Yiddish Lives — and Jeffrey Shandler Writes Its Biography


Jeffrey Shandler was skeptical when asked by Oxford University Press to write a “biography” of Yiddish, wondering if treating the language as you would a person would be no more than a gimmick. 

But the more he thought about it, the more Shandler realized the format would allow him to think and write differently about the language, and how its story has been told.

“I started to think about what comes out of a biography – name, birth, gender, education, religion,” he said.

The result, “Yiddish: Biography of a Language,” is a study for both Yiddish beginners and those expert in the language. Its thematic chapters explore the birth, development, intellectual flourishing, near death and inspiring revival of a language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands and Eastern Europe and wherever they immigrated. 

“Given the nature of Yiddish over the centuries, across continents and among different, often divergent, speech communities,” Shandler wrote, “one needs to think nimbly and flexibly about what it has been and what it might yet be.” 

Shandler, distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, spoke to The Jewish Week from his home in Manhattan. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Week: Let’s start by talking about your personal Yiddish biography – how you came to it as a speaker and an academic.

Shandler: It’s interesting to think about why people ask that question, which we can get to later. I describe myself as a “native listener.” I grew up around grandparents who were native speakers. My parents had more of a passive than an active knowledge and used it of course when they didn’t want their children to understand. 

A year or two after getting my bachelor’s degree, I felt that this was a language I ought to learn. I started with a course at YIVO Institute, and the next thing I knew I was getting a Ph.D. in Yiddish studies at Columbia. 

Why is it interesting that people ask you that question?

I don’t know that people ask my colleagues who teach Hebrew but are American, “Why did you learn Hebrew?” — or German, or French. Yiddish raises curiosity in ways that the study of other languages doesn’t. What would motivate someone to learn a language that doesn’t appear to be readily functional? What would you use it for?  

Your book describes many answers to that question, from the haredi Orthodox for whom it is an everyday language to several communities beyond that who are keeping Yiddish very much alive. 

There are a range of engagements, not all of them striving for fluency. There are those who say, “I love Yiddish but I don’t know it.” That used to annoy me, but I realized it was worth probing.

People have a symbolic investment in the language. Some are not coming from Yiddish-speaking families and some are not Jews, but they want to learn. And when they do so, they enter into a variety of communities. Like the scholarly world, where Yiddish studies is a small but growing field. 

There are large centers of Jewish interest, including among people who aren’t Jewish, in Poland, Germany, Russia. Performers are interested in the language because they want to perform music with Yiddish lyrics, or writers who want to do creative writing in Yiddish. And there are people who want to be able to have the language in their mouths for the pleasure of using it, however they understand that.  

You have a chapter on the “personality” of Yiddish, and I confess I am the kind of person who thinks of Yiddish in terms of all the sentimental associations people have with the language – that it’s “earthy,” or “charming,” or uniquely expresses laughter through tears.  

I didn’t have “personality” originally as a chapter, but my partner insisted. Yes, people describe Yiddish as colorful or earthy or sentimental. I collected the range of ways people ascribe a personality to the language. I don’t judge but bring an academic’s skepticism to the question, “What is the personality?” What do people get from attributing traits that are all over the place? Ultimately it doesn’t tell us about the language but rather what it has come to mean to certain people. As the number of people who are encountering it as a first language has receded, its symbolic value looms larger. 

And a lot of that, I suppose, has to do with nostalgia – a word I am not even sure you use in the book. Yiddish comes to stand for a culture and a way of life that was lost and which we then idealize.  

It might be that they view this as the language of a traditionally observant, fully lived Jewish life that doesn’t exist anymore. I am not suggesting it doesn’t exist anymore. Nostalgia is an imaginary project. Attributing to Yiddish this kind of earthiness suggests that Yiddish embodied a full-bodied Jewish life, as opposed to Judaism, which is from the neck up and very cerebral, intellectual. For them, a religion, a theology does not engage a full-bodied, everyday experience that runs the gamut, including things that are raunchy.  

What’s interesting is that before World War II, German Jews who repudiated Yiddish saw Eastern European Jews as living Jewish life to the fullest, as having a centered sense of self as Jews that they, as more deracinated, more anxious westernized Jews, had lost. And they look at that with a kind of envy, a kind of self-reflexive judgment about what they aren’t. Mind you, they don’t run off and become Hasidim, but they appreciate the culture. They read Martin Buber’s German translations of Hasidic tales, or hang artworks that depict Hasidic practices.  

If Yiddish is a person, it often seems like a problem child. Over and over you describe those who find Yiddish as something to be overcome, or grown out of, or as you say about assimilated Germans, repudiated.  

If it’s just a language, why do people get so bent out of shape? It’s what academics call extralinguistic phenomena – the stuff going on around the language. For Maskilim, the modernizing and westernizing Jews of the 19th century, Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back. For Hebraists, especially those attached to the Zionist movement, Yiddish represents the Diaspora and everything that belongs to it. Culturally and politically you have to leave it behind because it degrades you and eventually endangers you because you don’t have political power. 

In the United States and other countries to which Jews immigrated, there is a strong pressure for linguistic assimilation. You learn English because that is what makes you American. Yiddish has to go. If you wanted to be a teacher in a New York public school, you couldn’t even get a job if you had an accent that marked you as an immigrant. Sticking with Yiddish is seen as not getting with the program.

Let’s go back to the birth of Yiddish. I always learned that Yiddish is a dialect or a corruption of German salted with Hebrew and Aramaic and developed by Jewish speakers who were isolated from the mainstream in German-speaking lands. What’s wrong with this as a definition of Yiddish?  

