YIDDISH LANGUAGE & LITERATURE
[My intention with “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene” is to start with a brief account of the development of the Yiddish language, then, in Part 2, present a précis of the history of Yiddish theater, focusing on its rise in the United States, and then recount the story of the Folksbiene company itself. I want to start with the language because . . . well, for two reasons. First, obviously, there couldn’t be a Yiddish theater, or Yiddish literature in any form, if there weren’t the language. There’d probably be a Jewish theater of some sort under any circumstance—indeed, there are some who quip that Broadway is a Jewish theater (or was a generation ago)—because there are and have been many great playwrights, composers, actors, directors, designers, producers, and theater owners all over the world who are Jews, but of course they don’t all work in Yiddish—very few, I’d venture. Second, the language is itself a fascinating phenomenon and its very existence makes the Yiddish theater a unique human achievement.
[I suppose I ought to confess here that I don’t myself speak Yiddish. Oh, like most assimilated Jews, I know some phrases and because I learned German as a teenager (as well as some Russian), I can decipher some of what I hear. (For instance, I know from German and the way I know that German morphed into Yiddish that Folksbiene is the equivalent of Volksbühne, which means “people’s stage” or, more colloquially, “people’s theater.”) But I’m a child of what’s known as “the lost generation,” Jews in the diaspora who grew up in cultures like the United States where assimilation was not only possible, but encouraged, and the separateness that demanded its own language and supported it was no longer in effect. My parents never spoke Yiddish (my father’s parents did, though I doubt my mother’s knew more than some phrases), so I never learned it at home—but it has always intrigued me.
[The fascination comes from the fact that Yiddish is a “national” language for which there was never a nation. Yiddish literature, and with it Yiddish drama, Yiddish film, and Yiddish music, is the heritage of a people in the same way that Spanish literature or French literature is—except that no Yiddish “people” ever existed. (I assume the same is true of Ladino, though on a smaller scale, but I know even less about that culture than I do about Yiddish. Ladino is the language of Jews who migrated to Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages, known as Sephardim. Yiddish is the language of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and, subsequently, the nations to which they eventually spread.) Except for the possible exception of Ladino, I can’t think of another cultural development like Yiddish and Yiddish literature. And think of it: a Yiddish movie made in Russia—there was briefly a thriving Yiddish film industry in the Soviet Union—could be seen and understood by a Yiddish-speaking audience in New York, London, or Buenos Aires with as little difficulty as we Americans find watching a BBC series on PBS today. A Roman spectator wouldn’t have been able to understand an émigré Italian talkie made in New Jersey in 1930! Okay, I’m a geek (so what’s new?), but the phenomenon simply astonishes me.]
The origins of Yiddish, the language associated with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, principally Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic nations to the east, are traceable to at least the 10th century. As Jews migrated into the Rhineland from western and southern Europe after the Muslim invasion of the Middle East and North Africa out of the Arabian Peninsula, fleeing the Christian Crusades and the Black Plague that followed, two impulses combined to make such a development necessary. First, each strain of Jewish migrants ended up in a different country, each with a different native tongue. Not only did families disperse this way, but so did business and trade networks—which would be a benefit as long as the trader in Prague could communicate with his associate in Vienna. The newcomers naturally learned the vernacular the locals spoke, whether it was German, Polish, Russian, Magyar, or Latvian (or, in many case, a dialect of one of those) so by now the Jew in Prague spoke Czech and the one in Vienna spoke German. The only language they had in common was Hebrew. There the second impulse for the rise of a common language came into play: Hebrew was a holy language, to be used only for liturgical purposes, not transacting business or passing along family gossip. So, a common language for Jews became a necessity. (A third dynamic also helped spur the development: formal Hebrew education was available only to boys and men: women, who conducted much of the daily activities of life, had no convenient way to learn the language beyond household prayers. The Ashkenazi women spoke Yiddish at home, in town, and, most influentially, with their children. It was the children, who spoke the mame-loshen, the “mother tongue,” with each other and, in turn, their own children, who drove the spread of the language.) Eventually, local dialects developed based on the regional vernacular, especially forms of medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch), plus bits of the tongues the Jews had brought with them from the Middle East (including Hebrew and Aramaic), the dialects from the territories through which they’d migrated, and influences from languages spoken by neighboring communities and people who traveled and traded in the region.
To further this development, the European Christians prohibited Jews from living near them, establishing designated parts of cities where Jews could live and where they’d have to return by curfew. Within these ghettos, the Jews were essentially isolated from their Christian neighbors and had to find their own ways to educate themselves and their children in order to survive. They could learn the local vernacular well enough by ear, but the only written alphabet they knew was Hebrew, so they began to transcribe the local tongue using Hebrew letters. It had long been common for Jews to write local languages, including Arabic, Persian, Greek, or Latin, in Hebrew letters. (Little is known about the vernacular of Jews in the regions from which they came before the migrations of the Middle Ages. Aramaic, the language of the Middle East in Biblical times, had essentially died out as a common language by the third century CE.) Medieval Jews shunned the Latin alphabet for its association with Christian priests.
