Welcome to a class on Yiddish Literature. I was blocked on how to approach this class until I realized that this was due to the fact that this class is probably near the source of every neurosis I've ever had in my life. So I'm going to exploit this class take you with me on a journey as I work through my guilt and shame and anger and fury about being yelled at by my family about how I'M THE REASON THE YIDDISH LANGUAGE IS DYING WHEN I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD!
I had some inkling that my parents were speaking some strange language to each other of which I knew a bit when I was a very small child, and there were certainly resemblances between many words. But I'm pretty sure it was not until my first day of school that I realized, OH MY GOD THE REST OF THE WORLD SPEAKS ENGLISH!
So at some point after school started, I learned English well enough to come home one day and refuse to talk to them in Yiddish, for which I got the first of many, many, many lectures about how I'm not doing my part to rescue Jewish culture from dying permanently. Which of course, in a four-year-old's brain, means YOU KILLED JUDAISM!!! YOU KILLED IT AND IT'S DEAD AND IT WILL NEVER COME BACK BECAUSE YOU DESTROYED IT AND WE DON'T LOVE YOU!
Well, I'm teaching a goddamn Jewish literature class now, and I'm still iffy on whether they love me, but at least now there's some evidence that I'm doing the things on which their love was clearly conditional. So, Uncle Nochem, who's the great champion of Yiddishkeit now????
And this brings us to the unfortunate, forgotten, and deeply uncomfortable truth of life in the ghetto, and perhaps generally of Jewish life. For the vast majority of our history, Jews have been utterly powerless against our life-circumstances. We lived in authoritarian countries where you had to defer and grovel merely to survive, or at very least avoid imprisonment, or conscription, or assault. We knew that whenever we showed how much we resented our circumstances to the outside world, the consequences might have been disastrous and permanent. And therefore, whatever frustrations we had, the only outlet we had to take them out on was each other.
I refuse to believe that anybody who grew up with Yiddish-speaking grandparents doesn't have memories of scenes that resemble something like the Costanza household in Seinfeld, in which every conversation is a potential shouting match. These are people whom, in the words of my mother about her in-laws, the Holocaust and changing a lightbulb is roughly the same level of crisis (she won't be happy about my telling you that). In traditional Yiddish-speaking family it is almost expected that you will make scenes at other people's expense. Now a non-Jewish person, perhaps even a non-ethnic person, would listen to this description, and something in them would recoil. A repressed conservative might say how can you possibly talk this way about your family??? An overly empathic progressive might say, how could you have possibly endured in circumstances like that???
But both of them are seeing the world in a very linear, non-Jewish, perhaps even goyisher, rubric. They are seeing the world from a place where everything is either one thing or the other. Everything, in such a view, is either tragic, or comic, or romantic, or satirical. But the origin of those world views is Greek, it's not Jewish, and it's shaped the Western worldview for two-and-a-half thousand years, but to Judaism, that's a very new plant.
The most uniquely Jewish form of expression is ironic. Irony, not comedy. The Tanakh is, so far as we know, the literary origin of irony. It literally means to say one thing and mean the opposite. Irony is a way of expressing things in their multiplicity. It's the most practical means of expression: it's a holistic viewpoint takes in tragedy, comedy, satire, it can be filled with both contempt and compassion. When you say that your upbringing could be weird at times, it's both a way of complaining about it and also of celebrating it. It's a way of saying the obvious truth about just about every family in the world, which is that family life is messy. Everybody's family is crazy, and everybody has reasons they sometimes want to murder the people they love, but thought and action are very different things, and in Judaism, the way you deal with these thoughts is by examining them. Perhaps only a Jew could have come up with modern psychology because would anybody else have wanted to share their baggage? But the Jewish way is to say, alright, why do I want to kill these people? What makes me want to kill these people? How can I avoid killing these people? How can I increase the good moments with them and reduce the bad? But that involves both grappling with some stuff you'd rather avoid, and also, realizing that the stuff about yourself and others that you'd rather avoid is just a very small part of the totality that defines your life, your family, and your world.
So this obviously gets into an important question. There's a large movement in our generation to make words mean whatever people use them to mean, and that's half, but only half, of a good idea. Yiddish would never be possible if that weren't true, but think of that Jewish word we defined two weeks ago, kevah, and what that would dictate. Around our intentions, whatever they are, there also has to be a framework of the communal good, and if necessary, a communal prohibition, around the fulfillment of our intentions.
