The Arty Semite

Why Yiddish Matters

By Rokhl Kafrissen

  • Print
  • Share Share

On May 15, Speakers’ Lab and the Forward will present a moderated town hall-style event called “Now What? The Future of New Jewish Culture” at the 14th Street Y in downtown New York City. In preparation for the event, each panelist was asked to respond to a question related to his or her work. The Forward will publish one panelist’s response every Tuesday leading up to the event, and a second panelist’s response will be published on Speakers’ Lab’s website that same day.

Avia Moore

This week Rokhl Kafrissen, Yiddish arts critic, writes about why she’s a Yiddishist. On Speakers’ Lab, Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, writes about the Jewish community’s investment in culture, and David Jordan Harris, executive director of Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, writes about the Jewish arts scene in Minnesota.

Speakers’ Lab: You’ve written about the importance of promoting Yiddish, and your experience learning more about Jewishness by studying Yiddish than from years at Conservative Hebrew school. How important do you think Yiddish is for the future of American Jewish culture? If Yiddish grew out of Jews’ interactions with other cultures in Eastern Europe at a specific time and place, why not encourage American Jewish culture to develop the same way? Do you think English is insufficient as a potential Jewish language?

Rokhl Kafrissen: When they find out I’m a Yiddishist, people often ask if I grew up in a Yiddish speaking home. The answer is no. My parents did not speak the language, although now and again they dropped a Yiddish word or phrase. But it was a long time before I connected those isolated words and phrases to an actual language.

At my Conservative Hebrew school Shma and Hatikvah were given equal weight. For good behavior we received Bazooka bubblegum with Hebrew jokes printed on the wrapper. No matter that not one of my classmates could understand the Hebrew. The State of Israel, we were told, was the home of the Jewish people and Europe was a continent sized graveyard. Modern (Israeli) Hebrew pronunciation was taught to us by a Polish Holocaust survivor. Little that we learned would help us function as adult Jews. What we did learn didn’t quite track with the lived Jewishness all of us, teachers and students, brought into the classroom.

I wondered then, why did the poster at Hebrew school say “laylah tov” but my mom said “gey shlofn” (go to sleep)? I wonder now, why were we being taught to be different without really learning how to be different? To quote Jewish educator Jacob Golub: “…to be separate without a difference is to invite pathological complexes…” To say I was confused would be an understatement.

That confusion drove me to seek out Yiddish wherever I could, most importantly, as an academic subject. In my first semester of college Yiddish I learned more about Jewishness than I had in years of Hebrew school. In Yiddish class I acquainted myself with a Jewishness that didn’t erase my family and my history, but brought all of it, and more, into sharp focus.

But studying Yiddish wasn’t just about solving my own personal puzzle. In the language and culture of Ashkenaz I found everything I had once assumed Judaism simply didn’t have: songs for every occasion, dances other than a zombified hora, and a radical history very much of use for the present. Yiddish presented to me what Jacob Golub called “cultural autonomy,” something I see little of in American Jewish life.

For Golub and his peers in the pre-war era, however, the cultural autonomy of American Jews would be lived in modern Hebrew, not the despised tongue of exile. “The Jew must, to a large degree, live vicariously through Palestine,” he wrote in 1937. In 2012, Golub’s statement has the sour tang of half-fulfilled prophecy.

Today, debate over the future of Israel sets American Jews against each other in a “dialogue” that becomes more terrifying every day. No activity, no institution, no initiative is safe from this corrosive politicization. And at the same time, a minuscule number of American Jews move to Israel each year. A similarly dismal number of them have any fluency in modern Hebrew (or liturgical Hebrew, for that matter). In a morbidly absurd turn of history, our Jewish lives revolve around a stranger called Israel. And, I suspect, no one wants to walk away from the conflict because without it, we’re not sure who we are.

Whatever failings my Jewish education had, they lie not with any particular denomination but with what I see as the real, trans-denominational American Jewishness: one where familiarity substitutes for literacy and a tragically superficial identification with the State of Israel is an end unto itself.

Digging into the history of Jewish education in America, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that we didn’t have enough lesson time or our teachers weren’t motivated or anything like that. The Jewish education I received wasn’t an aberration but the intended product of a Jewish community perpetually conflicted about its Jewishness. You can find any number of sociological papers and studies, spanning almost a century, reporting that Jewish parents weren’t worried that their kids weren’t learning enough, but that they might be learning too much. And Yiddish was very much perceived as part and parcel of that too much.

It doesn’t have to be Yiddish for everyone, of course. Yiddish made sense for my life and my history and I’ve made countless friends in the Yiddish world who feel the same way. But I’ve come to see myself as a language maximalist. We need more Jewish language literacy, not less. This means continuing to be engaged with the State of Israel while being open to questioning its totalizing claims on Jewish authenticity. Literacy and cultural autonomy are our only real hope for American Jewish continuity.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Speakers' Lab, Rokhl Kafrissen, New Jewish Culture, Yiddish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.