The Forward’s new Yiddish site has certainly taken off with a bang.
In the days since the launch of the yiddish.forward.com site was announced, several major media outlets have run stories on it, and what it means for the future of the Yiddish language.
We hoped the new site might get a lot of attention in the U.S. But we had no idea there would be interest from the four corners of the globe.
As proof, we offer a link to the French news site l’Express, which ran an article in French on the Yiddish site from the Agence France Presse wire service.
Read it and enjoy, nos amis!
What mazel! Last week, Yiddishists round the world woke up to find an article by Joseph Berger about the Forverts — in the New York Times, no less — entitled: “For Yiddish A Fresh Presence Online”.
The next day, a Hebrew translation of the article appeared in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, with a slightly different headline: “Will Yiddish be Revived through the Internet?” Basically the same story, but with a more skeptical twist.
So what’s the big deal? After all, the Forverts has had a website since 1999. In fact, the Yiddish language has felt very much at home on the web for years, coining new terms for the electronic revolution (e.g. blitspost for email). Even Hasidic users have set up a haymish Yiddish-language community on the internet.
In other words, the virtual world has been hearing Yiddish for quite some time.
On the other hand, let’s enjoy this moment in the limelight — especially since discussions about Yiddish tend too often to veer towards eulogies. For the past 60 years, Yiddish writers have had to contend with the cliched question: “So how long do you think that Yiddish will survive?”
Often, these are the same people whose knowledge of Yiddish literature extends to just two or three writers, and their fluency in the language to roughly five or six words, like latkes, gefilte fish and … schmuck.
The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
A few months ago I sent an email to my editor, pitching a story on Yiddish Farm. (That piece is in this week’s paper, and online here.) I didn’t have to make a hard sell. An organic farm, run by 20-something-year-olds, where everyone speaks Yiddish? The piece practically writes itself.
Indeed, Yiddish Farm is one of the most interesting things happening in the Yiddish world and, I thought, an important story for us to cover. But as I reported the piece, visiting the farm and speaking to its participants, it became clear that the farm has significance well beyond its novelty value. Thanks to Yiddish fluency, and to a progressive cultural ethos, it has succeeded in bringing together the most diverse elements of the Jewish community, thus playing a role that few other organizations are equipped to play. In light of the recent Jewish population survey, which put into question long-held assumptions about the demographic makeup of the American Jewish community, it is a role that has never been more important.
During my visit to Yiddish farm, the participants I met spanned a wide range of Jewish practice. Some were culturally Jewish (they were speaking Yiddish, after all), but had no interest in religion. Some were Modern Orthodox, while others participated in Jewish activities affiliated with more liberal movements. The farm accommodated its religious members by keeping a kosher kitchen and observing Shabbos, but no one was compelled to perform any religious practice. When one participant was lightly chastened for lighting a cigarette on Shabbos, one of the farm’s leaders, Naftali Ejdelman (himself Shabbos observant), politely countered, “Let’s not make rules for other people.” In short, I found Yiddish Farm to be a model of Jewish pluralism.
What happens when you toss out a centuries-old culture for one that is newly invented and whose center is half a world away? What happens when that new culture is closely tied to a politics that may not be shared by all members of its supposed community? What happens when the culture then gets rejected along with the politics and there is nothing left to replace it with? What happens is “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” a piece on The Awl by Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt.
In her piece Benedikt describes her odyssey from flag-waving, summer camp-attending, Zionist youngster to disillusioned, intermarried, non-Zionist Jew. It’s an increasingly familiar narrative in which a young Jew, raised on one version or another of Zionist orthodoxy, discovers that Israel has significant flaws and jettisons most of what passed for her Jewish identity. It’s the phenomenon described by Peter Beinart in his much-discussed New York Review of Books essay from last year, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” In Beinart’s rendering, and seemingly in Benedikt’s, it is Israel’s sins that are at issue. If the country doesn’t shape up with respect to the Palestinians, it will eventually lose American Jews’ support.
But Benedikt’s piece isn’t really about Israel, or its policies, so much as it is about American Jewish community and culture. The key line in the piece is where she describes her sister as having “become Israeli, which is a lot different from being an American Jew.” As Jeffrey Goldberg noted in his response, Benedikt doesn’t really grapple with the issues she raises — why there is a bombed out disco in Tel Aviv, or soldiers guarding checkpoints, or why her husband is so hostile toward the country. But, as Gal points out in his earlier post, the piece isn’t really an argument, or even a provocation. It’s a symptom — what happens when the myths you were raised on turn out to be just myths.
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