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November 14, 2003 - Image 74

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-14

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Treasuring-Yiddish for the_Right Reasons

Dora Horn


Dara Horn is a doctoral

candidate in Hebrew

have often wondered if there is any language

language spoken by real people (and the number

in the world that is as cherished as Yiddish—

of Yiddish speakers today is actually growing,

that is, by people who can't speak or read a

thanks to the demographics of religious commu-

word of it. Few Jewish writers in America today

nities that still speak it), Yiddish has become a

know Yiddish, and as a freakish 26-year-old

shorthand, a romantic metaphor for loss. It's the

exception to this rule, I find myself fielding all

perfect literary device, of course. In literature,

kinds of questions from intrigued parties, rang-

unlike in life, a dead language is a beautiful thing,

ing from the inane to the profound. "Is Yiddish a

giving the writer's work a free poignancy and -

real language?" (Yes.)' "Isn't it just a dialect of

pathos that the writer no longer has to bother

German?" (Only if you think English, Dutch and

creating himself. And there is a further benefit to

Flemish are.) "Did you speak it growing up?"

using Yiddish as a metaphor. It absolves one of

(No.) "Why would you want to learn a language

the need to actually learn it.

no one speaks?" (Where do I begin?) But among

Yet there is something degrading about turn-

people my parents' age and older, I hear the same

ing an entire civilization into a metaphor –

remark again and again: "My parents spoke

particularly today, when translations of Yiddish

Yiddish, but only when they didn't want me to

works are regularly published by major American

understand them."

presses, when opportunities to learn the language

It's a common enough experience among peo-

are unprecedented in the past forty years, when

ple of a certain age, and in my mind, a tragic one.

Yiddish literature will soon become the first liter-

But when people tell me this, what I notice most

ary canon to be completely digitized and instantly

is that they invariably laugh. I wonder why. It is

available, and when Yiddish language textbooks

as if the deliberate destruction of a language is

are an internet click away from every doorstep in

somehow amusing, or, more likely, as if Yiddish

the world. It is degrading because it suggests, in

itself is somehow inherently hilarious—a ridicu-

its proud and poignant and pious choice of

lous language best known for . its humor, as if

metaphor over reality, that the only thing worth

words themselves could be funny without speak-

knowing about Yiddish culture is that it is dead-.

ers or writers to breathe humor into them. It is

and Yiddish literature

true, of course, that some of the greatest

at Harvard. Her

Yiddish writers were humorists. Yet for Jews

novel, In the Image

(W.W.. Norton, 2002),

has just been released : ,

in paperback.

whose Yiddish is limited to overheard curse

"Most American Jewish

words, the greatest joke isn't any specific com-

readers under 60, I think,

edy from the Yiddish literary canon (since they

haven't read any), but Yiddish itself. Just say

could probably name three

the worc_roy," and people laugh.

concentration camps. But

While their readers usually think of Yiddish

only as a joke, American Jewish writers today

how many of those readers

often refer to Yiddish with great fondness. But

could name three Yiddish

for many of these writers, too—few of whom

can • speak the language, and almost none of

whom can read it—Yiddish has taken on a

peculiar new meaning. Rather than being a




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