April 23, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
April 23, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Rutgers University Professor Authors Book About the Life of Yiddish

Yiddish may be the “mother tongue” of the Jewish people, but who knew it also has its own gender, political affiliation and personality?

Apparently Dr. Jeffery Shandler, distinguished professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, knew because he wrote an entire biography of the traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews assigning it many of the attributes traditionally associated with a person.

After all, Yiddish has been the language of anarchists, playwrights and artists; the everyday language of pre-Holocaust European Jews. Today it has its own readily recognizable typeface appearing on T-shirts and coffee mugs, is the vernacular of charedi Jews and is experiencing such a revival that the language-learning app, Duolingo, on April 6 added Yiddish as its 40th language, already amassing almost 50,000 users.

Shandler spoke on April 12 about his latest book, “Yiddish: Biography of a Language,” published by Oxford University Press, at a virtual program of Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life that drew about 400 viewers.

“When it comes to languages, we do sometimes talk about them as if they’re people,” said Shandler, who spoke in conversation with Josh Lambert, the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at Wellesley College. “For example, we talk about languages being in families. We talk about languages dying and the more I thought about it, I thought rather than have this be something nominal I thought this was really a very provocative idea.”

Yiddish, in particular, can fit into so many characterizations, from productive and creative to problematic and disturbing, that Shandler said a biography was the perfect vehicle to tell not only the story of the language but how people have talked about it, conceptualized it, scrutinized it and imagined it.

It has a hierarchy among its speakers beneath “the holy tongue” of Hebrew and of Aramaic that are used for prayer and study and has a unique status of not being a national language, which imbues it with “symbolic value.”

“There is a greater self-consciousness about what this language means on its own irrespective of what you’re saying in it,” noted Shandler, adding the language used to be commonly known into the early 20th century not as Yiddish, but as “jargon.” “The fact that you’re saying something in Yiddish as opposed to Hebrew or German or English carries with it a certain level of meaning that can go in all sorts of directions. They can be positive as well as negative.”

Today, many non-Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe and Germany where Ashkenazi Jews had once been a major presence, have a newfound interest in Yiddish. This “exciting” development for Yiddish scholars like himself as well as students at Rutgers and other academic settings demonstrates its evolving new engagement with the culture, said Shandler.

Yiddish in its current form differs from the language spoken before World War II and has found its way into Israeli and American culture, with translations of opera and literature and its use in television, theater and movies, said Lambert.

Shandler organized the book much as if Yiddish was filling out a biographical information form that is divided into 14 thematic chapters starting with data of birth, gender, occupation, education and ending with life expectancy. Although the list of biographical chapters grew with time, Shandler said from the onset he knew the chapter on gender would be especially important.

“People most often think of the language in gender terms, most often as female, but not always the same kind of female,“ said Shandler, including as a seductress,, an old crone or a servant.

Shandler said in the early 20th century, modern Hebrew was considered masculine and therefore Yiddish was feminine “with unfortunately the negative associations, the feminine being weak and the masculine being strong.” Women have been viewed as the “ideal” readers of this “non-elite” language because men read Hebrew, the sacred language, he explained. One of its early typefaces had an “official branding” as a typeface for women. However, especially in the American chasidic world, this notion began to change with men using Yiddish as their primary language as women increasingly spoke English.

The language has an ability to create a buzz that no other does, said Shandler, who recalled when Yiddish was added to the languages on the MetroCard purchase machines for the New York City subway about 20 years ago, it drew attention that the addition of Greek, Chinese or Korean or any other language never garnered.

“There was a whole flurry of attention that the subway now speaks Yiddish,” said Shandler. “Yiddish somehow stood out. That to me, that the very stature of the language is worthy of attention and is worthy of scrutiny. That has been a part of its history for a long time. It is a language not like the others, but there’s something singular about it that draws this kind of attention.”

By Debra Rubin


Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles