THE YIDDISH BOOK CENTER'S
Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Jean Baumgarten's Oral History

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Jean Baumgarten, scholar of Medieval Yiddish and Director of Research at Centre de Recherches Historiques in Paris, France, was interviewed by David Schlitt on December 21, 2010 at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

Professor Baumgarten’s family traces its origins back to the Alsace region; he comes from a family of horse dealers and leather merchants. His family came to Paris in the 19th Century. He grew up in what he described as an assimilated family. He was not involved in a specific Jewish community or synagogue, and he did not speak Yiddish growing up. He recalled that the Holocaust and war were only rarely discussed when we was growing up, but after the Six-Day War, people began to assert themselves Jewishly more. Indeed, that is the period at which Professor Baumgarten began to get involved in the Jewish community.

Professor Baumgarten described traveling to Eastern Europe in the late-1960s and early-1970s, and traveling to Israel in 1970. He began to study Yiddish with Professor Alexander Jansky [sp?], read Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language, studied at Oxford University, where he was inspired by the holdings of the Bodleian Library. His first major Yiddish-related academic project was his translation of the tsene rene into French – a formative experience. This was in the late-1970s/early-1980s; he worked on the project with Alexander Jansky. Professor Baumgarten was interested not just in the tsene rene’s contents but also the in way the text was diffused throughout Europe. He described his work with Early Yiddish as a method of conducting social history through texts. He is also interested in Yiddish in the context of global and comparative studies.In addition to his translation of the tsene rene, Professor Baumgarten has worked on Early Yiddish translations of the Hebrew Bible and the Zohar.

Professor Baumgarten’s interest in Yiddish is primarily academic, but he views people engaged in cultural transmission as engaged in a complementary project. Toward the end of the intervies his work with students today – different backgrounds, different religious perspectives, and diverse academic interests – and discussed the resurgence of anti-Semitism in contemporary France, which he characterized as a general social problem, but not one he has experienced personally.

This interview was conducted in English.

Jean Baumgarten was born in 1950 in Paris, France.

This interview is part of the Yiddish in the Academy: scholars, language instructors, and students series.

More information about this oral history

Themes in this oral history:

  • Family history
  • stories about ancestors
  • Childhood
  • Jewish Identity
  • Yiddish language
  • Yiddish learning
  • Yiddish teaching
  • Immigration
  • Migration
  • Music
  • Literature
  • Career and Professional Life
  • Scholarship
  • Academia
  • Holocaust
  • World War Two
  • Education
  • Israel
  • Zionism
  • Eastern Europe
  • Western Europe
  • Transmission
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Assimilation
  • Travel

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About the Wexler Oral History Project

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Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

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