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The Politics of Language

In her new book, ‘Jews and Power’ (Schocken/Nextbook), Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse discusses Jewish political adaptability through the ages. In the excerpt below, she shows how this flexibility showed itself most immediately via language.

Since the inauguration of the Nobel Prizes at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews have received one-tenth of its awards for literature: in German, Paul Heyse (1910), Nellie Sachs (1966), and Elias Canetti (1981); in French, Henri Bergson (1927); in Russian, Boris Pasternak (1958) and Joseph Brodsky (1987); in English, Saul Bellow (1976), Nadine Gordimer (1991), and Harold Pinter (2005); in Hungarian, Imre Kertesz (2002); in Hebrew, Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1966); and in Yiddish, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978). This exceptional roster of Jewish Nobel laureates in so many different tongues powerfully contradicts the essentialist connection between nationhood and national language that was postulated by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, and it points to contrasting German and Jewish notions of identity.

Beyond the disproportionate number of Jewish recipients, there are three unusual aspects of this statistic: the multiple languages in which Jews wrote; that there were winners in two Jewish languages; and that one of those languages was Hebrew, which no modern Jewish community had spoken before 1900. How and why did Jews develop a relation to language that was so different from that of their neighbors?

As regards Hebrew, we have seen that the prophet Ezra kept Jews connected to the Bible and to one another by featuring public reading of the scriptures as the core of public worship. Hebrew functioned as the spine of the Jewish nation and (with apologies for the awkward mix of metaphors) flowed as lifeblood through its veins. Strict requirements governed the exact transcription and pronunciation of the text of the Hebrew Bible, while the obligation of universal literacy, at least among Jewish males, made Hebrew accessible not just to the priests, as became true of Latin, but to everyone who ever attended elementary school and recited daily prayers. Biblical Hebrew was preserved in every jot and tittle, even as the language was put to other practical uses. In addition to its high-status functions of Torah reading and prayer, Hebrew was also employed in daily study and legislation and by the learned for personal correspondence. The rabbis who compiled the digest of the oral law, the Mishna, around 200 CE were already using and developing what came to be known as Mishnaic Hebrew, a language enriched by semantic and syntactic borrowings from Aramaic and other surrounding languages. Eventually, Hebrew served many worldly as well as religious functions, becoming a lingua franca for trade in the Muslim Middle Ages, when Christians and Muslims did not know one another’s tongues; during the high point of Jewish self-rule in Poland, when Jewish leaders conducted their own communal affairs through the Council of the Four Lands; and for Jewish messengers who required a secret code during the Italian Risorgimento. The blend of its sacred and secular functions through the centuries of dispersion made possible the eventual recovery of Hebrew as the national language of Israel.

Yet since most Jews probably stopped using Hebrew in everyday speech even before the end of the biblical period, the Bible had to be translated into the local languages that Jews actually spoke if they were to understand as well as to hear it. The Aramaic translation of the Bible, the Targum, achieved near canonical status and is printed together with the original Hebrew in some editions of the Pentateuch. The Greek translation, the Septuagint, composed two centuries before the Common Era for Jewish settlers in Alexandria who had adopted Greek as their daily language, introduced the Bible to the outside world and enabled the spread of Christianity. The most frequently reprinted Jewish book of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published in more than two hundred editions, was the Tsena Urena (Come Forth and Behold; 1600), a Yiddish elaboration of the five books of Moses, with interpretive stories and homiletic teachings intended chiefly for women. English translations of the Bible, many of them intended for Jewish use, by now number in the hundreds.

Hence, the Jews’ relation to language stands midway between Christians, for whom the Bible is the Bible irrespective of its language, and Muslims, for whom the divine word assumes an exclusively Arabic form. Because Christians do not treat the Hebrew text differently from any translation, they considered the Latin Vulgate and English King James versions as sacrosanct as the original. The “Word of God” assumed for them any national identity into which it was transmitted; all nationalities can feel themselves to be authentically Christian. In the contrasting Muslim view, the Koran is only the Koran when it is in the original Arabic: it is the “Word of God” in the literal sense, and there are no translations, merely interlinear commentaries. A nexus of religious national exclusivity reinforces the connection between Arabic and Islam and the division between Muslims from people of other nationalities. For their part, Jews preserve the Hebrew text as the incorruptible source of their teachings while translating it into their languages of daily use. This reinforces national cohesion through interaction with surrounding cultures.