Language is power, just ask the writers of Breitbart on one side and Bellhooks on the other, once you change the way commonly used words are used, you change the mental space by which you process them.
What are some examples of words whose use have changed over your lifetimes?
How did they change?
What changed in society that their use changed?
What might be good about those changes? What might be bad about those changes?
The way we use have to remember that Yiddish and pre-codified languages like it are the languages of oppressed people. Even a united language has to evolve, but a linguistic goulash, like Yiddish, is also what can contribute to a lack of compassion between people. It's absolutely not fair that people say 'You don't speak English properly in a way we deem proper and therefore you don't deserve that much public funding even though you technically deserve subsistence and education as much as we do.' It wasn't fair that people used to say 'You don't speak German or Russian as properly as we do, and therefore we're won't employ you in this business or accept you in this university.' Language can be used for good or ill, but a people with a codified language is a people with power, and a people whose language is misunderstood is a people ruled.
No language should aspire to be in a situation like Yiddish, where all the ways people intend to their words to have meaning has equal meanings. My parents always marveled at how, when my Dad's parents, who were from Poland, said 'potatoes', they said 'Kartoffeln.' They used the German word. My Mom's grandparents were from Belarus, and when they said 'potatoes', they said 'Bulbes.' The Russian word. Every region of Yiddish had a world of difference to it, and in the confines of the shtetls and ghettos, it was constantly accumulating different words from region to region, evolving at a vastly accelarated rate from how the various dialects of German evolved between region and region. Another couple centuries and Galicianer and Litvak Yiddish would have become different languages.
We group so many distinct world views and emotional states now under tragedy and comedy that the two words almost mean everything now, including their exact opposites. Things that are But there are very fine distinctions, and I personally believe that the generalization and misinterpretation of these words has, in many ways, contributed to some very bad moral choices as a society. A "tragic" person is not someone who is deserving of our compassion. If anything, it is the opposite. A tragic person was too fortunate before the tragedy occurs for us to ever feel any identification with him. A tragic person falls from a great state in life to an ignoble one. There are a million celebrity stories in America which might, in some ways, be considered tragic. Some Jewish antiheroes currently in the headlines like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Anthony Weiner, Leon Wieseltier, would, technically, be considered tragic figures.
I'm sure that many of you, hearing that description, have a slight urge to wretch. That's good. These figures are tragic almost precisely because they are NOT deserving of our compassion. They were incredibly lucky in life, and now fortune has made them pay for their hubris or the way that they felt pride in their advanced station rather than humbly appreciate their luck and conduct themselves accordingly. Ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, would tell us that we look at their stories, we see that they once were luckier than us, and they then fall into humiliation lower than us - one that, in tragedy, is often deserved. And through a process called mimesis, a complex emotional transformation in which we both imagine ourselves in tragic figure's circumstances and take pleasure the way their good fortune runs out, we achieve a catharsis, a spiritual transformation in which we understand that the ways of the world are much more complex than we can ever apprehend, and perhaps even feel a little lucky with our more modest lots in life. This is obviously a very reductive way of describing more than two-thousand years of philosophical commentary, most of which, I've obviously not read.
And yet we call tragic the people they abused, when in fact, the proper term, and I think the necessary term for them, is, and please understand that I mean this in the exact opposite way it's usually used, pathetic. Pathetic does not mean deserving of contempt, it means the exact literal opposite - deserving of compassion. But here in America, something in our mentality is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that any state, no matter how debased, is something that we might not be able to transcend with enough gumption and willpower and strength. This is the land of the individual and self-creation, and as Americans, there's a voice in each of us who says that anyone who is lucky or unlucky made their own luck; and therefore pathetic people are "pathetic." - please notice that I'm saying that ironically. We do our best to shut pathos - a state deserving of compassion, out of our minds; and perhaps because of that, we divide society up between the fortunate whom we celebrate and the unfortunate whom we denigrate, the winners and the losers, and that's practically inviting tragic circumstances to come to our society as a whole - which I don't need to remind you, may as a whole be the most fortunate society in the history of the world.
So now that we've established the difference between tragedy and pathos, can anyone make similar distinctions between irony and comedy?
Let's look at a few verses from the Tanakh that are clearly ironic:
'It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened."'
But when David returned to bless his household, Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, "How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants' maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!"
Let's look at some Bible Verses
And that kind of scene is the only way that you will ever be able to make sense of so much in Yiddish literature