When he first encountered the mixings of Spanish and English in the United States, he was appalled. But later, he came to understand what he termed as “Spanglish” through the lens of Yiddish–a language that refuses to die and is re-crafted and carried forward into new locales by hearty immigrants.
Stavans was in conversation with former NPR international correspondent Corey Flintoff on Tuesday night in southwest DC, talking about his new book, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish. The book, co-edited with Josh Lambert of the Yiddish Book Center, is actually an anthology of short stories, essays, cartoons, speeches and etc by Yiddish speakers. But Ilan centered most of his talk on the history and future of Yiddish in America–with a significant side step into the topic of his current work-in-progress, a biography of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Yiddish, the mixing of German and Hebrew, has been around for a thousand years. With the Jews, it slowly moved out of Germanic lands and into the Pale of Settlement, where its speakers were either lost to the Holocaust or to emigration. America is now a primary home for Yiddish speakers, especially among ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Jews have lived all around the world, and several Judeo dialects sprung up, with Ladino (Spanish and Hebrew) being the second most prominent. But none, said Stavans, have been as linguistically developed, and as culturally relevant as Yiddish. In America, Yiddish took on new life through the writings of Singer, Sholem Aleichem and others. Now, plenty of words like oy, meshugenneh, kvell, feklempt and others have entered the American-English lexicon, even among non-Jews.
Yiddish is described as “the ever dying language,” in part because Jewish American immigrants often stopped teaching the language to their children. Stavans’s experience growing up in Mexico was different. In school he read several texts, including seminal ones about Mexican history, in Yiddish. Lately in the United States, despite the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research laying off its librarians, there has been a resurgence of interest in Yiddish. Stavans and audience members kvelled over the off-Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish and the recent translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into the language. One of the translators, Stavans noted, is a gentile.
The ultra-Orthodox inhabit a different sort of Yiddish language. One audience member described their language as “parochial,” and the general consensus seemed to be that there was something (chutzpah, perhaps?) lacking here. I was reminded of a passage from the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman:
I am shocked by the irreverent tone in “Tevye the Milkman”; who knew anything written in Yiddish could sound so crass and offensive? I always thought of it as a formal language, but apparently there are many Yiddish words that have gone out of fashion, because the Yiddish of today’s Williamsburg is nothing like the earthy, naughty Yiddish of the nineteenth century. It makes my cheeks burn just to read it.
Much like the young Feldman snuck in some contraband secular Yiddish literature, Stavans said he saw some Orthodox men taking novels from the Yiddish Book Center as entertainment for their daughters.
To purchase a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish. (and support your local indie!), click here. And you can find similar coverage of my attended literary events under the Books, Plays, Movies and Music tab!