Hebrew was the central but never the exclusive Jewish language. From the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE onward, Jews did not speak a single common language. Because the fundamental unity of Judaism was more important than belonging to any particular geographic community, “language [was] not central in the traditional system of Jewishness: there was no concept of purism in the development of Jewish languages until the beginning of the twentieth century.” Reflecting on this pattern, the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman marvels at the almost complete lack of recorded laments in rabbinic literature over what must have been a wrenching transition from Hebrew to Aramaic, and from Aramaic to dozens of Diaspora Jewish languages: “Rabbinic literature pays almost no attention to intergenerational language discontinuity as either an individual or a communal problem.” Depending on local circumstances, Jews either mastered the languages of the surrounding populations or developed their own vernacular offshoots of the coterritorial language. Philologists and linguists study Jewish vernaculars such as Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, and so on for archaic features and terms that are lost in newer versions of the “host” languages.

The two main Jewish vernaculars derive from the two main branches of Jewry: Yiddish from Ashkenazim; and Ladino, or Djudezmo, from Sephardim. The term Ashkenaz was applied in the Middle Ages to Germany, and later to central and eastern European Jews and their descendants; Sepharad became the term for Spain, and then for the lands where its Jews settled after the Inquisition and their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century. Wherever the Spanish and Portuguese refugees settled in parts of North Africa, Greece, and Turkey, they spoke Djudezmo. The longer and farther they moved away from their place of departure, the more their language developed independently of its Spanish influence. In common with all Jewish vernaculars, it was written in Hebrew letters. In this way, the secondary languages of the Jews helped to preserve the alphabet and access to Hebrew.

Yiddish in its heyday was the most widespread of all languages ever spoken by Jews at a single point in history. It probably originated in the Rhineland about a millennium ago and grew more independent of its Middle High German base, just as Ladino did of Spanish when Jews migrated eastward. To demonstrate the fused elements of Yiddish, which was sometimes suspected of being less than a “real” language, the linguist Max Weinreich constructed this model sentence: “Following the benediction after the meal, Grandfather bought a religious book: Nokhn bentshn hot der zeyde gekoyft a seyfer.” Bentshn, from the original Latin benedicere, came into Yiddish via an earlier southwestern European Jewish language spoken by Jews in the area of France; nokhn, hot, der, and gekoyft derive from the German, the main semantic source for Yiddish; zeyde is a Slavic component word for “grandfather,” though no Slavic language has it in this form. The word seyfer in the original Hebrew denotes a book of any kind, but Yiddish reserves this word for religious texts and uses the Germanic bukh for secular books. Consequently, despite the semantic predominance of German, the diverse roots and the transformative process of Yiddish would have made such a sentence incomprehensible to the average German speaker.

A population explosion among Ashkenazic Jews in the nineteenth century created an unprecedented mass audience for Yiddish culture. Constrained at first by tsarist censorship, a boon in Yiddish publishing and performance soon produced a competitive theater, daily press, and elite and popular literature. By the time Isaac Bashevis Singer made his Yiddish debut as a writer in 1924 (alongside his older siblings Israel Joshua Singer and Esther Kreitman), Warsaw had become a hub of Yiddish literature and journalism. Excluded from the Polish PEN Club, which restricted membership to writers in the Polish language, Yiddish writers appealed to the international organization for permission to form an independent Yiddish PEN Club within Poland, arguing that national language was not synonymous with national territory. Yiddish writers thus became the first to be granted membership in PEN as a national minority without a territorial state.

The large numbers of Jews whose mother tongue was Yiddish (in some censuses as high as 95 percent) persuaded some modern ideologues that Yiddish could be the guarantor of national culture. They claimed on democratic or Marxist principles that a secular, modern Jewish national existence must be based on the language of Jewish majority or of the Jewish proletariat, and wherever ethnic minorities were allowed political representation in parliament, some championed Yiddish as the defining component of their ethnicity. Reveling in the political weakness of Yiddish — a language with no government or national institutions to protect it — the American Yiddish poet Moishe Leib Halpern proposed that if all declarations of war were henceforth issued in Yiddish, it would effectively guarantee peace in the world.

Weinreich’s model sentence anticipates why Yiddish culture could not sustain Jewish identity over time: the traditional Yiddish-speaking grandfather might go out to purchase a Yiddish book, but his pork-fed grandchild usually took up German or some other Western tongue. A language like Yiddish, generated by Jewish religious civilization to ensure its distinctiveness, was unlikely to flourish among secular Jews who were determined to take advantage of professional and social advancement in the broader society. Millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the Americas quickly adopted the languages of their host country, in which they could take fullest advantage of their opportunities. Under Soviet Communism as well, most Jews shooed their children into Russian rather than Yiddish schools. Under conditions of freedom, only Jews who were as religiously observant as those who had created it in the first place clung to Yiddish. In fact, Yiddish still thrives today only where sectarian Orthodox Jews try to fend off their secular environment.

