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Yiddishkeit

The last fully realized work by Harvey Pekar illuminates the bluntness and delight of American Yiddish in the last century. A new excerpt.

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A panel of ‘Yiddishkayt in the 21st Century,’ by Joel Schechter, illustrated by Spain Rodriguez. (Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, Edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, Published by Abrams ComicArts)

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in trying to describe “Yiddishkeit” to an English-speaking audience, as this book attempts to do, is that there is really no English equivalent for the word. “Yiddish culture” comes close, but Yiddishkeit is so large, expansive, and woolly a concept that culture may be too narrow to do it full justice. “Jewish sensibility” comes closer still because it internalizes the notion of Yiddish, places it in the head as well as on the stage and the page, but sensibility is itself a rather loose and elusive idea and within Yiddishkeit there are several sensibilities that, while closely connected, are still not congruent. In effect, Yiddishkeit isn’t a thing or even a set of things, an idea or a set of ideas, which may explain why a book about Yiddishkeit is itself so sprawling, kaleidoscopic, disjointed, eclectic, and just plain messy. You really can’t define Yiddishkeit neatly in words or pictures. You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.

The feeling, of course, is largely a function of language. Yiddish may be the most onomatopoeic language ever created. Everything sounds exactly the way it should: macher for a self-appointed big shot, shlmiel for the fellow who spills the soup and shlmazel for the poor guy who gets the soup spilled on him, putz for an active louse, shmuck for a hapless one (as in “poor shmuck”), shnorer for a freeloader, nudnick for a pest. The expressiveness is bound into the language, and so is a kind of ruthless honesty. There is no decorousness in Yiddish, nor much romance. It is raw, egalitarian, vernacular.

That is why, even though there was, as Harvey Pekar makes clear in these pages, a vibrant Yiddish literature, the whole idea of a literature may have been inimical to the very spirit of Yiddish. Sentiment, sensationalism, and formula—all of these were natural to a language that was focused on the here and now rather than on airy philosophical discourse, on the forcefulness of expression rather than on nuances, on brutal truthfulness rather than on fine emotions. Yiddish is a blunt instrument. That is its real charm, not the phony whimsy that Pekar so detests in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, perhaps the most famous Yiddish writer.

Instead of great works, the language’s primary legacy is not only the Yiddishisms sprinkled into English for flavor or the subversive candor that impregnated American entertainment through Jewish comics but also the very democracy of Yiddish—its stubborn plebeian pride. Yiddishkeit seems to luxuriate in its own lack of elegance and its own marginalization, which is why a book of comics art, another outsider form, seems especially appropriate to describe it and why a wry shlump like Pekar seems an especially apt coauthor.

Yiddishkeit is abrasive. It is an attitude of challenge just as Yiddish is a language of challenge. As this book amply demonstrates, Yiddish artists were always attacking the status quo, and it is certainly no coincidence that many of these Yiddish artists, not to mention many grassroots Yiddishers, were political leftists. By the same token, the artistic and political Jewish establishments were afraid of Yiddish—afraid of the way it seemed to bulldoze right over politesse. Even the state of Israel reviled Yiddish, ostensibly for fear it would override Hebrew, and, as you will read, there were times when Israel outlawed the Yiddish theater. In effect, though, the real fear of Yiddishkeit was that it was too Jewish, too insular, too much an expression of the loud, wild, lively Jewish hoi polloi whom high-born Jews found so offensive. Who could imagine a state where the citizens spoke Yiddish?

Now that Jews have been largely assimilated into America, Yiddishkeit may seem both anachronistic and nostalgic here. Many Jews of my generation will no doubt remember, as I do, their grandparents speaking Yiddish when they didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. As the European-born and then the first American-born generations passed, they seemed to take Yiddish with them. And yet Yiddishkeit has managed to survive, if just barely, not because there are individuals dedicated to its survival, though there are, but because Yiddishkeit is an essential part of both the Jewish and the human experience.

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is an author, cultural historian, and film critic. This is excerpted from Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle, published by Abrams ComicArts. Introduction copyright © Neal Gabler, 2011. Illustrations copyright © their respective creators, 2011. Reprinted by permission.