The German Jewish community was the oldest, largest, and strongest (and, eventually, the most prosperous as well), probably because the societies of Austria and the German states were more stable than those of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and the other eastern nations. For whatever historical reasons, as the Ashkenazi Jewish culture was forming, the medieval German the Jews were transcribing in Hebrew letters became the foundation for Yiddish. (‘Yiddish,’ in fact, is a corruption of jüdisch, German for ‘Jewish.’ ‘Ashkenazi’ is medieval Hebrew for ‘German,’ by the way, though the derivation is somewhat circuitous.) By the middle of the 18th century, what can be recognized as modern Yiddish had arisen. The written form of the new language, based on phonetics, was regularized and is fairly consistent today, but the transcription into English remains haphazard and idiosyncratic. (In the mid-20th century, scholars, philologists, and even press organizations made many attempts to standardize the English spelling of Yiddish words, but none ever reached general acceptance.) As trade among the Jews of the Eastern European diaspora increased, the need for a commercial language became stronger, and the new vernacular began to absorb vocabulary, idioms, and grammatical influences from other languages spoken by the Jews. There is, of course, no “standard” Yiddish as there is in English or French, since each region developed its own version of the tongue, but the new language was common enough across the area that it became the lingua franca among the Ashkenazim.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, writers and poets began publishing in Yiddish and a literary tradition was established alongside the commercial and street parlance. As the Jews of Eastern Europe migrated farther, escaping oppression, discrimination, and deprivation, the pogroms of Czarist Russia, and ultimately the Holocaust in Eastern and Western Europe, they took their “native” language and literature with them to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The Yiddish culture flourished from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century—which, not coincidentally, is the heyday of Yiddish literature and theater. As you might guess, however, the Holocaust took a heavy toll on Yiddish literature as it did on almost all aspects of Jewish life and culture. Before the Nazi Holocaust, there were more than 11 million Yiddish-speakers, but today, probably no more than two million people in the world speak Yiddish. (Fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. speak Yiddish at home, of whom about two-thirds live in New York State. Most U.S. speakers of Yiddish are Hasids.)
Though Yiddish literature developed through several stages from the 14th century to the Enlightenment (coinciding with the rise of Hasidism, an important force in the use and spread of Yiddish) and then from the Enlightenment through the Victorian era, the height of Yiddish writing, including drama, began in the 1860s and peaked at the turn of the 20th century. The impetus to create a Yiddish literature was clearly the desire for Jewish writers to reach readers outside their native communities. Writing in Hebrew had long become confined to Biblical or Talmudic theses and writing in the local tongues, even German, restricted the audience only to those who spoke the language. Writing in Yiddish, however, meant that an author in Bohemia could have readers in Minsk or Berlin, even London or Paris and, later, New York and Sydney. Yiddish, of course, lent itself splendidly to the literature of the Jewish people. Hebrew, in the centuries before the establishment of Israel returned Hebrew as a living tongue, was inadequate to express the feelings of a highly emotional and vibrant culture; indeed, there are virtually no curse words in classic Hebrew (though I presume modern Israelis have remedied that lack). Leo Rosten, novelist and mavin of the Yiddish language, explained:
Yiddish possesses an incomparable vocabulary of words to express shades of feeling; a juicy catalogue of praises, expletives, and curses; and a richer array of characterization-names than can be found, I think, in any other language on this globe . . . .
As many Americans know, especially if you live in New York City or work in film or theater, no Yiddish word has a simple, one-word equivalency with English (or any other modern language); it not only takes a phrase to define a Yiddish term, but you need to do it with attitude and tone of voice. Yiddish, as the Folksbiene webpage puts it, “speaks with humor and passion of the human condition, our strengths and frailties, our hopes, fears and longings.” Because the language “has embodied the hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” it was ripe as the medium of a new literary tradition.
The turn of the century, then, became the Golden Age for Yiddish writing, the era of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), S. (Solomon or Sholem) Ansky (1863-1920), David Pinski (1872-1959), Sholem Asch (1880-1957), and the brothers Singer, Israel Joshua (1893-1944) and Isaac Bashevis (1904-91), many of whom wrote both prose and drama. Yiddish literature, in fact, may have reached its pinnacle in terms of world acceptance and recognition with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978, the only Nobel laureate to write principally in the language. (U.S. Novelist Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel in literature in 1976, was fluent in Yiddish and translated many Yiddish works, including some of Singer’s, but didn’t write in the language. Shmuel Yosef (“Shai”) Agnon, 1888-1970, who shared the prize in 1966, wrote in Hebrew.)
The modern era of Yiddish writing established two important characteristics. First, it broadened the subject matter or themes from the predominantly religious and scholarly Judaica of the early period and the didactic parochialism of the Hasidic-dominated early middle period and the intellectually inner-directed criticisms of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) to a more outwardly-directed and universal humanism that made room for entertainment as it made its points. Though the 19th- and early-20th-century authors still habitually wrote about Jewish communities and lives, the themes became more diverse, depicting the characters as mostly ordinary folks just like their non-Jewish neighbors.
Perhaps because of the repression under which Jewish communities lived during much of the first decades of the modern period, essentially from the American Civil War to the end of World War I, the Yiddish literary movement tended to take on a leftist or at least strongly liberal bent, which we’ll see had a practical effect on the Yiddish theater, but the topics, themes, and characters aligned with European modernism. Yiddish writers took up social and cultural issues such as social injustice, children’s education, and women’s position in the home and community. Second, the new writers brought more sophisticated techniques and styles to their work, paralleling the writing of their gentile counterparts elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. These twin impulses brought Yiddish literature into line with the established literatures of other world cultures, raising its esteem in the world of reading. The new, mature Yiddish literature quickly became a legitimate subject for literary criticism. Singer’s Nobel was, in this sense, the stamp of acceptance of Yiddish as a full member of the literary universe. Yiddish drama echoed this modernization as well, of course.
[Well, that takes us up to the development of a Yiddish theater, a parallel to the Golden Age of Yiddish literature. I will post the second part of this exploration in a few days, so come back next week to read about the excitement among Ashkenazi Jews over an indigenous theater, the establishment of the most vibrant center of that theater activity in New York City, and the formation and development of the longest-lasting professional Yiddish theater company, the Folksbiene.]