...But hardly had the Jewish communities found their liberty in the "New Jerusalem," as they called it, before they began to develop with renewed energy that detestable intolerance which has always been characteristic of their religion, and which unhappily the Christian Church inherited in some degree. The spirit of Caiaphas, which determined the whole history of the people of Israel as long as they had national independence, frequently lost its potency in later times owing to external conditions, but it always came to life again when Jews attained to power. And so it was on this occasion. The case of Uriel de Costa, who, for his free religious views, was sent to his death by the venomous persecution of the Amsterdam Synagogue, is a tragic instance. Spinoza was then eight years old. Half a generation later he was engaged in a similar conflict himself. His philosophical interests and activities became known and attempts were made, first to convert him, then to bring him back to orthodoxy by threats. When both methods failed, bribery was tried: he was offered a salary of a thousand gulden if he would remain true to Judaism. Since he was not to be moved even by this, a member of the community felt that murder was indicated. But the attack failed. And now there was no course left to the Synagogue but to excommunicate him. Before the assembled congregation the solemn ban was pronounced, the concluding words being: "Curse him by day and curse him by night! Curse him sleeping and curse him waking! Curse his comings-in and curse his goings out! May the Lord never forgive him! He will burn with hardness and wrath against this man who is laden with all the curses that are written in the Book of the Law. He will blot out his name from under the heavens!" Thus did Jewry treat a man whose whole offense was that he led a more serious, peace-loving, and unworldly life than his fellow-Jews. But, as it had always been a good old Jewish tradition to stone the prophets, there is nothing extraordinary in this,...
- Egon Friedell - A Cultural History of the Modern Age, Volume IIFirst of all, wow! If you want to understand how the German speaking lands went along with Hitler, look at what the people whom Hitler would have killed anyway was saying about other Jews! As we talked about last time, the way that Jews were accepted in German speaking lands was to find ways to be more German than the Germans to show that they'd scrubbed clean all that dirty Jewishness from themselves. German Jews were, and were for a long time even in America, very keen on distinguishing themselves from those poor, obnoxious, backward Ostjuden from the Pale of Settlement.
And yet, Friedell didn't write the Kherem against Spinoza. This is real, this is how Jews in the most prosperous Jewish community of their century, treated their greatest Jew who simply exercised what should have been his freedom to worship or not worship in the way he saw fit in a country, The Netherlands, that was perhaps the most tolerant place of its time - not, in the least, because it was so tolerant to Jews. And yet Jews could not exercise the same tolerance even to the man people now think of as the greatest thinker of his time.
So now, let's look at a few passages of what is probably, if you don't count the Tevye stories as individual stories - the most famous short story in Yiddish Literature - and deservedly so. Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a good-night prayer. And instead of the raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me. .......
When the pranksters and the leg-pullers found that I was easy to fool, every one of them tried his luck with me. "Gimpel, the czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen; Gimpel, little Hodel Furpiece found a treasure behind the bathhouse." And I like a golem believed everyone. In the first place, everything is possible, as it is written in The Wisdom of the Fathers, I've forgotten just how. Second, I had to believe when the whole town came down on me! If I ever dared to say, "Ah, you're kidding!" there was trouble. People got angry. "What do you mean! You want to call everyone a liar?" What was I to do? I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good....
To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking, I threw on my wool vest and went out. Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking? Well, what a cat music went up! And then I took a vow to believe nothing more. But that was no go either. They confused me so that I didn't know the big end from the small.So in the interests of time, I'm going to summarize the rest of the story. Gimpel the Fool believes in the goodness of other people. His benevolence’s reward is nothing but humiliation and oppression from everyone he's ever met. Because Gimpel chooses to believe that people would never be so malicious as to lie, everyone he ever meets tries to fool him. The people of the town trick him into marriage with a woman who named Elka who had already been married twice and who may be a prostitute; and in addition to a steady stream of lovers, Elka has a more permanent paramour whom she introduces as her ‘brother.’ She insists that the ‘brother’ not only live with them but also that Gimpel hire him as an apprentice in his bakery. Both Elka and her ‘brother’ are physically abusive to Gimpel, and though Gimpel and Elka probably never have had sex, she has six children and assures Gimpel that they’re all his. Gimpel chooses to believe her. The town later decides that Gimpel has to divorce Elka for the very reason they insisted he marry her. But Gimpel still chooses to believe his wife, and he refuses to divorce her. Gimpel and Elka live this way for another twenty years before Elka dies. On her deathbed, she makes a shocking confession: (gasp!) the children are not his. We're going to come back at the end of the class to the end of this story.
