David Roskies on Making the "Language of Jewish Secrets" Young Again

By Lana Gersten

Published March 25, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Author and Yiddish scholar David Roskies is out with a memoir that looks at his family’s transmission of Yiddish culture from the Old World of Vilnius to the New World of Montreal and New York. “Yiddishlands” (Wayne State University Press) takes readers on a journey through Eastern Europe, where Roskies’s grandparents owned a printing press and his parents came of age before the emigrating in 1940. According to the author, the book, an excerpt of which was published in the Forward last year, details “the love affair of a mother and her youngest child, and how Yiddish is the glue that holds that romance together.”

Mother Tongue: ‘Yiddishlands’ details one family’s transmission of Yiddish from generation to generation.
COURTESY OF JTS
Mother Tongue: ‘Yiddishlands’ details one family’s transmission of Yiddish from generation to generation.

In an interview with writer Lana Gersten, Roskies, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of eight books, discusses his memoir and the future of “the language of Jewish secrets.”

Lana Gersten: This book describes Yiddish culture, which was a huge part of the Jewish immigrant experience, as it was transmitted through storytelling and song. Has that oral tradition been lost?

David Roskies: The title of the book is “Yiddishlands,” and the plural is very important, because what it describes are three different settings for the transmission of Yiddish culture. The book begins in the Old World, which was the Yiddish heartland. Because I come from a family of book publishers going back to the 19th century, we look at the culture of the Jewish press; we look at the people and the professional class of my parents’ generation, who were first-generation rebels for whom Yiddish was an expression of the new Jew. In Montreal, it was not a matter of oral culture being transmitted at all. This was a conscious, organized, ideologically driven effort to foster and teach Yiddish. I’m a product of that world. The last part of the book describes Yiddish as a passport to the Jewish world. Yiddish was the language of choice for my parents.

In the chapter Etudes, you talk about the need to make Yiddish young again. Do you think that could ever be accomplished?

Yes. Making Yiddish young again means making Yiddish the language of the Jewish counterculture. And I think that’s still true. It’s true for my students, for whom this is a rebellion against assimilation and self-effacement, trying to pass as something else.

You write that people always told your mother she should write her own memoir, but she never did. What made you want to tell her story?

I began writing the book the day after I got up from shiva, and I spent two years writing that first draft. It was a way of keeping her alive. As long as I was writing the book, I was still in conversation with her. When that draft was over, I could finally let go. All my life, I knew I was writing it. I have all her letters, the 12 hours of tape … I was constantly taking notes when she wasn’t looking.

A lot of children whose parents spoke Yiddish never pick up the language. You were immersed in Yiddish at home. Why was it enticing to you?

Yiddish for me was not an immigrant, second-class culture. To me, this was a world-class culture, and Montreal was only a piece of it that stretched over the globe. Yiddish is the language of Jewish secrets; it is a key to the inner drama of Jewish life. So I learned that first from listening to my mother’s X-rated stories, but that became a metaphor for a much larger intellectual passion.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.