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Yiddish in the Age of Identity

Lina Morales
May 11, 2017


by Lina “Khave” Morales

From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

LATE LAST December, I went to an event that promised to do something I’m always striving to do and mostly failing at: organically bringing together parts of my identity that I usually count as disparate and disconnected. The occasion was a performance of Sholem Asch’s play Got fun Nekome (“God of Vengeance”), which one hundred years ago shocked the Yiddish theater world for its focus on brothels and lesbianism. I had read the play years ago, tipped off to its existence by a sympathetic Yiddish teacher who knew I was a lesbian. Reading it was only a start to my personal project of having as a full range of vocabulary and expressions to describe my queer life in Yiddish as I do in English, but seeing the play performed, seeing my Yiddish and lesbian worlds brought together even for a night, was a delight.

Even though I was in New York, the world capital of the Yiddish language, where you can hear it in the streets and on the subway, and even though there was a full, talented cast of native or otherwise fluent Yiddish speakers, and even with friends in the audience whom I recognized from the Yiddishist circles in which I am active, while waiting in line to get my tickets, I overheard an ignorant woman loudly asking her friend if anyone still speaks that language, then confidently exclaiming that it’s just German, really.

I responded first in English, and then with a more aggravated tone in Yiddish, to really get my point across to the entire room. But as any Yiddishist will tell you, hardly a public event about Yiddish can pass without someone having to address the most basic misconceptions about the language. Likewise, it’s a rare occurrence when I present all my identities without someone expressing shock and wonderment at the very idea that these identities can coexist.

WHEN I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, Yiddish was little more than a punchline. There were even a few headlines proclaiming the death of the language, and even my gentile friends seem relieved that such an “ugly” language had disappeared. I never heard my last living link to Yiddish, my great-great uncle Yale, who immigrated from Lithuania, say a positive word about the language. (As I found out later, he was of course not named after the WASP-heavy university; ‘Yale’ or ‘Yeyl’ was the Lithuanian Yiddish pronunciation of Yoel.) Only by reading about Jewish history and culture did I get my first hints that Yiddish was the foundation of an entire culture, a language of more than shmalts and funny words.

The public profile of Yiddish has changed for the better -- even if misconceptions about it haven’t gone away -- as part of a general flowering of identity politics, helped by the internet’s ability to build online community. Many children of assimilated Jews, who have become another “ethnic white” American community, are searching for something more meaningful in their heritage than the usual chasing-the-American-Dream immigrant story. Young Jews are wondering what was lost in the process of becoming comfortable white Americans, or even if that was a worthwhile goal in the first place. Whiteness, as an unmarked hegemonic identity, is on the defensive against a chorus of people of color who consider it only an oppressive construct. Whether recognizing their privilege or emphasizing their differences from white gentiles, young white Jews are more than ever having fierce debates about where they stand vis-a-vis whiteness and white supremacy.

Yiddish, a Jewish language that has been scorned for as long as it’s been spoken, a language that didn’t just slide out of use but was actively discouraged by parents who spoke it and children who didn’t, was an obvious candidate for reclamation.

I personally came to Yiddish in my late twenties, after many years of disconnection from Jewish community. I became a bas mitsve in a standard Reform temple, complete with both an American and an Israeli flag on the bima, that taught me little about Judaism and nothing about yidishkayt. Being biracial and Latina, I didn’t look (white Ashkenazi) Jewish and didn’t have a name that sounded Jewish. Even in New York, no one read me as Jewish.

I could have easily discarded my Jewishness, as my own brother did, and no one would have noticed. The only time I was speaking publicly as a Jew was in the context of my activism in solidarity with the Palestinian people. But was my Jewishness only defined by my objection to Zionism? Didn’t I rail against those Jews whose Jewishness was only expressed through slavish defense of the state of Israel? Given all my differences from the hegemonic Jewish community, was there no place for me?

Yiddish held the promise of a Jewishness not defined by Zionism or any specific political project. Modern Israeli Hebrew, a language whose revival was a definite goal of the Zionist movement, makes me think of the tanned soldiers and women wearing bikinis that I saw on a Tel Aviv beach as a teenager on my Birthright trip. Most of my Birthright peers found the idea of tanned, buff, and militaristic Jews fulfilling and exciting, but I found them alienating and more than a little problematic, since I knew what cruelties some of those buff soldiers were committing against the Palestinian people. Yiddish, on the other hand, offered a real and deep Ashkenaziness, an alternative to the endless caricaturization. To learn Yiddish was to go against the current of assimilation and Zionism, to reclaim the nebbish shtetl Jew that most Jews found an embarrassing relic. Learning Yiddish was almost contrarian, and that sounded to me like the theme of my life.

Of course, this was the theory -- I didn’t know until later that learning Yiddish was accessible for people who weren’t academics. I was reading a book about Yiddish radicals in early 20th-century New York City, when a friend more in the know pointed me towards Yiddish classes to take, and living Yiddishist communities to join.

FROM YIDDISH communities, I’ve gained a bridge to yidishkayt and to having a strong Jewish identity. Yiddish communities are some of the most diverse Jewish communities I’ve ever been in, a mix of lefties, liberals and rightists, from completely secular people to modern Orthodox and haredim (ultra-Orthodox), with not much but some racial and class diversity, and even a few goyim! In Yiddish communities, there’s space for people leaving the haredi world to socialize with people entering Orthodoxy. With some exceptions, most of the community is made of people who decided as adults to learn Yiddish and become as fluent as possible in it ­— in other words, committed nerds.

