Jewish life by making room for divergent viewpoints, creating what Miron calls the author's "polyphonic art."(6) Utilizing changing perspectives and diverse voices, Abramovitsh's fiction provides "a comprehensive comment on the Jewish cultural situation in modern times in general and on the paradoxical nature of modern Yiddish literature in particular."(7) By portraying the estrangement that accompanies Hershele's less-than-triumphant return to the shtetl - a "prodigal son come home too late," he is never recognized by his townspeople(8) - Abramovitsh both comments on the distance between the maskilim and the masses, and calls attention to his own predicament as a writer of fiction.

Having illustrated Abramovitsh's great interest in the limitations and possibilities of using fiction to examine a cultural and historical situation, Miron spends most of the balance of his book taking us through what he calls the "Mendele maze" - the task of characterizing the complex relationship between Abramovitsh and Mendele. Mendele, Miron emphasizes, is "an idea, an intellectual potentiality, a spiritual quest, and therefore - a riddle,"(9) and in dissociating Mendele from Abramovitsh, Miron warns against simply identifying Mendele as a folkstip, or "folk-personage," who represents some archetype of Jewishness. While this "folkstip fallacy" leads critics to categorize Mendele with Sholem Aleichem's Tevye (most familiar to modem readers through the Fiddler on the Roof play and film), Miron counters this fallacy by emphasizing the many differences between these two characters: Where Tevye remains anchored in a specific locale, Mendele's monologues encompass a range of different settings. Where Tevye's monologues describe a narrative past, we accept Mendele's speech as instantaneous and present. Where Tevye's narration to Sholem Aleichem is an act of faith and trust, Mendele speaks in a way that is "seldom straightforward and openhearted."(10) This last point is crucial for Miron, for it supports his larger claim that Mendele does not monologize to us so much as he performs for us, and that a deep understanding of Mendele's role in Abramovitsh's fiction demands that we never lose sight of the performative nature of Mendele's speech.

Freeing Mendele from the role of Jewish everyman, Miron shows how Mendele's important structural relationship to the narratives changed over the course of Abramovitsh's career. Though Miron stresses that Mendele never transcends his role as literary mediator - never becomes, in other words, the original creator of the narrative - his account of Abramovitsh's most powerful literary device demonstrates that Mendele increasingly enlarges his role as the unifying voice in the stories he tells. While the early Mendele merely "finds" stories and presents them to - or translates them for - the reader, the later Mendele stops just short of full authorship before his "retreat" to the safer haven of "merely publishing" the works.

Miron concludes the "Mendele maze" by examining Abramovitsh within the European literary tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century rather than that of the late nineteenth century. Drawing on the tradition of Sterne, Defoe, and Richardson, Miron emphasizes that early ventures into the modern novel tried to legitimate the genre by presenting the works as accounts of true stories. The pressure on Abramovitsh to make similar truth claims for his work was palpable, since the maskilim were decidedly opposed to fictional prose. But, as Miron explains, this fact can not completely explain why Abramovitsh created a fictional frame - or narrator - of such richness as Mendele. Miron's answer to this question - while more complex than can be elaborated here - concerns Abramovitsh's need for a narrator who could tell certain stories while remaining distant from them. The freedom of the road precluded the itinerant Mendele from commitment to any single town or viewpoint, and his position as a traveler afforded him a vantage point that could account for the multivocality of nineteenth-century European Jewish culture.

Nahma Sandrow's Vagabond Stars - like Abramovitsh's Mendele stories - focuses on itinerant producers of culture to explore another facet of the aesthetic and cultural history of Yiddish. Beginning her study with the earliest identifiable Yiddish plays - the sixteenth-century Purimshpils, or Purim plays - Sandrow surveys the field of Yiddish theatrical performance up through the twentieth century, creating a work truly encyclopedic in scope. As Sandrow's title suggests, many of the players in Yiddish theater were constantly in a state of migration, due not only to the nature of the traveling shows, but also to the persecution that befell Eastern European Jews. Thus, Sandrow was faced with the challenge of writing a history that cannot be reduced to a series of individual national histories. Sandrow responds by organizing her chapters thematically as well as chronologically. Some chapters focus on individual figures (producers Avrom Goldfadn and Jacob Gordin), some on historical/cultural contexts (the Enlightenment, the Holocaust), and others on the different forms that Yiddish theater took (such as shund and the art theaters).