Gimpel doesn't care at all about how other people treat him, only about how he treats them. He's a man who lives his life in the service of an ethical code, and the world rewards his efforts with unsurpassable cruelty; and this is cruelty devised and enacted by his fellow Jews - the very same people who should unceasingly praise his ethical conduct. Gimpel may live among his co-religionists, but he is a Jew among Jews; he's hounded for living by an ethical code that sets him apart from his neighbors. He becomes so tyrannized by those around him that he has to leave his home and live a life of perpetual exile.
So why might other Jews treat Gimpel so hatefully?
I will give my personal theory. A bullied person is in the worst possible circumstance, because once you've dehumanized the victim, the largest part of rehumanizing them is to realize that you yourself are the one who became less than human. There's a famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov, maybe the most famous, which begins with Fyodor Karamazov, the family father, deciding to make a scandalous scene in a holy place, because he thinks of someone he dislikes and says to himself to the effect of 'I once played a trick on this person, and I've hated him ever since.' It's the same idea as the old adage that whites could never forgive blacks for slavery. The contempt and revulsion which Europeans felt for Jews was as much because of how they made Jews suffer as it was for how they perceived any Jewish actions. Jews are perceived as revolting because they are weak, and because they have to accept how we treat them, and therefore we must continue to treat them that way. If we show them mercy, their weakness might infect us. They might in fact take revenge on us, because god knows we've done things to them worth avenging, so, if anything, we should treat them still worse. Jews are human, and they are not exempt from this rationalization, and we have been the victim of it so many times that it would be foolish to think that we would be immune from the same practice.
So I'm just going to warn you now. Things are about to get very real, and I'm taking a big risk by framing our discussion in this way. So very quickly, brace yourselves. 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 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 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 to the outside world 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. So whatever frustrations we had, the only outlet we had to take them out on was each other.
This might strike some of the more American souls in here as harsh. But 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 a traditional Yiddish-speaking family it is almost expected that you will make scenes. Now a non-Jewish person, perhaps even a non-ethnic person, would listen to this description, and something in them recoils. A repressed conservative might say how can you possibly talk this way about your family??? An overly empathic progressive might say, how could you possibly endure circumstances like that???
But both of them are seeing the world in a very linear, non-Jewish, maybe 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.
Let's quickly look at a three 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."'
(in response to Iyov/Job 11:20: 'But the eyes of the wicked shall fail, and they shall not escape, and their hope shall be as the giving up of the ghost.')
'No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.'
'Behold, you are wiser than Daniel; There is no scret that is a match for you. By your wisdom and understanding you have acquired riches for yourselfand have acquired gold and silver for your treasuries. By your great wisdom, by your trade you have increased your riches and your heart is lifted up because of your riches.'
Irony is a way of expressing things in a multiplicity. It's the most practical means of expression: it's a holistic viewpoint takes in both tragedy and comedy, 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 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. Maybe only a Jew could have come up with psychotherapy because would anybody else have wanted to make their baggage public knowledge? But the Jewish way is to find a practical way to accommodate the reality rather than letting it fester, because repressing and denying problems is how problems grow.
So, let's take a Talmudic disquisition to this and ask a series of questions and try to find answers:
Why do I want to kill my family?
When then follows to a series of practical questions and answers:
What makes me want to kill these people? Rabbi Akiva says it's because they are so rigid about how they interpret Jewish responsibility and assimilation and Israel and antisemitism. Rabbi Eliezer says it's because it took them thirty years to realize that dating non-Jews might be alright even if they'll be pestered until the end of their lives to convert. Rabbi Yehoshua HaNasi says it's because they still haven't realized that just because I'm a liberal I'm not necessarily an accessory to evil any more than they are.
How can I avoid killing these people? Rabbi Meir says it's by not bringing politics and religion up. Shimon Bar-Yochai says it's by finding other, more agreeable topics of conversation Yokhanan Ben-Zakkai says it's by leaving the room when it seems like these inevitable discussions are getting heated.