In Yiddish community, I’m surrounded by people who take Ashkenazi history and culture seriously in all its facets, and don’t try to play to popular culture to attract young Americanized Jews. I’ve had my most meaningful experiences as a Jew having shabbes at Yiddish-Vokh (a week-long Yiddish immersive retreat held every August) or at Yiddish New York dancing to incredible klezmorim. And I’ve wondered: why don’t other Ashkenazi Jews have access to this? What are the forces in Jewish communities that made Ashkenazi Jews only approach this culture with derision and irony?

In Yiddish communities, we have enough to talk about that the conversation doesn’t automatically float towards Israel/Palestine. Even in a community with a lot of Zionists, that’s powerful. Also through Yiddish, I have access to a treasury of Jewish thought that deals with many of the same questions that American Jews deal with today, but with a much broader range of views, including a tradition of radical and anti-Zionist Jewish thought that makes it clear that my politics and values are the farthest thing from assimilation or self-hatred.

After a Reform Jewish education that taught me to view Orthodox people as anachronistic reactionaries, I have, in Yiddish circles, met and befriended Orthodox people for the first time, and realized the beauty, complexity and diversity of the Orthodox world. Even the most secular people in Yiddish communities have respect for Judaism and understand that you can’t isolate it out of Jewish culture or mark a clear division between Jewish religion and culture. This has led me to engage seriously with traditional Judaism; the first time I studied Talmud and realized it was meaningful to me, it was in Yiddish translation at Yiddish-Vokh.

NOTWITHSTANDING the positives that Yiddish has brought to my life, I don’t want to convey the naive attitudes of my early Yiddishist years. Learning Yiddish isn’t by itself revolutionary or radical by any means. No language is inherently political in that way. Learning Yiddish can connect you to your heritage, but it doesn’t dictate what you choose to do with that. Plenty of Yiddish-speaking Jews have terrible and reactionary politics. De-assimilating doesn’t mean a white Ashkenazi Jew will take a critical stance towards whiteness. I still definitely encourage all Ashkenazi people I know to learn Yiddish, but that’s a cultural project, not a political one.

From my Mizrakhi friends and comrades, I’ve learned that Yiddish can even be used as a tool of exclusion and oppression. An older Mizrakhi professor told me that she knew of Yiddish only as the source of racial slurs against Mizrakhi people before she met Yiddishists in the U.S. We shouldn’t forget that in Israel, Golda Meir participated in the denigration of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israeli society by calling a group of recently arrived Russian immigrants “real Jews,” saying, “Every loyal Jew must speak Yiddish, for he who does not know Yiddish is not a Jew.” Many Mizrakhi and Sephardi people have been erased and repressed by the idea that Yiddish and the shtetl represent an authentic Jewishness in a way that Judeo-Arabic and the shkhuna (neighborhood) don’t. Even as Yiddish is being preserved, other Jewish languages that are part of Mizrakhi heritage are in danger of dying out.

Yiddish is gaining in profile, but it’s far away from being the language of the majority of the Jewish people, as it was before the Holocaust. Every Yiddishist has to face the fact that the community that sustains Yiddish as a living language is the haredi world. In addition, the standard Yiddish that most students learn in college or at the Workmen’s Circle is significantly different from the Yiddish you hear on the streets of Boro Park or Kiryas Yoel. Even as the haredi Yiddish world interacts more and more with non-haredi Yiddish circles, there’s a lot of ribbing of “Yiddishist Yiddish” by those who are native speakers of haredi Yiddish. This can lead secular Yiddishists, who worry about lacking authenticity, to fetishize haredim or even, on occasion, to become frum themselves. Even as we say “beser a tsebrokene Yiddish vi a fleysik english” (“Better to speak a broken Yiddish than a fluent English”), it’s hard to suppress the reflex to reach back to a long gone Yiddishland and create something new. An Israeli friend who enjoys my Yiddish obsession (and my intense love for the Israel TV series Shtitl, which features Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian haredi Jews) recently described me as a shtetl fetishizer, and I couldn’t say that was completely false. I know I can’t and really shouldn’t want to recreate the shtetl, but it’s no easy task to create new and diverse Yiddish culture and community that could be a strong alternative to assimilation and Americanization.

Outside of tight-knit haredi communities, there’s a lot more money and resources for Yiddish as a cultural resource than as a living language. Plenty of money goes towards teaching people Yiddish so they can read Yiddish books and sing Yiddish songs and produce scholarship on Yiddish culture, but precious little goes towards building Yiddish-speaking communities. Yiddish Farm, for example, is one of the only Yiddish institution that not only teaches Yiddish but provides an environment to live in Yiddish — yet in order to build Yiddish community, we need a lot more than a farm or week-long vacations. (Besides, not all Jews are comfortably middle-class and can devote time to week-long language retreats!)

Inspired by friends who done it, I’ve decided a few years ago that when I get married and start a family, I want to raise my children with Yiddish. This would be a difficult task in the easiest of times, and with the Trump presidency and the rise of white supremacist forces, it seems positively dangerous. All manner of fascists are coming out of the woodwork, and antisemitism is still on their agenda.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that if I raise my children with Yiddish, that they’ll care enough to speak it as adults or raise their children with it. But, with all my identities, I’m used to doing too much. I hope that, like me, they’ll recognize their heritage as difficult but ultimately a gift.

Lina “Khave” Morales is a biracial Latina Ashkenazi Jew from Chicago. She began learning Yiddish in 2010. She works as a teacher and is an organizer and educator in Palestinian solidarity and anti-fascist activism.