The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 08.012  [Sequential No. 151]
Date: 24 December 2004

1) Editor's Note (L.P.)
 a.   _Yiddish After the Holocaust_, ed. Joseph Sherman
       (1) Table of  Contents  (2) Ordering details
 b.  Ewa Geller's "The Perils of Idealizing Yiddish" in this issue.
 c.  Internet location of Joseph Sherman's  centenary essay on I. B.
 d.  Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize Awarded to
     Dov-Ber Kerler for _The Origins of Modern Literary Yiddish_
 e.  Coming Book Reviews
Date: 23 December 2004
From: Leonard Prager 
Subject: Editor's Note
a)   Babel Guides has graciously permitted TMR to publish a number of
the papers in its newly issued _Yiddish After the Holocaust_ volume.
The sixteen papers that make up this collection originated in a
conference at Oxford in August of 2003 and is edited by Joseph
Sherman. It merits widespread diffusion and should serve to deepen
awareness of the present state of Yiddish. In this TMR we present Ewa
Geller's challenging "The Perils of Idealizing Yiddish"; the next
paper from  this collection to be given in TMR is  'Pour l'amour du
Yiddish': The Literary  Itinerary of Regine Robin by Ben-Zion Shek. --
a.1) Contents of _Yiddish After the Holocaust_,
ed. Joseph Sherman
  The Renewed 'Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists' in
  Poland and its Activities, 1945-48
  Between the Geniuses of the Revolution: The World of Polish Jews
  in 1953 as reflected in _Yidishe Shriftn_
  The Status of Yiddish in Israel, 1948-58
  Yiddish Publishing after 1945
  Avrom-Ber Tabatshnik's Interview with Yankev Glatshteyn, New York,
  A Short-Lived Revival: Yiddish Theatre in South Africa, 1945-1960
  Yiddish Afterlives of German Literature: Stefan Zweig's _Di velt
  fun nekhtn_
  Languages Sometimes in Contact: Components of Yiddish in Hasidic
  Children's Literature
  Commitment to a Language: Teaching Yiddish in a Hasidic and a
  Secular Jewish School
  The Perils of Idealizing Yiddish
  Yiddish Words in Canadian English: Spread and Change
  'Farvandlen vel ikh toyt in lebn': Transformations of the Holocaust
  in the Post-War Poetry of Abraham Sutzkever
  Vision and Redemption: Abraham Sutzkever's Poems of Zion(ism)
  'A Smile Learned in Sadness': The Poetry of Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim
  'Pour l'amour du Yiddish': The Literary Itinerary of Regine Robin
  _Shabesdike shvebelekh_: A Postmodernist Novel by Mikhail Felsenbaum
a.2)_Yiddish after the Holocaust_, edited and introduced by Joseph
  Sherman. Published with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish
  Studies. 326pp /  ISBN 1899460 31 4 / Publishing date: 30th January
  2005. Price ?15.00/$25.00.
  WEB   /   TEL/FAX  00 44 (0)1865 712 931
  Trade distribution: Gazelle Book Services Limited White Cross Mills,
  High Town, Lancaster. LA1 4XS. tel +44(0)152468765 fax+44(0)
  In the USA & Canada ISBS
  920 NE 58th Ave., Suite 300Portland, Oregon 97213-3644
  tel 00 1 503 287 3093 fax 280 8832 / email:
b) Ewa Geller's "The Perils of Idealizing Yiddish" makes  up the
major content of this issue of TMR. Do we indeed "idealize" Yiddish
and does such "idealization" pose real "perils"? Geller's essay
deserves careful reading.
It was technically impossible to preserve in this ascii text the
correct form of several Polish and German letters. I have substituted
L for the Polish "crossed" L (= /w/) and S for Yiddish /sh/. I hope
I have not excessively "Yivoized" the given text. I have omitted the
graphic representation ofa the sample sentences.
