The Undying Half-Life of Yiddish

Marc Caplan in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, when most American Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe, nearly every Jew in the United States spoke Yiddish, but no one gave it any respect. Today, by contrast, everyone is full of affection for Yiddish, even though almost no one speaks it. Though one hears from every synagogue pulpit and reads in most university Jewish Studies mission statements that Hebrew is the eternal and unifying language of the Jewish experience, Yiddish maintains an emotional claim on the descendants of Eastern European Jews, as well as leaving an indelible imprint on the popular culture created by, for, and among these immigrants and their offspring. Is this valorization of Yiddish commensurate with knowledge and appreciation of — or respect for — the language and the culture it created beyond the lexicon of sentimental melodies, off-color jokes, and redefined adjectives? One could gesture to the 2020 Seth Rogen film An American Pickle without having to answer the question further. Emotional relationships can often lead in nonrational directions, seldom directed by facts.

Toni Morrison has cautioned all Americans that no haunting can ever be entirely benign. And to the extent that Yiddish has changed American culture — as Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert assert in the title of their readable and teachable new anthology — it is as a haunting, a ghostly reminder of deceased ancestors, defunct aspirations, and lost causes.

More here.