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I think Yiddish would have a place in out modern world and it is a pity that it is gradually going. Our childrens children should be more aware of it and taught more often. Its dying save it.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Now Tablet should post a review. What appears above is the introduction to the book, which includes hyperbole like “Yiddishkeit is an essential part of… the human experience.”

Avram Davis says:

It is a mistake to think that Yiddish is dying. It is dying in the secular world. But it is doubling its numbers every 15 years in the ultra orthodox world – as the home language. There are more people that speak Yiddish this year (again, as a home language) than last year.
It is very hard to have a deeper understanding of Judaism or Jewishness without at least some knowledge of YIddish. Yiddish was the cultural of the majority of Jews for almost a thousand years. I myself am speaking to my small children partly in Yiddish and having them reply in simple Yiddish for things they may want. I recommend folks contact Kinder Shpiel at 845 782 4329 which is active printing toddler and children’s books in Yiddish. Ask for Yosef and tell him Avram from Berkeley sent you. That will give him a kick.

I second Avram – Yiddish is growing exponentially in the Orthodox world, where it is a first and primary language for many.

I was brought up only speaking Yiddish (at home) until I was 5 and went to Yeshiva – where English was spoken in secular classes. And it is the same for my 10 nieces and nephews and their 20+
children.

BTW, Yiddishkeit is a synonym for religious among the Orthodox.

“As this book amply demonstrates, Yiddish artists were always attacking the status quo, and it is certainly no coincidence that many of these Yiddish artists, not to mention many grassroots Yiddishers, were political leftists.”

What an interesting irony that the Yiddish language is being used and preserved by the ultra-orthodox – the most conformist, right-wing group in Judaism today.

apikoyros says:

I think it is unbecoming for triumphant “Anglophones” (English-speakers) to adopt patronizing attitudes toward the smaller languages that have been overtaken by it, through no intrinsic merit of its (or their) own. In that vein, here’s a “Yiddish”-style humorous saying: May you live long enough to see Mandarin and Hindi/Urdu speakers treat English as a language with such “flavors.”

Yiddish is NOT something reducible to quaint concepts in the mind of English speakers, perhaps of Jewish origin, perhaps with some half-remembered, faint nostalgic memories of their childhood. The claim about Yiddish onomatopoeia, explained using English, of course, as a meta-language would be a great joke of its earnest writer didn’t intend it as something of a serious insight. Nevertheless, there’s a reason that those who can, do read works in other languages in their original rather than in English translation.

I haven’t yet read the Yiddishkeit book. It may or may not be entertaining and informative. It may just be able to convey some accurate insights about Yiddish and Yiddishkeit to those unacquainted with them as well as to others who are. But I sincerely hope it doesn’t pile on to the old, but apparently still current, stereotypes that are, essentially, demeaning and, ultimately, racist.

Interesting article, although I must disagree with some of the comments. The demise of the Yiddish language has been highly exaggerated, Isaac Singer said upon accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature == the ONLY author who ever won it who wrote ONLY in Yiddish.
And he was right! (Thank God for the Chabadniks who maintain their daily usage of Yiddish at home and with their children.) But statistics show that university classes teaching Yiddish has almost tripled in the last decade. I was the first to teach it at a university level in the state of Florida (mainly because I wanted to hear it spoken and studied) and there were only 17 colleges where it was being taught. Now, almost 20 years later, it has been estimated that there are 130 universities with courses in Yiddish. We are making progress – perhaps slowly, but it AINT DEAD YET!

This obviously belongs on the shelf of all comix-loving Jews, and maybe even those who don’t yet know they appreciate the medium — even absent the Jewish angle, it’s a well-constructed and -curated collection showing why the medium of comix (and comics) matter. Thanks, Tablet, for hipping us all hereto.

anshl says:

Aren’t you tired of publishing constantly with the same inaccuracy about yiddish? That’s Tablet?

Ephraim says:

@Avram:

Avram says “It is very hard to have a deeper understanding of Judaism or Jewishness without at least some knowledge of YIddish”.

I think that the masses of Sephardima and Mizrachim in Israel would take issue with this statement. They speak no Yiddish, but as Jews I assume they are perfectly well-acquainted with “a deeper understanding of Judaism or Jewishness”, regardless of their lack of knowledge of Yiddish.

Without an understanding of and an appreciation for Yiddish I agree that it is difficult if not impossible to understand Ashkenazi culture and experience. But Ashkenazim are not the only Jews in the world. Here in the US most of the Jews are Ashkenazim and descended from Yiddish-speaking Jews. And I do believe that Yiddish and the culture and sensibility it embodies are an important part of the overall Jewish experience.

However, I’m sure that you can find any number of Sephardim who might say the same thing about Ladino, or Mizrachim who would say the same thing about Judeo-Arabic or any of the other Jewish languages spoken by Jews in their various diasporas.

Jews are, ultimately, united by adherence to the Torah and the cultre it generates. Yiddish is the European expression of that, that’s all. It is not a universal requirement.

Here in Melbourne Australia, Yiddish is a living language; we have a day school which teaches Yiddish, but also it is taught at tertiary level. We have concerts and other forms of entertainment in Yiddish.

Yiddish ain’t dead yet. I came to Warsaw, and can’t speak a word of Polish, and was able to make myslef understood in Yiddish. I went to performances as the IB Singer Festival put together by the Yiddish Impressario and Director of the Yiddish Theatre, Gold Tencer, and heard forgotten Yiddish songs from an 80 year old woman born in Czestachowa, who taught the singer of Troika, the band, as many songs as she knoew, and he sang them with love to a packed house. There was also the bad Kroke that was amazing, and while not singing in Yiddish, the music was absolutely from the Yiddish tradition, And then there’s our own National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, with the new Exec Direcotr Bryna Wasserman, and with our own Zalmen Mlotek, who has worked so hard and kept it alive. It’s now enetering its 97th season and is the oldest continuously operating theater in the US bar non. The audiences grow, people are learning Yiddish everywhere, and remarkable things are happening…so like another poster said, Yiddish ain';t dead yet, and it’s growing everywhere in the world, despite Ben Gurion’s efforts and post-war American Jewish efforts to make it disappear. MIR ZEINEN DU!!!

Avram Davis says:

Speaking to Ephraim:
Let me reiterate, but expand what I am saying a bit. One cannot understand Judaism or Jewishness of the classical period without some knowledge of the Sephardi culture (primarily Spanish, Egyptian and Turkish). It is impossible to understand Judaism of the modern period (the cultural and Torah accomplishments of the last 200 years or so) without some grasp of Yiddish or Yiddish culture. The overwhelming bulk of the Jewish people during modern times have been Ashkenazi and the great insights into Torah were being made in that community. Will the ball jump back to the Sephardi being the intellectual center? Perhaps. It will depend whether the Sephardi and Ashkenazi re-blend and become one people, or whether the Sephardi community expands it’s diaspora presence. Hard to say at this point.

Stanley Shimke Levine says:

I’m sorry but this article is very disappointing. Partly a collection of stereotypes and partly a cogent demonstrations of the author’s complete ignorance. Yiddish incapable of “philosophical discourse” and “nuance”? Tell that to the generations of Yeshiva students debating the fine points of Talmud in Yiddish, or the Lubovitcher rebbe delivering highly philosophical discourses lasting hours, in Yiddish. “The most onomatopoetic lgg ever created?” An illusion common in every lgg by ppl remembering nostalgically a tongue overheard in childhood but never mastered. I could just as easily say it about English, citing the sound qualities of rooster, collapse, prank, sofa, or even something as abstract as colors – how imitative are the words red (esp if you roll the r), yellow vs dark, black, brown. He dismisses Yiddish literature – has he actually read any in the original? anything besides Sholem Aleichem and Singer even in translation? — What ethnocentrism! The most impt contributionn of a 1200-year-old culture & lgg is that it gave a few (mostly vulgar) words to help Jewish-American comics get a laugh?! Does he have any notion of the vast literature that was created in Yiddish starting with [Jewish!] knights’ tales in the Middle Ages and still producing novels, plays and volumes of poetry every year. Will your next article explain that the great legacy of the Native American nations is not their philosophical, religious or (mostly oral) literary creations, not their music or their art, but that they have provided names for innumerable college sports teams???

vacciniumovatum says:

I worry about Ladino, which (sadly) is dying.

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Yiddishkeit

The last fully realized work by Harvey Pekar illuminates the bluntness and delight of American Yiddish in the last century. A new excerpt.
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