Life & Culture

Yiddish: A maven's quest to reclaim the mamaloshen

Academic Helen Beer wants to rescue Yiddish from its image as a language of comic curses.


‘Imagine you’re in a different country and you walk into a bookshop. You see a shelf that’s devoted to things in English. But it only has books about crass curses and jokes and nothing else.”

Yiddish was once the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry, with countless works of poetry and literature produced in the language. But more recently it has suffered a decades-long, entirely unfair depiction as, quite bluntly, the linguistic equivalent of a whoopee cushion.

Dr Helen Beer is a lecturer in Yiddish at University College London. And speaking to her, she confirms what I already suspect; that a tremendous injustice has been carried out against a language that was once the backbone of European Jewish identity.

It began, most likely, in America, where Jewish comedians would insert Yiddish swear words into their routines as substitutes for English equivalents which at the time were still frowned upon. And that was how Yiddish emerged in popular culture as a repository of swear words and rib-ticklers, insults and references to Fiddler and Mel Brooks.

“Sometimes when people write about Yiddish they follow certain stereotypes and I think that those are quite misguided,” Dr Beer says, diplomatically. But it’s quite clear how she feels.

“It’s tragic, from my point of view. Yiddish has got an unbelievably enormous literature. It’s so rich, and it really flourished in the interwar period in Eastern Europe. The numbers of publications are unimaginable. About ten percent of what there is has been translated into English. And what you get all the time … it’s, yawn yawn, ‘Tevye’ again and Sholom Aleichem, even though Sholom Aleichem has got a whole range of other things that people aren’t even aware of.

“The same thing with Ansky’s Dybbuk. Ansky did a hell of a lot more in his life and in his writings besides the Dybbuk. I’m not undermining those works, but sorry, it’s not all there is.

“You get this narrative that Yiddish has got the best curse words on the planet, and that it’s the funniest language in the world… every language is a window to its culture, and every language has its jokes and its curses, you name it. Yiddish doesn’t have a monopoly on humour or curses. It’s part of an overall stereotypical narrative, in my view.”

Dr Beer is the director of Ot Azoy, the annual week-long Yiddish lecture course held by the Jewish Music Institute in London, now in its eighteenth year.

“There are a lot of Yiddish summer courses, but this is probably the only one that only lasts a week”, she says.

“A lot of people who come have thought about learning Yiddish for years, even decades, and they think ‘no, I can’t ‘ or ‘I’m too old’, and they sort of dip their toes in and it’s always fine. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, I think, a little friendly bubble.”

Although most of the participants are English, people come from as far as Germany, Israel and Australia. The course has “a big mixture of ages, from people in their twenties, occasionally younger… to on the odd occasion, people aged 90 plus.

“The vast majority are Jews who are not necessarily religious, but having said that, they might still be quite traditional. Occasionally we also have very religious Jews coming as well. We also have people who are not Jewish.”

There are five levels, from beginners to the most advanced. People have varied motivations for taking part, including a fascination with languages in general, a keen interest in Yiddish folk-song, and sometimes a desire to connect with a language their relatives spoke when they were young. In connection with that last category, Dr Beer talks about a “very interesting phenomenon.”

“If they have heard more Yiddish somewhere in their lives, in the best case scenarios it’s almost as if there’s some sort of locked drawer in the brain. And then just by being present on an intensive Yiddish course it’s as if you watch the drawer opening. It suddenly unlocks things, more words, more phrases come out. I find that totally fascinating.”

Dr Beer was born in Australia, to a Yiddish-speaking family. “Yiddish was my first language”, she says.

“On my mother’s side they were Holocaust survivors, and after many concentration camps and DP camps they went to Australia, because it was as far away from Europe as possible.

“Yiddish was what they had always spoken at home in Poland; for them it was totally natural to speak the language they normally communicated in. I read and wrote it before reading and writing English.”

She started teaching Yiddish aged 17.