How can I reduce the situations that make me want to kill them? Abbahu says I should politely ask them before it gets heated to not bring up these topics. Rav Ashi says I should make them see the common ground between us before they come up.
Once I'm in those situations that make me want to kill them, how do I get myself out of them? Rav Jonah says there's a polite way in which I can leave the room without their taking offense. Rav Nachman says there's a way to steer the conversation with a pasted on smile to something unrelated that they'll find interesting enough to talk about. Rav Papa says I can make a joke out of the whole thing that deflates the situation
How can I make myself remember, when I want to kill them, that there are times when I don't want to kill them and am really quite fond of them? Rava says that it's by thinking of those moments when I'm so fond of them.
The Talmud involves grappling with all sorts of things: obvious things we all don't necessarily need stated, pedantic dark things we'd all rather tune out, dark things we'd all rather avoid, but by taking all of that commentary in, you realize the vastness of lived Jewish experience, and you come to realize that the problems of your life are just a very small part of the totality that defines your life, your family, your community, and your world.
I wrote up and deleted another disquisition about what I mean about the word 'kill.' But I think everyone's life experience makes you understand that any choice of words is incredibly important. 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. The glories of Yiddish would never be possible if that weren't true. But somehow, simultaneous to a movement to make words mean whatever people use them to mean has arisen a movement to make people use certain words to mean various concepts and not others, because people deem them offensive. Many progressives advocate both of these practices without seeing a blindingly obvious contradiction: If words mean whatever any individual wants them to mean, then why would anyone ever take offense at other people's use of them?
Which of those two ideas about language came first is a chicken-and-the-egg question, but the point is that one of those ideas would have never arisen without the other. They both arise from the same place, to make better room for the marginalized in our society, but language is not something that can be controlled, it can only be guided.
Think of those two Jewish words we defined in the first class: kavanah - meaning intention, and kevah, meaning framework. Our intentions are our intentions, and whatever our intentions, so long as they seem good we have to respect both our own intentions and the intentions of others. But there also has to be a framework of the communal good, and if necessary, an occasional communal prohibition, around the fulfillment of our intentions. And if the framework of communal good can get better, then we have to go about the excruciatingly irritating process of convincing other people to change the framework, and not compelling them. Also, convincing is not a pleasant process. Debate is a battleground on which just about everything short of defenestration is game. There will be insults, there will be accusations, there will be moments when people say things to each other intended to leave scars. But so long as the dialogue continues, the chances become exponentesimally smaller that people become convinced that for the greater good of the world, they should take up arms against each other.
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 around which you process those words. But no one has actual control over how those mental spaces are changed, and the unintended consequences linguistic changes grow geometrically. Liberalism, the slow boring of hard boards, was the gradual reform that enabled desegregation, a forty hour work week, and affordable health care. Progressivism, the urge that says that the world must always be compelled to progress and perhaps at an accelerated rate and sometimes even at a radical rate, enabled conservative and reactionary rule of America for the better part of fifty years. And if the Left ever won and cast people who privately own 300 million guns into the political wilderness, what might these newly disempowered people do who have endless political muscle in reserve, armed weapons, and have long since proven their will to power? Left or Right, once you create circumstances under which people feel dictated to, regardless of the reality, they will feel like prisoners. Every prisoner, especially a prisoner of the mind, who has no actual suffering in his life to distract him, and therefore endless time to think about to think about the ways he feels like a captive, becomes much more anxious to be let out of his perceived jail than the jailer is to keep him in.
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?
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 Northeast Poland, said 'potatoes', they said 'Kartoffeln.' They used the German word. My Mom's grandparents were from the Belarus/Lithuania border, 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, and evolving at an accelerated rate from how the various dialects of German evolved between region and region. Another couple centuries and Galicianer Yiddish, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Litvak Yiddish from the Russian Empire, would probably be as different as Spanish and Italian.
We have to remember that Yiddish and pre-codified languages like it are the languages of oppressed people. Only an oppressed people would talk in a language where meanings can always change. Even a united language has to evolve to stay powerful, just think of how English evolves with the times. But my dearly beloved Isaac Bashevis Singer made a very astute observation when he said that Yiddish is the one language that was possibly never spoken by people who held power. But a linguistic goulash, like Yiddish, is also how a language evolves when there are lots of situations when they want others to not understand what they say, because if they say the wrong thing, their lives are forfeit.
