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October 05, 1973 - Image 15

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1973-10-05

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

!VIII:+11 .




Prof...S.chul- mans Critical Review of Leo Wiener's
Yiddish History Affirms Faith in Language's Future

Authoritative studies of
Yiddish literature always in-
evitably use the late Prof.
Leo Wiener's work on the
subject as a reference
"The History of Yiddish
Literature in the 19th Cen-
tury" by Prof. Wiener was
published in 1899. It has been
reissued by Hermon Press.
Once again the controversial
Dr. Wiener may emerge as
a guide towards further study
of a rich subject that has
been greatly enhanced with
the literature in Yiddish in
tl-is century.
Sze new Hermon Press
volume has a new introduc-
tion by Dr. Elias Schulman
of Queens College, New
York. The scholarly adden-
dum adds invaluably to the
study of the subject of the
role of Yiddish and its status.
Dr. Schulman differs with
Prof. Wiener's predictions
and offers views of' his own
on the question of the influ-
ence possessed by Yiddish
as a living language.
Wiener's study provided
historical data on Yiddish as
the Judeo-German language.
His book dealt with the folk-
lore, folksong and popular
poetry of the Yiddish lan-
guage. The history of these
aspects in the 1980s, both in
Russia and in America, is
under review.
The works of the major
prose writers are evaluated.
Taken into consideration also
are the famous classics of
other languages that have
appeared in Yiddish transla-
The attitudes of noted
scholars towards Wiener's
work, in their reviews of his
book, are presented in Dr.
Schulman's introductory es-
say in the new edition of the
Wiener history.
In his essay, Dr. Schulman
takes issue with many of the
Wiener viewpoints. He paints
to some errors in his histori-
cal record. He differs with
his conclusions.
The Schulman account of
Wiener's career, his youth,
his acquisition of his knowl-
edge of Yiddish from play-
mates, his mastery of Ger-
man. his professorships at
the University of Missouri
and at Harvard.
Wiener's son, the famous
mathematician Norbert
Wiener, is quoted regarding
his father.
Dr. Schulman tells about
Wiener's marriage to Bertha
Kahn, the daughter of a Ger-
man immigrant in St. Jo-
seph, Mo. He states: "Leo
Wiener, who came from a
semi - assimilationist family
qnd his bride built a home
at was far from Jewish.
i.iorbert tells us- that as a
child he did not knew he
was a Jew. He was sent to
a Unitarian Sunday School!
and it came as quite a
shock when, much later, he
discovered that he was Jew-
Wiener's antagonism to
Yiddish and a conflict he had
with the Jewish Publication
Society are described by Dr.
Schulman, who states:
"Leo Wiener's 'History of
Yiddish Literature in the
Nineteenth Century' is ap-
parently his only work that
is being studied and utilized
by students, scholars and
historians. All his subsequent
works are seldom mentioned
or consulted. After publish-
ing this history, he evidently


lost interest in Yiddish al-
though he wrote the article
about Yiddish for the Jewish
"In 1902 Wiener mailed
some Yiddish folklore ma-
terials to the Yiddish philolo-
gist Alfred Landau with the
statement that he has no
time to devote to Yiddish
studies. There must have
been other reasons. Prob-
ably, the atmosphere in his
home was not conducive to
Jewish studies. Mrs. Leo
Wiener, according to her son,
made- fun of the Jews and
spoke about gluttony of the
Jews. Norbert Wiener also
recollected that his mother
reduced 'my brilliant and
absent-minded father with
his enthusiasm and his hot
temper to an acceptable
measure of social conform-
ity.' He further reminisces
that 'the responsibility for
keeping the fact of my Jew-
ishness secret was largely
my mothers. My father was
involved in all this only sec-
ondarily and by implication.
I believe that he had or-
iginally intended not to bur-
den us by the consciousness
of belonging to an under-
valued group, while at the
same time he wished to pre-
serve intact our respect for
that group and our potential
"Norbert Wiener also tells
that his father had some
friction with the Jewish Pub-
lication Society. Norbert
Wiener says: 'Later I found
that father always claimed
that the friction was the re-
sult of an arrogant insistence
on the part of the Jewish
organizations that a Jew was
a Jew before he was a man,
and that he owed inalienable
allegiance to his own group
before humanity itself. My
father was always an indi-
vidual, and was the last man
in the world to stand pres-
sure of this kind.'
"Whether the decisive fac-
tor was his friction with the
Jewish Publication Society,
or the atmosphere at home,
or both, the fact is he discon-
tinued his interest in Yiddish
studies around 1902-1904. He
devoted himself to teaching,
writing and editing until his
death on December 13, 1939."
Wiener had predicted, long
before the Holocaust and the
end of the shtetl under Com-
munism in Russia, that Yid-
dish is doomed. He foresaw
and early end of the Yiddish
press. He spoke of Yiddish
as a dying literature. To
which Dr. Schulman replies:
"The date set by Wiener
for the demise or extinction
of Yiddish was absolutely
wrong. In the period since
Wiener wrote his work, Yid-
dish literature emerged as a
great literature that could be
compared not only to Bul-
garian to which Wiener com-
pared it, but to any major
"The language did not de-
cline as much as it was
murdered by Stalin and the
Nazis. In Russia the Stalin
terror destroyed all sem-
blance of Jewish cultural
activity and murdered most
of its creative writers. Yid-
dish declined in the U. S. due
to linguistic assimilation. To-
day the miracle is that both
the language and its litera-
ture are alive in the United
States, Western Europe, and
Israel, where about 150 Yid-
dish writers reside and con-
tinue working in Yiddish.

Even in Russia, where the
ban on Yiddish has been
slightly lifted, the surviving
Yiddish writers have re-
sumed their work and are
contributing their share to
Yiddish world literature. Yid-
dish literature has not run
its course—it still has some-
thing to say to the Jewish
people. In ending his chapter
on "Prose Writers in Amer-
ica," Wiener concludes that
"From its (Yiddish litera-
ture) ashes will rise new
forces in the English litera-
ture of America that will add
no small mite to its pages
(pages 229-230). American
Jewry has produced a great
many writers—most of whom
are striving to be considered
American writers who are
not interested in creating a
Jewish literature. They want
to be in the main stream of
American Letters. Some of
these writers are talented,

Friday,' Ottobei 5, 197S-1S

Alberta U. Purchases Sephardic Collection

but even the best do not
come up to Mendele Mokher
Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and
especially Y. L. Peretz —
whom Wiener characterized
correctly as a genius."
In view of the current re-
vived interest in Yiddish, the
reappearance of Wiener's
book and especially the criti-
cal view of it by a modern
scholar who is devoting him-
self to efforts for expanded
Yiddish studies, the new edi-
tion of Wiener's history is a
welcome phenomenon for re-
search. Dr. Schulman's thor-
ough analysis of an early
work that may mislead
people is especially welcome.

rare collection of Sephardic
manuscripts and books has
been purchased by the Uni-
versity of Alberta.
This extraordinary acquisi-
tion will enable scholarship to
be pursued in Canada and

He who has studied insuf-
ficiently, and teaches and
acts according to his defec-
tive knowledge, is to be
considered as if he sinned

will greatly enhance the uni-
versity's Judaic studies pro-
This particular collection
has a large number of letters
and other manuscripts, most-
ly relating to the period




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