“When I teach, it’s in what’s called standard Yiddish, which is based on the Lithuanian pronunciation, but which is not identical,” she says.

“But from home, my Yiddish was 100 per cent Polish and also very specific to Lodz. The differences between one place and another, such as within Poland, are relatively small, but there are differences.”

There are, of course, other dialects of Yiddish, from the Ukraine and Belorussian regions, as well as Romania.

“I’ve discussed this often with colleagues; we worry that dialects are dying,” Dr Beer says. “But I don’t teach in Polish Yiddish because if you’re teaching students from scratch, with the difference in vowels it would take the students much longer to read, because in written texts, the spelling is according to the Lithuanian pronunciation.”

It’s no secret that Yiddish has seen a drastic decline in its number of native speakers since the end of World War Two. It can only be said to be growing among two specific groups. Firstly, among Chasidim, where it is still the primary language. And then among a far smaller group of Jews whose connection to Judaism is often only a cultural one.

Some of the latter group are anti-Zionist, with their embrace of Yiddish perhaps meant to be an explicit rejection of Hebrew — a mirror image, perhaps, of Israel’s extreme rejection of Yiddish, described by Dr Beer as “scandalous.

“There are terrible stories of visiting actors and actresses, really important literary people from Eastern Europe visiting Israel, and moves to subvert their public appearances, divert them away from this place or that place, or they’d get a lesser audience,” she says.

“There was a period when Yiddish theatre was actually banned in Israel. There were even cases where kiosks that sold Yiddish newspapers would be attacked.

“Obviously those things have a very long lasting effect. You can understand why Jews, post-Holocaust, everyone was supporting Israel almost irrespective of what their politics were. But that they should have denigrated a language that so many people spoke is pretty outrageous.”

But, as Dr Beer says, such an attitude to Yiddish goes well beyond Israel.

“I wish I spoke all the languages of the world, because then I would know the answer to my own question is there another language where actual speakers of that language, or people who belong to that same cultural group, constantly deride that language?

“It goes back to the Jewish enlightenment, post Moses Mendelssohn. I could send you lists of derogatory remarks made by Jews about Yiddish, going back to the late eighteenth century.

“That narrative continues in all kinds of places… for example, in England there was a lot of derision with regards to Yiddish. Was it to do with the English class system, or with immigrants wanting to appear not to be immigrants and not to be Jewish in order to succeed?”

To give some idea of the volume of existing Yiddish literature, Dr Beer mentions a “five or six volume lexicon of Yiddish writers”, giving mini-biographies.

“People have never even heard of them. Even as someone who’s spent a lifetime with Yiddish literature, I constantly come across people I’ve never heard of.”

Asked for a few examples, she mentions a writer from Lodz called Yisroel Rabon “his work is so unique and so different, it’s quite extraordinary.”

One of his novels, Di Gas (The Street) has been translated into English. Another, Alexander Spiegelblatt, died in 2013 “his language is so rich, he was an extraordinary writer. They’ve started translating some of his writing into Hebrew, but there’s nothing translated into English.” But as she says, “it’s the tip of the iceberg, to even mention any names, because next to those names you can add literally thousands.”

Returning to the topic of the type of people learning Yiddish today, Dr Beer stresses that without an understanding of religious aspects of Judaism, it’s not easy to grasp the language.

“People who study Yiddish, particularly if they’re not from a Jewish background, but even from a very secular background, they quickly understand that language is a window to the culture you cannot separate the language from every aspect imaginable within that culture,” she says.

“How can you read a text, for example - I’m thinking of a particular text to do with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You cannot understand that story without understanding the context of those festivals, and their complexities.” She always tries to pair people who have a knowledge of Jewish culture with those who might not.

I come away with the strong impression that if Yiddish is to make a revival, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how it is viewed, moving from regarding it as a joke repository to focusing on its incredibly rich literary tradition.

As the Yiddish proverb says: Nit mit shelten un nit mit lachen ken men di velt ibermachen— Neither with curses nor with laughter can you change the world.


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