For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Vilnius (better known to Ashkenazi Jews as Vilna or Vilne), Lithuania, studying in a month-long Yiddish intensive. Most of the students in the program are in History or Jewish Studies PhD programs; a couple of weeks ago, when everyone was asking everyone else why they decided to come do this, I seemed to be the only one who fumbled for an answer. Professionally, I think it’ll look good on my resume, especially if I’m up for a cataloging job or if the library needs a departmental liaison, and I’m hoping that a good command of Yiddish may even someday land me a job in a Judaica library or as a subject specialist. At the same time, though, I suspect that that’s kind of a long shot. So why am I doing this? Why am I paying all this money to study an endangered – perhaps dying – language? Every time I feel myself getting really excited about Yiddish, every time I find myself grinning because I went a whole two sentences without puzzling over a clause, I’m jerked back by this question.
I suppose, though, that I’ve studied much more widely-spoken languages – French and Spanish, mainly, and a teensy bit of Japanese – and it’s not like I have much of a chance to use those. French will be useful next time I travel to a French-speaking country, and when exactly is that going to happen? I live in Los Angeles and I barely ever speak Spanish, which is pathetic, but a fact. In the end, in my particular life with my particular circumstances, I want to use my French and Spanish the same way I want to use my Yiddish: to read literature. Despite the wealth of small presses operating in the US, the literary market often feels claustrophobic, with a few dozen writers drowning out everyone else (is anyone else absolutely sick of these 30-under-30 and 40-under-40 lists? I am, although jealousy is probably a significant factor), and I like the idea of being able to tap into the literature written in other languages.
And for this, Yiddish will be quite useful. This week I reached the point where I can read Sholem Aleichem, very slowly, with frequent trips to the dictionary.
I want to produce Yiddish literature, too. I want to write in Yiddish! We write a brief composition most days for homework, and I’m getting more and more comfortable expressing myself, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can pick and choose my words, confident of the nuances I know they’ll create. (A significant milestone: our professor asked us to write about whether mankind is good at heart, and I struggled all evening and talked about Buddhism and desire and suffering and the character Khonen from The Dybbuk who starts out as a good yeshiva bokher but then begs Satan for gelt so he can marry Leah, and I turned in my paper convinced that it was all garbled gibberish but then got it back with only minor grammar corrections and “gut” written at the bottom. Of course, now that I write this, it occurs to me to wonder whether the paper was so bad that the professor didn’t know what to do with it. No, no. Surely not.)
I know producing new literature is even more of a pipe dream than working with a Yiddish collection is, though, because even if a significant readership wanted to learn Yiddish, not many people have the time to get good enough at it that reading in Yiddish would be in any way relaxing or enjoyable. But still, I think about it. Writing in Yiddish, rather than Hebrew or Polish or Russian or what have you, was for Y. L. Peretz and other Yiddish writers a very conscious, very political choice, a way of elevating the language, and the idea of helping to revive that tradition appeals to me. A friend of mine and I are already tossing around ideas for a bilingual Yiddish/English zine. If nothing else, I could drop a few copies at the campus Hillel and see if anything happens.
Can a post-vernacular language like Yiddish become a living presence in Ashkenazi culture, even though people don’t speak it casually? During my layover in Dublin, I took in all the Irish street signs and ads and tram stops and imagined a community in which Yiddish is part of the landscape. But what, I wondered, would this look like? Then I visited Užupis, a neighborhood in Vilnius that a few years ago proclaimed itself an independent republic, and I saw that their multi-lingual border sign and constitution are translated into Yiddish. Yiddish was there, part of the landscape. And I felt a little hope.