– by Shayn Smulyan
I’m not going to write you one of those pieces about Yiddish. You know the kind I mean. The kind that Marc Tracy so neatly outlined in Tablet last month or that Rokhl Kaffrissen critiques as rife with the “memes of the Yiddish Atlantis”. No obligatory mentions of my grandparents, the Holocaust, or various Ashkenazi foodstuffs. No peppering my English with cutesy Yiddish expressions taken out of context. No nostalgia.
It’s not that anything is wrong with nostalgia (or with your grandma’s famous kugl recipe, for that matter); it can be pleasurable and even useful sometimes. But, the message that Yiddish = old fashioned = situated in memory and the past is well established and constantly being perpetuated. Not even getting into the ways that this Yiddish nostalgia-fest enables the misperception that Yiddish is constantly and forever on its death bed, the fact is that all the people who want to engage with Yiddish from a place of nostalgia are already doing it, and more power to ’em. But, thankfully for the rest of us, Yiddish language and culture has some other great things to offer.
One aspect of engaging with Yiddish language and culture that I’ve been considering for awhile is that it offers a way to make “Ashkenazi” a viable identity with actual, substantive content, rather than just some vague-but-ubiquitous default. It asserts Ashkenazi culture as something real and specific, instead of just the unmarked norm for everything that doesn’t fall into one of the “other” Jewish cultures (Mizrahi, Sephardi, Beta Israel, etc., etc.). Engagement with Yiddish not only lets us see through all the bland, institutionalized, over-simplified versions of Jewish culture that get assumed as Ashkenazi, it also positions Ashkenazi culture as just one kind of Jewishness among many others, each with their own specific and vibrant histories, languages, foodways, religious practices, and communities. So, Yiddish and ‘Deep Ashkenaz’, as I like to call it, can be one remedy to equating ‘generic’ Jewishness with Ashkenazi culture. This is a benefit to Jews of any and all ethnic backgrounds.
Beyond that cultural-politics and identity piece, there are certainly plenty of fun and lighthearted reasons to engage with Yiddish too, whether that means learning the language to fluency or just dabbling a bit here and there. You stumble across all sorts of fun facts about labor history and impress all your radical leftist friends. You can bust out some snappy Yiddish comeback lines the next time the Lubavitchers ask you if you’re Jewish. You can talk to your grandparents so that your parents won’t understand. In seriousness, you really do gain tools to interact with some wide and disparate segments of the Jewish world, from staunch secularists to ardent frumer yidn and many things in between. And, what’s even better, the bar for entry is not so high.
Some upcoming events at the Workmen’s Circle are great places to start. Yiddish language classes begin next week, including beginner, advanced beginner, and intermediate levels. A Besere Velt [a better world], the Yiddish chorus, has open rehearsals on Saturdays October 2nd and 16th at 3:30 for those interested in joining or just learning more about it. And on Sunday October 3rd at 2:00, Professor Zvi Gitelman will present a lecture entitled “Remembering the Soviet Yiddish Writers Executed on August 12, 1952”. All those events take place at the Workmen’s Circle building at 1762 Beacon St in Brookline.
Shayn Smulyan is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Brown, researching the performative and communicative strategies of Yiddish singers. Shayn does political and cultural work in the queer and Jewish-Secularist communities (sometimes both at once), and spends too much time reading their blogs.