While Jewish culture existed for centuries in the diaspora, Sandrow shows that it was more than just the problems of maintaining a locally grounded culture that threatened the viability of Yiddish theater. The establishment of Yiddish theater beyond the Purim play was precluded by several traditions of Jewish law, such as prohibitions against the production of images and against women singing in public. Also inimical to the creation of a Yiddish theater tradition was the cultural position of Yiddish. Like Miron's A Traveler Disguised, this book points out that up until the mid-nineteenth century Yiddish was considered completely inappropriate as a literary language. "The result," Sandrow writes, "was that until the nineteenth century there could be no Yiddish playwrights and no serious Yiddish drama."(11)

Like Miron, Sandrow emphasizes the role of the maskilim in fostering new literary forms in Yiddish. And since the Haskala deemed the promotion of Yiddish a necessary - if somewhat unpalatable - step toward educating the masses, nineteenth-century Yiddish theater, such as the Purimshpil, needed some sort of utilitarian justification. Theater for theater's sake, so to speak, was unacceptable, and so the early nineteenth-century Yiddish playwrights emphasized the educational value of Yiddish drama. By legitimating the cultural role of the theater, the haskole helped broaden the influence of the vulgar "dzhargen." At the same time, Sandrow shows, the haskole's nemesis - the hasidim - did their part to promote theatrical performance in Yiddish. But where the maskilim used the theater to act out instructive morality plays, the hasidim emphasized the artistic accomplishments of the masses, turning to popular arts such as spontaneous song and simple lyrics. Whereas the maskilim influenced the Yiddish theater directly through the production of plays, the hasidim did so indirectly by more generally transforming the Yiddish language.

While both the maskilim and hasidim experimented with performing arts, Di Broder zinger - from the Polish town of Brod - emerged out of the Yiddish folk arts, becoming the first professional actors in modem Yiddish culture. Performing in cafes outside the influence of "rabbinical disapproval," these forerunners of professional Yiddish theater represented one aspect of the secularization of Jewish culture, and - not surprisingly - were bound up in the migration of Yiddish culture. "The industrial revolution," Sandrow writes, "was building up an Eastern European middle class, and railroads brought audiences to cities. Merchants, including Jews, traveled, saw shows, and demanded more."(12)

In the opening paragraphs of World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe notes that the brutal reign of Alexander III posed the following dilemma: "Should the east European Jews continue to regard themselves as permanent residents of the Russian empire or should they seriously consider the possibility of a new exodus?"(13) Sandrow's history of Yiddish theater illuminates this tension - between a community of settlement and a culture of diaspora - and describes how a culture constantly on the verge of being dissolved by oppression sought to envision itself as cohesive. Sandrow's history demonstrates how the stakes of Yiddish theater were intensified by the Jewish community's need for a common culture that could buttress a sense of community against persistent attack. In late nineteenth-century Europe, this feeling of patriotism for a culture without a homeland produced a "Yiddishism" that countered the very powerful nationalistic feelings that were used to justify the persecution of the Jews. In addition to providing the Yiddish-speaking audiences with drama written in a "folk language," the plays written for Yiddish audiences affirmed the historical legacy of the culture.

For European Jews who immigrated to the United States, Yiddish theater was particularly crucial as a means of validating the individual's connection to a larger culture. Sandrow's vivid account of Yiddish theater on New York's Lower East Side shows that the communal aspects of Yiddish theater operated in several different ways. In additional to providing these new Americans with folk heroes and a place to meet and share a secular experience, the Yiddish theater of the late nineteenth-century Lower East Side sentimentalized the old country, thus binding the immigrants through their shared nostalgia. While the Yiddish plays romanticized the shtetl, these productions helped the immigrant community assimilate, combating the threat of isolation by portraying assimilation as a rite of passage, a set of shared challenges. Audiences on the Lower East Side "were going to night school at the theater."(14)

This theme of entertainment-cum-instruction pervades Sandrow's account. This is not to say that Yiddish theater-goers attended the plays strictly, or even primarily, for educational reasons. But the tradition of uplift generated by the nineteenth-century haskilim was never far from the intentions of the Yiddish theater producers. Avrom Goldfadn - the "father of Yiddish theater" who founded his first Yiddish theater in Jassy, Rumania in the 1870s and later came to the United States - saw himself in just such a role, especially early in his career. Goldfadn believed that however crude the slapstick and songs that comprised his productions, he was nonetheless introducing his audiences to new ideas and lessons they could apply to daily life. In an effort to ensure that the message got through, Goldfadn delivered curtain addresses at the conclusion of his plays. But as Sandrow notes, Goldfadn's self-image as a descendent of the haskole tradition presented a paradox: By promoting theater as one means of lifting Yiddish-speaking Jews out of isolation, Goldfadn was enriching the same popular traditions from which he wanted to steer his audience.