The same political strategies of self-adaptation that once prompted Jews to adopt or to adapt coterritorial languages inspired some modern Jews to begin speaking Hebrew in everyday life. In an attempt to “normalize” their national existence, they felt they had to reestablish a normal national function for the only Jewish language that united Jews through time and space. In 1881, the first ideologue of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, explained to a friend in a Montmartre café his intention of settling in the Land of Israel. “That was the first time I spoke Hebrew at such length, and about such serious matters, and it was all done not for the sake of Hebrew conversation but for the sake of the subject matter.” The conversation lacked only certain specialized terminology, which he set about supplying. The rise of political Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century lent practical urgency to this spontaneous impulse, for how else but in Hebrew could Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia forge a common Jewish nation with Jews from Russia and Romania?

By the 1920s and 1930s, Yiddish was generating a world-class modern literature and culture, but the logic of Jewish politics demanded a common national language. Just as they had all along adjusted to local tongues, Jews in the Land of Israel now adjusted to a unifying Hebrew. Yiddish and other Diaspora languages yielded to Hebrew not simply because ideologues promoted it or because the state of Israel insisted on it, but on account of the political adaptation that required bringing Hebrew back into everyday use.

What a boon was Yiddish, with its stock of German, to Polish yeshiva boys who wanted to acquire the then dominant language of Europe! How exuberantly and efficiently Jews acquired, adapted, and abandoned languages according to whether they wanted more or less interaction with the surrounding nations! But Jews do not live in a political vacuum, and their linguistic adaptation looked very different from the contrasting perspective of those who conflated nationhood with national language. Jews may have assumed that their Gentile neighbors would appreciate their acquisition and cultivation of local language and cultures, yet the “multiculturalism” that Jews took for granted as a condition of their existence was often suspected of being a form of subversion by those in whose midst they lived.

Both Yiddish and German contain the sentence (here in its Yiddish version) Vi es kristlt zikh, azoy yidlt zikh, “As go the Christians, so go the Jews,” a sociological observation that mocks the enthusiasm with which Jews habitually accommodate to the dominant culture. This enthusiasm for self-adaptation contrasted sharply with German attitudes toward them. German thinkers from Johann Gottlieb Fichte to Richard Wagner believed that German had special status as an Ursprache, or primal language, and that those who speak the same language “are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins.” Germany could not absorb or mingle with people of different descent and language “without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture.” Wagner fulminated against the Jews’ “immature and incompetent knowledge of the German language,” their too great haste in “appropriating what was too alien to them,” and their consequent “falsification” of German purity.

Germans coined the term mauscheln, “speaking like Moishe,” to describe the unwelcome Yiddish-inflected Jewish jabber. “Elsewhere Yiddish sounded merely strange,” remarks Steven Aschheim about the contact between Jews and other Europeans, “but in Germany it was precisely its familiarity that bred contempt.” Germans assumed that Yiddish was a corrupted version of their perfect tongue. Jewish modernizers like Moses Mendelssohn, who absorbed German philosophy along with the language, were sometimes no less ruthless than their Christian counterparts in conflating the alleged corruption of language with the alleged corruption of its speakers.

Of course, Yiddish entailed no such degeneration. “Language is a dialect with an army and navy” was the retort of the linguist Max Weinreich to those who doubted the credentials of the Jewish vernacular. In point of fact, the indifference of Jews to linguistic purity may have signified a “higher” rather than “lower” standard of morality: they refused to make a fetish of language or to value a cultural product higher than they did its creators. They were like Americans — promoting rather than preventing the absorption of “foreign” elements into their vital speech, just as they delighted in absorbing new ideas and readying themselves for new experiences. The generous attitude of Jews toward language exemplified their cultural fearlessness. “No other group betokened more strikingly the fact of change” is how the historian J. L. Talmon characterizes the role of Jews among the nations. Germans mistook adaptability for negligence, creative energy for lack of rigor, and their own political might for evidence of moral superiority. By the end of the nineteenth century, the difference could not have been greater between the protectionist approach of many Germans to their national language and the eagerness of many Jews for cultural interpenetration. This contrast highlights the extreme divergence between Jewish nationalism and that of many others.

Jews were adaptive almost to a fault — or, rather, their acculturation was faulted by those who feared it. Jews considered it mutually beneficial to adjust to the nations among whom they settled. They did not foresee that some nations would distrust their adaptation. The Jews’ unique relation to language, balancing national autonomy and political dependence, gave them spectacular advantages in cultural competition, but “landed” nations reserved the option of suppressing their competition by other means.

*For a Forward Q&A with Ruth Wisse, click here.

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