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In Memory of a One-man Yiddish Empire

Mordkhe Schaechter, a linguist, lexicographer and rebbe of secular Yiddishists, died February 15. He was 79.

I became attracted to Yiddish when I was growing up in Louisville, Ky. Sitting in the back of Ms. Donsky’s German class, I often encountered Schaechter’s name while stumbling through week-old issues of the Forverts. On the basis of these references, I came to imagine a one-man Yiddish empire, an Academy of the Yiddish Language, publishing books, issuing edicts and deciding issues of style from a Yiddish Palace perched high in the mountains of Eastern Europe.

Ridiculous, of course. But when I came to New York, I found it to be true: The Yiddish empire and the Yiddish Academy were the fruits of one man’s labor.

The only thing I was wrong about was the Yiddish Palace. In his earlier years, Schaechter was as peripatetic as any Eastern European Jew — from Romania, where he was born, to Vienna, where he earned his doctorate, to Israel and Mexico, where he taught Yiddish and interviewed Yiddish speakers for various linguistic projects. By the time I met him, though, he had long since settled down. His Yiddish Palace was in New York.

It had two branches. One was a small office in a nondescript building on West 72nd Street in Manhattan (off-track betting on the ground floor, yoga instruction down the hall), where Schaechter led, coordinated or sponsored the work of at least three separate but interbred organizations. Two tables covered in ugly linoleum dominated the office. The walls were lined with books. There were two modern pieces of equipment: an answering machine that I never knew how to work, and a burglar alarm that I never saw the point of. Contributions to the organizations — the League for Yiddish, Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish, the Binyumen Schaechter Foundation for the Advancement of Standard Yiddish — were painstakingly inscribed in large leather-bound volumes; a computer made a late appearance but was never welcome.

The main palace was found on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, where Schaechter lived with his Yiddish-speaking family. (This unlikely colony was called “Bainbridgevke” by the Schaechters and their Yiddish-speaking neighbors.) There the books were the main organism; it was as if they had retreated to a small space and graciously allowed for the intrusion of human inhabitants.

In both branches of the palace, Schaechter was an emperor of words. He read a book or a newspaper like an expert birdwatcher taking a walk, catching words on the wing and categorizing them in midflight, with an eye less for beauty than for systematization. He would make cryptic annotations in the margin, amassing countless numbers of note cards with terminologies in Yiddish and English: words for food, words for computer parts, words for sex. No question from student or teacher was too recondite or obscene; on a given day, poets, rabbis and writers for The New York Times would call to ask what a word meant.

I made a mistake earlier when I called Schaechter a linguist, because (in the modern sense of the word) he wasn’t. He was a philologist, loving his language — my language, our Jewish language of Yiddish — with a passion that demanded devotion. Imagine expecting of Yiddish writing the same attention to style, the same precision, the same breadth of subject matter that English readers take for granted. Imagine treasuring equally a mathematics textbook from 1920s Russia and a public-health notice from Brooklyn’s Boro Park circa 1995, knowing that Yiddish is not “leftist” or “religious” but (as Schaechter said) a garment that takes the shape of the body that wears it. And then imagine the tenacity required for carrying this ideology beyond — or even despite — tired declarations of death.

Anyone who speaks, reads or writes Yiddish, and wishes to do so with care and elegance, can learn from Mordkhe Schaechter’s example. His words live.

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