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Rise of Yiddish Scholar Elicits Kvetches From Traditional Yiddishists

Jeremy Dauber, a 35-year-old scholar and expert in the birth of Yiddish literature and Modern Hebrew during the Jewish Enlightenment, has secured the much-coveted tenured professorship in Yiddish at Columbia University.

With the appointment, Dauber — who already held the prestigious Atran chair in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at the university — becomes one of the youngest tenured professors of Yiddish in the academy, filling a chair that is one of the field’s most sought-after.

Raised in a Modern Orthodox family in Teaneck, N.J., Dauber discovered Yiddish as an undergraduate at Harvard College, where he studied with the well-known scholar Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard. At 27, after a stint at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, he was hired by Columbia to fill the Atran chair. He has now been invited to stay.

“Teachers who like their subjects take great pride in getting people interested in their subjects,” said Wisse, when asked about her former student. “And it seems to me that nobody does that better than Jeremy.”

The news of a scholar as young as Dauber securing such a prestigious position in Yiddish might seem like cause for pure celebration, a sign that — contrary to conventional wisdom — there is hope for the future of the language. But not everyone is cheering Dauber’s success, and the fissures it has opened illuminate a central fault line within the Yiddish academic and organizational world.

To put the issue simply, explained Paul Glasser, the associate dean of YIVO’s Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, “there are those academics who make a point of speaking Yiddish at home and those who don’t.” Those in the former camp, often identified as “Yiddishists,” tend to see Yiddish departments not just as academic spaces but as opportunities to keep Yiddish alive outside of ultra-Orthodox enclaves. By their criteria, a Yiddish professor’s role extends beyond research and teaching to encompass involvement in Yiddish cultural life. That often means, for example, passing the language on to his or her children.

“Dauber is more of the scientific school, shall we say,” said Shane Baker, the director of a Yiddish organization called the Congress for Jewish Culture. “He likes the insect pinned to the tray to analyze. He’s not active in the Yiddish world. I’ve never seen him at a Yiddish event.”

But Joel Berkowitz, the chair of the Judaic Studies department at the University of Albany, argued that such in-fighting only serves to mar the credibility of Yiddish departments.

“The idea that you have some kind of authenticity or street cred based on whether your bubbe spoke Yiddish or not — these kinds of debates make the field look quite bad,” he said.

Nevertheless, Berkowitz added, these fights are not new and are unlikely to go away, even as the next generation takes the reins of the Yiddish academy. He pointed to the case of Nathan Birnbaum, an assimilated German Jew who learned Yiddish only as an adult, but became so enamored of it that he helped to organize the landmark Yiddish convention held in Czernowitz in 1908 — where he was mocked by other conference participants for the gaffes he made in his adopted language.

There is, of course, one very significant difference between 1908 and 2008. In between, the great Yiddish civilization of Eastern Europe experienced near-total annihilation. Many ultra-Orthodox communities continue to use Yiddish as the language of daily life, but this does not replace the legacy of secular Yiddish culture lost in the Holocaust.

Some observers see Dauber’s tenure case as the latest bone of contention in a field on edge about the specter of Yiddish dying out beyond the confines of the ultra-Orthodox.

Yiddishist factions within the academy are like “Hasidic circles all claiming to be the heir to the Baal Shem Tov,” the founder of Hasidism, quipped Seth Wolitz, who teaches several languages and literatures, including Yiddish, at the University of Texas, and supports Columbia’s decision to give Dauber tenure. Despite teaching for eight years, publishing a book, a translation and a slew of articles, said Wolitz, Dauber “doesn’t meet the expectations of the Hasids.”

Further entrenching their cliquishness, some of these groups have at their core close relatives whose parents were once Yiddish luminaries and whose children — and students — will be, too. “They’re dynasties,” Wolitz said.

For his part, Dauber claims to have had only positive experiences within the Yiddish world.

“Throughout my time at Columbia and in the field of Yiddish, I’ve only met with great warmth and support, for which I’m grateful and happy,” said Dauber, in an interview with the Forward.

When asked about the ideological ferment within Yiddish academia, the newest addition to its pantheon demurred.

“Any discussion that contributes to the excitement about and vibrancy of Yiddish in our culture is a valuable discussion,” he said.

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