Yiddish Renaissance at Chicago

By Andrew Sloin

There was a time, not very long ago, when mention of the very word yiddish conjured up sharp and conflicting emotions within the American Jewish community.

For some, Yiddish meant mame loshn, literally mama’s tongue, the language of the home, of parents and past generations. Others viewed it as zhargon, a corrupted language associated with shtetls, the “old country,” the worlds destroyed by the Holocaust. Still others, most notably the old Jewish political left, envisioned Yiddish as the language of the Jewish “masses,” the everyday language of life and work.

Most, regardless of such associations, likely conceived of Yiddish as a language of the vanishing past, the language of immigrant communities of Maxwell Street or the Lower East Side – the way American Jews used to talk before they became Americans.

In the classrooms and corners of the University of Chicago, however, reports of the demise of Yiddish appear premature. Over the past several years, Chicago has witnessed a resurgence of scholarly interest in the field of Yiddish studies. Due in large part to the efforts of faculty members and students from the Committee on Jewish Studies, research on Yiddish and Yiddish literature is flourishing at Chicago.

The resurgence of interest in Yiddish follows a national trend. The past ten to fifteen years have witnessed the rapid growth of Yiddish courses nationally, observed Jerrold Sadock, the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics. Sadock, who has taught course on Yiddish linguistics in the past, speculated that a main and somewhat paradoxical factor contributing to this revival is a growing sense that the continuity of Yiddish is endangered.

“There is a great sense of nostalgia now that the Yiddish that came from the old country is vanishing. Native speakers of Yiddish are fast disappearing.” This threat to continuity, Sadock suggested, has created a feeling of urgency on the part of younger scholars to study and preserve Yiddish. “Younger people who know about Yiddish have a Romantic idea” of the language, he said, leading them to approach the subject with particular intensity.

While agreeing with the nostalgic impulse at the heart of the revival, Jan Schwarz, instructor of Yiddish at the university, explained the resurgence of interest in Yiddish by emphasizing its centrality to modern Jewish history and culture. 

“You simply can’t understand Jewish modernity without Yiddish,” Schwarz said. “Yiddish literature was an important part of the general Jewish response to modernity.” The literature remains a central achievement of modern Jewish artistic life, he argues, and a crucial bridge to the intellectual and cultural life of European Jewry.

Howard Aronson, Professor Emeritus from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and the Committee on Jewish Studies, agreed. “For just about a millennium, Yiddish was one of two dominant Jewish languages.” Yiddish literature, he observed, offers a unique avenue through which students can learn about forgotten aspects of Jewish cultural life, folk beliefs, and religious practices in Eastern Europe that they simply would not otherwise encounter. “Unless you go through kheder and yeshiva, you simply won’t learn this stuff,” Aronson said. “If you want to understand Eastern European Jewish life and history, you simply need to know Yiddish.”

Although a self-styled “German” university, the University of Chicago has long held important ties to the Eastern European Yiddish world.

Saul Bellow, the Novel Prize-winning author and Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought, is rightly regarded as one of the foremost American writers of the 20th century. A Yiddish speaker, Bellow also earned acclaim for his masterful translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Gimpl Tam,” or “Gimpel the Fool.”

The late Arcadius Kahan, who taught Russian history at the university for decades, was perhaps the greatest link between the university and the Yiddish world of Eastern Europe. Born in the then—Polish city of Vilna, the epicenter of Yiddish high culture, Kahan settled in Chicago after the war. A devoted Yiddishist and a member of the Yiddish-speaking socialist Bund, Kahan wrote extensively about Jewish economic and social history. His wife, Pearl Kahan, also taught Yiddish for a number of years at the Hyde Park Hillel.

Current Faculty members are continuing Chicago’s tradition of scholarly excellence in the area of Yiddish studies.

Philip Bohlman, the Mary Werkman Professor of Music and current Chair of the Committee on Jewish Studies, recently published an edited volume, The Folk Songs of Askenaz, along with Otto Holzapfel of the Deutsches Volksliedarchiv in Freiburg, Germany. The volume explores the interpenetrations of Yiddish and German culture on the eastern border of the Germanic lands by examining songs that existed in both German and Yiddish versions in these areas.

Jerrold Sadock is currently finishing a manuscript entitled Goethe’s Yiddish: The Lost Language of the German Jews. The book, which examines Yiddish culture and linguistics in 18th-century Germany, will be a major study of West Yiddish – an older variation of Yiddish spoken in Central and Western Europe in the early modern period.

Since retiring in 2003, Professor Aronson has completed an introductory textbook for learning Yiddish. Developed from a class that Aronson taught for many years, the textbook uses poems by Itsik Manger to introduce students to the grammar of Yiddish. The book provides students with the basic skill necessary to read Yiddish, while introducing them to Manger’s vibrant, toughing, and at times irreverent poems.

In May 2005, the University of Wisconsin Press released Jan Schwarz’s Imagining Lives. The book explores what Schwarz terms the “autobiographical fiction,” or life writings, of a number of prominent Yiddish writers, including Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Vilna-born writer Chaim Grade, and the modernist poet Jacob Glatstein. Through autobiographical writing, Schwarz suggests, these writers sought to re-imagine their own life stories, thereby engaging in processes of self-creation intricately tied to their fluid identities as modern, Yiddish, and Jewish writers.

Despite popular perceptions, Yiddish continues to thrive as a living language. It remains the language of everyday communication in many Hasidic communities around the world. Professors Sadock, Aronson, and Schwarz all agree that these groups represent the future of the language in many respects.

“Yiddish is going to survive for a good long time,” Aronson stressed, due primarily to the insular structure of these communities.

While agreeing that Yiddish as a language would likely continue to develop, Sadock emphasized that the fate of the older Yiddish culture and literature remains more precarious. While Hasidim use Yiddish for daily interactions, he noted, most would recoil from the idea of reading older, secular Yiddish literature, which ultra-pious Jews have always regarded as being treyf.

“The only people who will have a chance to study this fantastic body of literature are people who learn it as a second language. There won’t be anyone else to study it, because the Hasidim can’t and won’t.”

Recognizing the importance of these traditions to the broader field of Jewish Studies, the Committee on Jewish Studies has made the development of Yiddish courses a high priority. In 2003, the committee appointed Jan Schwarz as instructor of Yiddish. Schwarz also teaches courses on modern Yiddish literature at the university.

The appointment in Yiddish has coincided with rising interest on the part of students. Enrollment in Yiddish language and literature courses has grown steadily. In the past year, Schwarz organized a weekly Yiddish tish, an informal gathering that brings together Yiddish speakers of all levels.

A number of graduate students from the Committee on Jewish Studies have made Yiddish language and culture a central aspect of their work. In recent years, the committee has provided assistance to allow students to take part in advanced Yiddish programs at the Yiddish Institute for Scientific Research (YIVO), in New York City, and at the Vilnius Institute for Yiddish language and Culture, at Vilnius University in Lithuania.

Melissa Weininger, a graduate student specializing in Modern Hebrew and Modern Yiddish Literature, has been among those students actively seeking to build a reputation of excellence in the field of Yiddish Studies at Chicago. She participated in the YIVO summer program in 2003, and her dissertation focuses extensively on Yiddish literature. “There is an entire world of Jewish culture that remains under-explored,” she said. “Yiddish is the key to that world.”

Professor Aronson echoes the sentiment. “”My great dream is to see Yiddish taught on a permanent basis at the University of Chicago. I think it is very important.”