Ewa Geller is Assistant Professor in German and Yiddish Linguistics
in the Faculty of New Philology of Warsaw University. Her publications
include the very useful _Jidysz jezyk Zydow polskich_ (Warsaw 1994).
c) Joseph Sherman's _Midstream_ centenary essay on Isaac
Bashevis Singer can be acccessed at
d) Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize Awarded to Dov-Ber Kerler
for _The Origins of Modern Literary Yiddish_
New York, N.Y. --  The Modern Language Assn. of America announced it
is awarding its second Fenia and Yaakov Leviant   Memorial Prize for
an outstanding scholarly work in English in the field of Yiddish to
Dov-Ber Kerler, the Alice Field Cohn    Chair in Yiddish Studies at
Indiana University, for _The Origins of Modern Literary Yiddish,
published by Oxford University    Press. The prize will be awarded at
the annual MLA convention in Philadelphia on 28 December.
The members of this year's Leviant Prize Selection Committee were
Jerold C. Frakes, Janet Hadda and David G. Roskies. The  selection
committee's citation for the winning book reads: _The Origins of
Modern Literary Yiddish_ is an impressive scholarly   work that
should become an indispensable resource for the field of Yiddish
studies. Dov-Ber Kerler's book is an ambitious and   meticulous study
of Yiddish literary history that is both a lucid synthesis of
previous scholarship and a cogent presentation of   new arguments.
Kerler makes the case that the eighteenth century marks the origin of
moderh literary Yiddish, heralding the   transition from the old
literary language to the nascent modern one. His knowledge of Yiddish
linguistics, grammar, history, and   sociolinguistics emerges
brightly in this comprehensive volume.
e) Dovid Katz's _Words of Fire_ has occupied center stage for several
months now, but we have not forgotten his impressive _Lithuanian
Jewish Culture_ (Vilna:  Baltos Lankos, 2004, 398 pp), a review of
which will yet appear in TMR. We also look forward to a review of
Nancy Sinkoff's _Out of the Shtetl_ (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies,
Date: 23 December 2004
From: Ewa Geller
Content: "The Perils of Idealizing Yiddish"
Ewa Geller
Over the last two decades, a growing interest in Holocaust studies
has been accompanied by an increased demand for Yiddish scholars and
translators. Judging only from the number of Yiddish classes offered
at many universities, colleges and Yiddish clubs around the world,
and from the work of Yiddish summer schools,(1) Jewish festivals, and
the number of publications about Ashkenazi Jewry, there is no reason
to be concerned about the condition of Yiddish these days: Yiddish is
alive and even flourishing, albeit for the most part in scholarly and
cultural activities. Moreover, we can observe that serious academic
interest in Yiddish is growing in proportion to the decrease of its
native speakers, a tendency noted ironically on different occasions.
In the process of steady Holocaust research, the oral and written
testimonies of survivors are being collected and interpreted as
historical source material. Concerned about the fact that the last
generation of Holocaust witnesses is passing away, private
foundations, universities and individuals around the world are eager
to record these testimonies. The rule in making such recordings is
that every individual speaks about his/her Holocaust experience in
whatever language s/he feels most comfortable using, because what
counts is the historical record: the facts, the names, the numbers
that detail one of the darkest epochs in the modern history of
humankind. It comes as no surprise that, for many of these
testimonies, Yiddish is the language of choice. When the latest video
testimonies, recorded for the most part in the United States, Israel
and Germany, are added to those written down by individuals in Poland
and in the DP camps during the years immediately after the cessation
of World War 2, they comprise tens of thousands of files.(2) 
This large corpus of testimony should also be exploited as a unique
treasure of authentic Yiddish language. Not having been subjected to
any editorial or ideological ?correction?, the language of the
records preserves the natural way of expression, grammatical
structures, dialectal pronunciation and vocabulary of the last
speakers from the former ?Yiddishland?. Thus the last testimonies of
Holocaust survivors are at the same time the last records of the
genuine language that had been the natural means of communication for
millions of Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe. Generally, however,
these original records, as a linguistic corpus,(3) do not attract the
attention of Yiddish researchers. Moreover, the new generation of
Yiddishists, for whom Yiddish is a language they have studied in
colleges and summer schools from textbooks of standard Yiddish, are
in no position adequately to evaluate and interpret this material
with the limited Yiddish skills they have gained during their classes
in academic institutions. Viewing, for example, those videos
collected in the Fortunoff Archives at Yale, in the Shoah Foundation
in Los Angeles, in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in
Washington, and in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which were conducted
during the 1980s and 1990s by younger students or researchers of
Yiddish educated in one of the Yiddish departments around the world,
one gains the impression that for most of the time the interviewer
and his/her informant are speaking two totally different languages.