You still find people giving a version of that definition, saying it deviates from German because of some type of limitation, either externally imposed, like the ghetto, or internally imposed – by Jews saying “we want a barrier between you guys and us.” That’s what most people thought.

And then you had scholars who, instead of viewing it in relation to German, view it in its own right, as its own entity from the get-go. According to scholars like Max Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum, Yiddish forms according to a pattern of Diaspora Jewish language formation that had been in place for many centuries before Jews encountered people speaking Middle High German. When they would encounter in the Diaspora new neighbors – in Spain, or Greece, or North Africa, or Persia — they would create Jewish language shaped by the encounter. That encounter means you integrate elements of the language you already had with the new language and make a new language in its own right.

Yiddish speakers couldn’t get by with Yiddish as their only language, right? They always had to speak the language of their neighbors as well.  

It never stands alone, and therefore it is already being shaped through this ongoing contact. So let’s accept the story that Yiddish starts somewhere in the German-speaking lands in the Middle Ages. According to that theory, Jews start migrating eastward, encountering Slavic languages. The Yiddish of Eastern Europe is different because of that contact – not only vocabulary, but also grammatical structures. Similarly, immigrants come to the United States and their Yiddish starts to acquire a lot of Americanisms, so much so that the later waves of immigrants have trouble understanding the Yiddish of their American relatives. That is still going on with Hasidim in that the communities in Montreal versus Jerusalem versus Melbourne are shaped by different languages around them. 

The big shift towards monolingualism not only as a practice but as an ideal results from different factors. In the United States, there is the very strong notion that English is the national language. The resistance to bilingual education continues to this day – efforts for bilingual education at the turn of the 20th century were debated in New York but met with huge opposition. In Israel, the resistance came from the belief that Hebrew, which nobody spoke as an everyday language, should be the national language and abandon whatever their original language was. That came from the 19th-century notion of national consciousness, especially in the empires of Europe, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, where populations were asserting a national identity centered around language. When everybody is expected to speak French, or German, or Italian, the dialects retreat.

Is something lost when Jews no longer have their own first or second language, when they have no access either to a private “code” or distinct way of expressing themselves? 

Setting aside the people who embraced it as the language of everyday life, where does Jewish distinctiveness get marked? It gets marked in other ways. My colleague Sarah Bunin Benor writes about Jewish English that is inflected by vocabulary and grammatical forms that include Yiddish and Hebrew and mark a Jewish way of speaking. That’s one way.

Intellectually it’s a kick-ass language that teaches you so much about language and its relationship to culture and people. That’s of great value in itself.

There are other activities and practices that have replaced the linguistic expression of distinctiveness, including material culture – things — like objects that have Yiddish words on them, collectibles, coffee mugs, fridge magnets. That starts in the U.S. after World War II as use of Yiddish is in decline. 

As somebody who invests time and energy in learning Yiddish, I think everybody should learn Yiddish. Intellectually it’s a kick-ass language that teaches you so much about language and its relationship to culture and people. That’s of great value in itself.

The other question you say you often get is, what is the future of Yiddish? Are you an optimist?

That’s not quite the right word, but I am open to seeing new developments. If somebody today time-traveled to 1983 and told me what’s become of Yiddish in 2021, I would be astonished. My teachers in the 1980s spoke about the An-ski folklore collection of material exhibited right before World War I, but because it was locked away behind the Iron Curtain didn’t know where it was or if we would ever see it. A generation later that material was displayed in an exhibition online. 

Or consider the queer Yiddish phenomenon. Who saw that coming? It had no precedent in Yiddish or queer culture – neither looked fondly at the other until people living in both worlds say “I am going to make it happen.” 

Yiddish Farm is absolutely a fascinating project – not only that somebody would do that but wind up building bridges between secular Yiddishists and Hasidim who would be doing activities in the language together. And there is the emergence of Yiddish in Israel. After several generations of its repudiation, there’s a new kind of interest and attention being paid to it. 

My answer to “What’s the future?” is that I am not a prophet, but expect the unexpected. I see no reason why it is going to end. Not only is there a large and growing haredi population, but even more interesting is the role it plays for people who grow up in that community but leave. Some never want to hear Yiddish again, others use it as a vehicle for creative work. No one saw that coming either.

We’ve gotten this far without mentioning the Holocaust, in which half the world’s Yiddish speakers were eliminated. I find it hard to think about Yiddish outside the context of the Shoah, not only because of what was lost but what existed before –  literature, ideologies, popular culture and academic work by those who didn’t know the destruction that lay ahead.  

The Holocaust changes everything — how could it not? But the change is not all of a kind, meaning it isn’t all destruction and decline of a language and a culture. The example epitomizing this is the contemporary Yiddish culture that takes the memorial model and turns it on its head. The Klezmatics started as a klezmer revival band like the others, but they started asking, what else can we do? I quote co-founder Alicia Svigals saying, “If there hadn’t been a Holocaust, there would be Yiddish rock bands today. That’s the music we should play.”

It’s a powerful way of acknowledging the Holocaust but not letting the perpetrators of the genocide have the last word on the culture. The goal is not to make culture ignorant of what happened, but to fly in the face of what happened. That kind of work is the best kind of memorial response. While I also value the work people do to study the pre-Holocaust culture of Yiddish, the story shouldn’t end there. To me it’s important to look at how we want the culture to move forward against considerable odds.