Sandrow's account follows Goldfadn until his death in 1908, concluding with his final moment of success on the Lower East Side, which only came after near ostracism from a New York City Yiddish theater community that found his plays old-fashioned and clumsy. More indicative of the rise of Yiddish theater in the United States is the chapter that Sandrow gives to Jacob Gordin, who helped create what is often referred to as the Golden Age of American Yiddish Theater. Like the nineteenth-century maskilim, Gordin and his fellow radical intellectuals deemed Yiddish an inferior language not suitable for great literature. Sandrow details how Gordin's first encounter with Yiddish drama both "horrified and inspired" him, but also convinced him that Yiddish theater could be more than just mere shund.(15) Under the guidance of Gordin, Yiddish theater moved beyond simple melodrama to plays that strove to be "a serious literary endeavor" and realistic.(16) Most importantly, Sandrow demonstrates, Gordin's plays helped to draw the Lower East Side intelligentsia into the theater as viewers and artists, elevating the quality of Yiddish theater in the United States.

Yiddish theater laid the groundwork for a sometimes thriving Yiddish film industry in Europe, the U.S. and other regions with large Jewish populations. Many Yiddish films were adapted from theatrical productions, and the less technologically advanced releases were little more than filmed stage plays. In his comprehensive history of Yiddish film, J. Hoberman calls Yiddish cinema "the child of the Yiddish stage," since the cinema adapted not only the scripts and storylines of Yiddish theater, but also its actors, writers, themes and conventions.(17) Today, due to efforts of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) at Brandeis University, dozens of Yiddish films are available on videocassette, and these films provide valuable insights into the ways in which the Yiddish cinema represented some of the same issues raised in both Miron's and Sandrow's histories.

I had a chance to look at three U.S.-made Yiddish films from the NCJF collection: Sidney Goldin and Aubrey Scotto's Uncle Moses (1932), Edgar Ulmer's American Matchmaker (1940), and Joseph Seiden's God, Man, and Devil (1949). While it is impossible to take any set of films as wholly representative of Yiddish cinema in the U.S., all three films demonstrate the tendencies that, as Sandrow and Miron demonstrate, pervaded earlier forms of Yiddish cultural production. For instance, one cannot view these films without noticing their didacticism. In American Schadchen, Leo Fuchs plays a New York bachelor who decides to follow the path of his European uncle and become a matchmaker. When the bachelor falls for one of his female clients, he learns to place his own emotional happiness above the demands of professionalism, and the film ends happily with his marriage to the client. God, Man, and Devil, an adaptation of one of Jacob Gordin's well-known stage productions, combines - as Hoberman puts it - "the stories of Job and Faust."(18) When Hershele Dubrovner purchases a winning lottery ticket from Satan (only thinly disguised as a lottery ticket salesman), he exploits his own people as a talit factory owner and divorces his wife in favor of his much younger niece. This double betrayal is avenged when, after a fatal accident in his factory, guilt drives Dubrovner to hang himself. Uncle Moses, which originated as a novel by Sholem Asch, similarly warns against greed and exploitation. Having ascended to wealth on the sweatshop labor of his landsleit (people from the same region in the old country), Uncle Moses utilizes his wealth to court manipulatively a much younger woman. When a strike threatens his factory, Moses's father-consistently the voice of reason in the film - repatriates to Poland, and Moses falls ill as hired strike-breakers use violence against his own workers. By the end of the film, Moses has lost everything - his status in the community, his young wife, and his control over the factory.

In viewing these films today, one is struck by the almost documentary quality of these productions. Many Jews in the United States tend to hear Yiddish only in fragments, a handful of words dropped into conversation by parents or grandparents. Since these films use subtitles (rather than dubbing) they allow us to appreciate the vitality of spoken Yiddish, while at the same time providing a sense of the tensions and conflicts that structured the immigrant experience in the early part of this century. Like Yiddish theater productions, many of the Yiddish films concern the competing allures of nostalgia for the shtetl and assimilation into U.S. culture. More specifically, many of the major Yiddish films portray a certain anxiety about the impact of modernization and commerce on traditional values and institutions.

This tension is central to Uncle Moses (1932), often regarded as one of the finest Yiddish films and certainly the most complex of those reviewed here. Nostalgia for the bonds of the shtetl pervades this film and receives its most direct embodiment in the figure of Uncle Moses's old father. Amidst the din of Uncle Moses's clothing factory, Moses's father continues singing a melody from the factory workers' native Polish town of Kuzmin. This character's

STEVEN J. BLISS, a graduate of Northwestern University, holds advanced degrees in Literature and American Studies from the University of Utah and the University of California, Santa Cruz. A writer, he is currently living in San Francisco.
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Author:Bliss, Steven J.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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