That there is virtually little or no communication between the two
might be partially understood as a cultural gap, the result of age
and experience difference, poor knowledge of history, topography and
conditions in the locus of events. For the most part, however, they
are the result of the linguistic incompetence of the college-Yiddish
interviewer _vis-a-vis_ the native Yiddish speaker.
The interviewees are on the whole speakers of one of the many
dialects of Yiddish. Even though they would never deny that Yiddish
is an autonomous cultural language, they usually do not acknowledge
any standard language. They speak the way they used to speak at home;
additionally, all Yiddish speakers from the _alte hejm_ consider
themselves expert in Yiddish language and linguistics. They not only
use the pronunciation of their _galitsiyaner_, _litvish_ or Polish
_mameloshn_, which a good student of Yiddish might recognize; they
also naturally apply in their speech the strong and weak forms or
elisions of auxiliary words, they take grammatical shortcuts, combine
substandard words from co-territorial languages in spontaneously used
word formations, and so on. More importantly, they apply in a most
natural manner the prosodic rules of liaison, haplology, weakening,
and co-articulation, so that their perfectly natural Yiddish speech
appears to an unaccustomed or an untrained ear as a phonetic
continuum against which knowledge of orthographic words is of little
use. How could a student ? even with the best command of college
Yiddish ? possibly divide the phonetic string _?xlaxzun? in ix vel
ajx zogn_, ?I will tell you?, or identify _?mimeza:n? in muz men
zajn_, ?one must be?, if s/he had never before been exposed to this
natural speech or been trained in the specific prosodic rules that
unexceptionally belong to the authentic Yiddish way of speaking? In
which textbook of modern Yiddish can a student learn that there are
complete paradigms of weak and strong forms of personal pronouns and
auxiliary verbs, and that there are rules for using them?(4)  In
which grammar of Yiddish can s/he check that it is not only possible
but also correct to omit a weak form in oral utterance?
The same problem arises in regard to the vocabulary employed.
Naturally one cannot expect that a student of Yiddish born after 1939
would understand the secret vocabulary of World War 2 Yiddish slang
that Jews in occupied Poland developed, when even the native
speakers? fellows have problems understanding it.(5)  But a
researcher or translator of Yiddish testimony must at least be
prepared to figure out that it was absolutely feasible to use, in a
Yiddish manner, any co-territorial Polish, Ukrainian, Russian or the
oppressor?s German word. These occasional borrowings are not part of
the stable Yiddish lexicon, but they necessarily belong to the
language of and about the Holocaust. Instead, however, today?s
student of Yiddish is usually instructed that words of Slavic origin
make up some five per cent of Yiddish vocabulary, and that extensive
use of these words should be avoided.(6)  It is of course quite
correct to argue that in every language different grammars apply,
depending on its written or spoken form. But the distance between
what a student of Yiddish learns as standard Yiddish, and the
linguistic reality of the actual spoken Yiddish to which s/he is
exposed, is sometimes too great for it to be considered the same
One might think that written records would not create as many
problems for the translator. Firstly, there is no need for
complicated segmentation of phonetic strings into lexical items
because they are already there, even though often fixed in an
individualised orthographic system. Other obstacles, however, arise
that make the task of the translator both tricky and difficult. The
earliest written Yiddish Holocaust records, such as diaries, letters,
essays, notes and testimonies given directly after the war, are
preserved in their original handwritings. Only some of them were
rewritten with a typewriter later on. Consequently a good command of
reading Yiddish cursive script is required from the scholar who wants
to make use of these documents. It emerges that this skill exists
only rarely among Yiddish students outside of Israel. Even if Yiddish
handwriting is often introduced in the teaching of the language,
which it is, students are rarely trained on original hand-written
texts. Subjective orthographical systems often apply to them as well,
which makes the interpretation of an unknown word problematical. If
such a word is then one of the occasional co-territorial lexical
borrowings, it is then almost impossible for a Yiddish student with
no knowledge of Slavic languages to fathom the original word form and
its meaning. Subsequent translations that may then be rendered as a
result of careless misinterpretation are not merely amusing, but are
also dangerous for the understanding of historical facts. Let me
illustrate this with some actual cases taken from translation
assignments commissioned by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw
from Yiddish translators in America (the United States and Canada).
