Assigning New Meaning to Yiddish Culture

March 1, 2006
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Amelia Glaser

Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture.
Jeffrey Shandler, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of CA Press, 2006. 271 pp., $39.95

Late one night during the summer of 2002, I found myself in a dorm room with four fellow graduate students listing the serious Yiddish scholars under the age of 40. We estimated that between us we knew about half of our small field. We were all in New York for a three-week research seminar in Yiddish language, literature, and culture. The sampling of students that evening came from the U.S., South America, Israel, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe. Yiddish, while none of our first language, was our best common language.

Jeffrey Shandler, in his new book, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture , has produced a study of Yiddish as a subcultural phenomenon since World War II. This includes the continued use of Yiddish among insular Jewish communities worldwide, the performance of Yiddish as an act of nostalgia, reclamation or humor, popular translation into and out of the language, and a persistent interest in collecting Yiddish language objects of folk value.

Adventures in Yiddishland is, itself, an object worth collecting. The book jacket, designed by Jessica Grunwald, features a colorful illustration by Ben Katchor, portraying an autonomous Yiddish-speaking world. A young woman greets a young man with ” Redst Yidish?” People queue up to hear the singer Sidor Belarski, a ship labeled “Bobe Mayse ” arrives through the sunset, and Hassidim wander past a statue of the Modernist Yiddish writer Y. L. Peretz. Shandler’s excellent study is illustrated by a plethora of similar gems inside – photographs, cartoons, event posters, and tshatshkes . The book, which joins such excellent works in cultural studies as Susan Stewart’s On Longing , opens a new genre within the fields of Yiddish and pop culture. Without devaluing concerns about the fate of Ashkenazic Jewish culture following World War II, Shandler calls attention to a new trend, which, far from declaring Yiddish culture dead, has assigned it unexpected meaning.

In his first chapter, “Imagining Yiddishland,” Shandler reminds us that the search for the elusive land to match the transnational language is not new. “In a letter written in 1888 from Y. L. Peretz to Sholem Aleichem, the former describes the latter as an author whose ‘aim is to write for the public, which speaks zhargon [jargon, i.e., Yiddish] fun zhargonen-land.’ ” (33) Shandler eloquently argues that a similar spirit has since moved Yiddish-speakers to create a fantasy world out of the Yiddish language at summer camps, celebratory events, and even in the recreation of pre-World War II East European maps. “As is true of modern Yiddish culture generally, the notion of Yiddishland emerged – and perhaps could only emerge – once Jews had begun to move out of shtetlekh , geographically as well as ideologically.” (50)

He moves on to address methods of teaching Yiddish as a foreign language, from the early nineteenth century through the present day. Yiddish studies in the post-vernacular world are interesting, he argues, precisely because they are often self-motivated. “While learning Hebrew is typically a fixture of an American Jewish childhood (and not infrequently ends with Jewish rites of passage into adolescence), taking a class in Yiddish now marks for some a voluntary step in the formation of one’s Jewish adult self [.]” (87)

Shandler is not uncritical in his study. “In this new semiotic mode for the language, every utterance is enveloped in a performative aura, freighted with significance as a Yiddish speech act quite apart from the meaning of whatever words are spoken.” (127) Yet rather than writing off the performativity, and even fetishization, of the language as something artificial, he has offered an elegant framework for integrating contemporary trends in Yiddish culture into a system for better understanding culture, community, and scholarship today.

After an hour of brainstorming in the our dorm, my colleagues and I had a list of nearly 200 names. We knew we had grossly underestimated. Still, three years ago, the idea of counting the number of graduate students working in Yiddish was not entirely out of the question. Since then, the number of people creating their own Yiddishland has probably increased exponentially. Evenings like those occupy a space worthy of a thousand postcards and souvenirs. While few of us live permanently in Yiddishland, thanks to Jeffrey Shandler, we do have the beginnings of a map.

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Amelia Glaser, a visiting lecturer of Yiddish language and literature and Slavic Studies at Stanford University, recently received her PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford.

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