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 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 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 practically accommodate the reality rather than letting it fester, because repressing and denying problems is how problems grow.
So, let's take a Talmudic approach and ask the first obvious question:Why do I want to kill these people?
When then follows to: What makes me want to kill these people? How can I avoid killing these people? How can I reduce the situations that make me want to kill them? Once I'm in those situations that make me want to kill them, how do I get myself out of them? 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? And all of 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 then comes the next Jewish question: What do I mean by kill?
Do I mean to literally murder them? Do I just mean to defenestrate them? Do I just mean to just yell really loud for thirty seconds and then sulk off to my car? Or do I mean that I'm really mad and frustrated that they won't understand my intentions? Or do I mean that maybe they do understand my intentions but they won't acknowledge that my intentions are good? Or do I mean that maybe they want to acknowledge that my intentions are good but their ethical framework doesn't let them act on it? Or do I mean that they never forgave me for being an impractical artist instead of a naches machine who got good grades, married a Yiddishe maydle who pops out eyniklakh, has a six-figure salary, and has no real personality except for whatever qualities they told me to have? Or by kill do I mean that maybe I can convince them that there is a place in their framework for a person like me who has read more about, thought more deeply, and engaged more with the things they care about than all those naches machines which their friends' children were who achieved every proper thing their parents told them to achieve and then moved to New York or DC for a better job and only see their parents for a weekend every two months at most? Or by kill do I mean that they still have a thoughtful son whom they sometimes disagree with as loving, reliable, and often enjoyable, company for them while it's their friends who will die alone.
So, obviously words are an important issue. 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 people want them to mean, then why would we 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, 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, not compelling them. And convincing is not necessarily 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, there will not be moments when people become convinced that for the greater good of the world, they should take up arms.
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. But no one has control over how those mental spaces are changed, and the unintended consequences 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. Left or Right, once you create circumstances under which people feel dictated to, regardless of the reality, they will feel like prisoners, and every prisoner, even and perhaps especially a prisoner of the mind who has no suffering to think about except for his own captivity, becomes more anxious to be let out than the jailer is to keep them 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, 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 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 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 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 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.
The problem with such a linguistic porridge is that it's sloppy, and sloppiness can have serious consequences. Here is, in my opinion, an example from today's headlines:
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. 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. 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.
In the same way, certain Yiddish words can evoke worlds of meaning in ways that are both fantastic and also a little dangerous.
Just 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 (talk about archetypal Jewish behavior...). 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 uses goy in an incredibly pejorative way - heathens, idolators, and that's 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 seemed to mean 'nation.'
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