The Radical Nature of Yiddish Culture
In the twenty-first century, Yiddish culture looks to the past. Not always, nor exclusively, but it’s reasonable for a language that reached its creative high point nearly a century ago to continue mining that period long after. Today much of Yiddish culture is about preserving its heritage, which is a good and necessary thing.
But there’s an irony to this rearview perspective. In its most vibrant period, Yiddish creativity was a passion of youth, and its vision was fixed firmly ahead. The first modern Yiddish writers were idealists who created a literary canon where none existed. The first Yiddish actors, playwrights, and impresarios envisioned Jewish entertainment in ways never seen before. The first Yiddish newspaper editors and journalists sought to inform their readers about world events, and to inspire social and political action. At its height, Yiddish culture was a radical effort by young people with their eyes on the future.
So how can one capture a forward-looking vision through a backward-looking lens? The very act of preservation seems to betray a central aspect of Yiddish: Can an effort to retain the past do justice to a culture about the future?
In a 2010 essay in the Jewish Review of Books, literary scholar Ruth Wisse reflected on the beginnings of her own career studying and teaching Yiddish, and on the influence of poet Avrom Sutzkever and linguist Max Weinreich, two creative Yiddish luminaries. “Weinreich and Sutzkever exuded potency—the quality that I had always associated with Yiddish,” she wrote. “I never took the trouble to explain that I was attracted by the virility of Yiddish. . . . It was the youthfulness of Yiddish that appealed to me.”
Wisse experienced this in the 1960s, when Yiddish culture was arguably on the wane—a fact that reflects well on Weinreich and Sutzkever, as well as on the Montreal Yiddish-speaking community in which Wisse was raised. But if it was true then, it was certainly true decades earlier, before the devastation of the Holocaust. As Wisse intuitively sensed, the vigor and idealism of youth wasn’t an incidental part of Yiddish culture, but one of its defining elements.
That fervor was often inspired by the political issues of the day. Abraham Cahan, who went on to become the influential editor of the Forverts newspaper, recalled finding the pamphlet of an anarchist group while he was a student at the Jewish teachers’ college in Vilna. “I will never forget that moment,” he wrote in his memoir, The Education of Abraham Cahan. “The pamphlet came from people who lived as brothers, who were willing to face the gallows for freedom.” Cahan joined an underground political group and was overwhelmed by their profession of equality. “They talked to me as to an equal! As if I were one of their own! No distinction between Jew and gentile! . . . A kind of religious ecstasy took hold of me. I did not recognize my former self.”
Every generation gives way to the next, no matter how rebellious it might once have been.
Even without radical politics, however, Yiddish itself was radical enough to attract the enthusiasm of young writers, artists, and activists. While many intellectuals embraced Hebrew as the vehicle of Jewish revival, and some turned to non-Jewish languages, Yiddish was the language of the masses. But it was still looked down upon as “Zhargon”— Jargon—a language appropriate for commerce and domesticity but not for sophisticated cultural achievements. “Who knew that one could write in Yiddish?” reflected Sholem Aleichem in his autobiography, From the Fair. “The Yiddish jargon, why that was something for the women! A man was ashamed to be seen holding a Yiddish book lest people consider him a boor.” For many of its proponents, fighting for Yiddish as a Jewish national language was itself a radical cause.
Today Sholem Aleichem is known as one of the classic Yiddish writers, and his place in the canon of Jewish literature is assured. But as a young man he was part of a vanguard trying to create a literary canon from the ground up. At age twenty-nine, with the help of an inherited fortune, he published a journal called Di yidishe folksbibliotek, which featured the best Yiddish writers of the day as well as an attack on what he considered the worst.
“Shoymers mishpet,” or “The Judgment of Shomer” constituted a comprehensive criticism of Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitch, otherwise known as Shomer, the most popular Yiddish writer of the nineteenth century. Presented as a courtroom trial, with Shomer’s readers packing the gallery and Sholem Aleichem serving as court stenographer, the essay accused the older writer of cheapening the Yiddish language and of misrepresenting Jewish life through sentimental fantasies. As scholar Justin Cammy put it, “The document reveals a young, ruthless ingénue determined to rout the competition in order to clear space for himself.” Even at the very beginning of modern Yiddish literature, younger writers were forced to rebel against their elders in order to define their vision.
Yet every generation gives way to the next, no matter how rebellious it might once have been. Just as Sholem Aleichem rejected Shomer, his successors, often influenced by European modernism, rejected Sholem Aleichem’s own folksy realism. And while Abraham Cahan and his contemporaries were stirred by political radicalism, subsequent generations rejected socioeconomic issues as the central concern of their work.
This was certainly true of Di yunge, or “The Young Ones,” the first American Yiddish literary movement. Consisting mainly of immigrant poets—though there were a few novelists as well—the group coalesced in 1907 in New York and issued a journal called Di yugnt, which lasted three issues. As the name implied, youth was a centerpiece of their program. But it was not the politicized youth of their predecessors. Although the members of Di yunge were themselves workers in sweatshops and factories, they rejected socioeconomic material as their subject, as well as the mass culture represented by Cahan’s Forverts. They objected not only to its literary aesthetic, but to its cavalier treatment of the Yiddish language, which they sought to refine and protect. While their critics accused them of ignoring the vital issues of the day, they were more interested in creating a poetry of personal experience. As Irving Howe put it, they were writing “chamber music instead of brass bands.”
Inevitably, even Di yunge ceased to be young. But it wasn’t the last Yiddish literary movement to put youth in its name. Twenty years later, in Europe, the Yiddish writer and editor Zalmen Reyzen published an article announcing “Young Vilna Marches into Yiddish Literature.”
The Yung Vilne movement included poets Chaim Grade and Avrom Sutzkever, prose writers Shmerke Kaczerginski and Moyshe Levin, and fine artists like Rokhl Sutzkever and Sheyne Efron, along with dozens of others. They operated throughout the 1930s, working in multiple styles and media. Although the Holocaust ended most of their activities, some of the group’s members, like Kaczerginski and Sutzkever, were imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, where they served in the partisan underground and rescued literary materials as members of the “Paper Brigade.”
Yet Yiddish reminds us that not everything that can disappear should, or that everything that has lost its economic foothold loses its value.
Yet Yung Vilne wasn’t really atypical of Yiddish cultural movements. Even at its most progressive, most revolutionary, and most young, Yiddish culture has also been concerned with its past. The primary aim of Cahan and his cohort may have been political activism, but they wanted to do it in a traditional Jewish language. Sholem Aleichem rejected Shomer, but he did it to preserve a more realistic style and a more authentic Yiddish vernacular. So too, did Di yunge champion a Yiddish that was purer than the quickly morphing language of the American Jewish street, and advocate for personal values in the face of a rapidly changing world. Today the group Yugntruf, or Youth for Yiddish, still preserves a core of younger, Yiddish-speaking people in the non-Hasidic world, as well as the tradition of Yiddish as a youthful, idealistic endeavor. Like that of their predecessors, their traditionalism is progressive, and their progressivism is traditional.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward and editor of Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward (W.W. Norton, 2016). He is currently writing a biography of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, and Walrus Magazine, among other publications.