It can also contribute to a lack of compassion between people. It's absolutely not fair that people say 'You don't speak English in a way we deem proper and therefore you don't deserve that much public funding even though we know we have no more right to subsistence and education than you 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.' But the world is what it is, and Judaism accommodates to survive that world. 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. You'll see where I'm going with this in a moment but before you do, let's take an example of what happens in the dangers of linguistic sloppiness and what it means for a society. Here's an example from today's headlines.
We group so many distinct world views and emotional states now under the two words: tragedy and comedy that the two words almost mean everything now, including their exact opposites. But there are very important distinctions, and I personally believe that the generalization and misinterpretation of these words has, in some ways, contributed to some very bad moral choices as a society. A "tragic" person is not generally someone who is deserving of our compassion, if anything, the opposite is much more true. 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 station in life to an ignoble one. There are a million celebrity stories in America which might, in some ways, be considered tragic. Some Jews currently in the headlines like Harvey Weinstein, or Anthony Weiner 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, 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 - which, in tragedy, is often deserved. And through a process called mimesis, a complex emotional transformation in which we both imagine ourselves in the 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 it.
And yet we call tragic the people Harvey Weinstein 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. So how did it evolve from a term of compassion to a term of contempt? I have no way of being certain about it, but what I do know is that here in America, something in our mentality is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that any state, no matter how debased, is not something that we can't transcend with enough gumption and willpower and strength. There seems to be a voice in each of us who says that anyone who is lucky or unlucky made their own luck, and we no longer have a word for people who are deserving of compassion. We do our best to shut pathos - the 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 at the highest, most fortunate society in the history of the world.
In this same way, certain Yiddish words can evoke worlds of meaning in ways that are both fantastic and also a little dangerous.
Think of the word goy. After my first column in the Jewish Times, a couple at Beth Am whom I talked to nearly every week my first year at Beth Am wrote to the editor to condemn me for using it (they also complained that I said that Jews are bad at getting along with each other...). Goy is a word whose connotation is incredibly ambiguous. Lenny Bruce used 'goyish' the way I always use it, to connote a kind of ersatz good taste that any Jew's bullshit detector should be able to see through. It's true, the Torah sometimes uses goy in an incredibly pejorative way - heathens, idolators, and that's certainly how Rambam/Moses Maimonides, the preeminent Rabbi of the AD era, used it too. But the Torah also uses 'goy' to mean the Jews, Hashem promises Avraham a 'goy gadol' - a large nation, Whatever goy means now, 3000 years ago, it just seemed to be a value neutral term for 'nation' that was used sloppily. When antisemitic writers would accuse Jews of hating 'goyim', all they had to do was point to those places in the Torah where 'goy' was used pejoratively, and to those places where it was used flatteringly, they could argue that it was evidence of our lack of moral integrity.
On the other hand, certain Yiddish words have a world of meaning which nothing in English can approximate. Think of the word 'heymish' or 'heymisher.' I could tell you that it means home-like, but that does not in any sense describe the lived-in experience of having that word in your vocabulary, or the multiplicity of association it recalls for the people who use it, the exponentially multiple uses which the word passes through in everyday conversation, because what can home-like mean in a language of a people that have no home?
German is the precise opposite of this. The German language would find different and precise words, both simple and compound, to build out every possible conception of heymish brick-by-brick with its own word so that each meaning could never be mistaken for any other. The way the German language is structured seems to exist so that all concepts have a solid meaning, and can therefore never be misunderstood. We can certainly speculate how probable it is these two extreme concepts of language may have evolved parallel to each other in the way they interacted over the generations. Perhaps German burghers wanted to pin Jews down on legal documents to get more money out of their taxes, and Jews protected by German princes would use loopholes in the meanings to keep enough for their situations to stay secure. But that's just speculation on my part.
But the whole point of Yiddish, and to a certain extent the religion which shaped it, is this comfort with ambiguity and paradox in a way that proper modern thought would find incredibly sloppy.
So now that we've established the difference between tragedy and pathos, can anyone make similar distinctions between irony and comedy?
Slipperiness, sloppiness, smarminess of meaning is the whole point of such. A goyisher temperament will take it on face value and go their merry way, a Jewish temperament will ponder it for a minute and say HEEEEYYY! There is nothing quite so wrong as
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