One of the recent projects undertaken by the Jewish Historical
Institute is the publication of Holocaust testimonies written by
survivors in Poland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were
written in Polish or Yiddish, depending on which language the
survivor had better writing command of, and are required to be
translated directly into English for publication by an American
publishing house. Because of their direct, eyewitness freshness,
these documents are of special value for historians, Holocaust
researchers, and courts of law, so it is of the utmost importance for
their translations to be accurate in every detail. A good command of
Yiddish was therefore required from the translators. The job opening
for translators was announced on the Internet, and an offer was sent
to recommended individuals. The number of candidates who applied for
this job was unexpectedly small. All candidates received the same
sample of an authentic document to be translated from Yiddish into
English. I was then asked to review the translations produced, and to
recommend the best translators for this assignment. I offer here the
results of this experiment.
The common errors that occurred in the translated samples can be
grouped as follows(7) :
(1) False reading of the manuscript because of poor knowledge of
Hebrew and Slavic common vocabulary:
Y. _maSkn_? pledge; pawn > E. _machine_
Y. _trotuar_, sidewalk, pavement > E. _theatre_
(2) False reading of the manuscript because of poor knowledge of
extra-linguistic facts such as the topography and culture of the non-
Jewish environment:
Y. _Sopena_ < P. _ul. Szopena_, ?Chopin Street > E. _Shapena_,
Y. _zakladnikes_ < P. _zkLadnicy_ > hostages > E. _establishment_
(3) False reading of the manuscript because of poor knowledge of
older vocabulary:
Y. _hojf-diner_ [= struS], janitor > E. _servants_ [plural!]
Y. _shnit beln_, bales of fabric > E. _bayonets_
(4) Lack of competence in the idiomatic structures of Yiddish:
Y. _afn tsvejtn tog_, next day < P. _na drugi dzien_ > E. _on the
second/ third day_
(5) Lack of knowledge of the syntactic rules and elisions of Yiddish:
Y. _kojln ojslodn_, _Staln ojsrejnikn_, to unload coal, and to clean
the stables > E. *_killing them_ (< Y. _kojln_) and clearing them out
(< Y. _rejnikn_).
To illustrate the danger of such incompetence on the part of modern
translators of Yiddish, who would otherwise probably be able easily
to translate or even to teach standard Yiddish, I present samples of
authentic Yiddish sentences from a Holocaust testimony, given first
in holograph, then in romanisation (R), then in correct translation
(CT), and finally in the way they were rendered in the translation
assignment (TA):
(6) _R: Ejn junger mentS, vaserman, hot zix gevagt Steln a trit, kedej
tsutsugejn af der tsvejter zajt trotuar, vu es iz farbajgegangen zajn
Svester, iz afn ort derSosn gevorn_.
CT: One young man, Wasserman, dared to take a step in order to go to
the other side of the sidewalk where his sister was passing by, and
he was shot on the spot
a. One young person, Wasserman, _dared them to kill him_: when he
tried to cross over to the other side of the area where his sister
came by, he was shot on the spot.
b. _On the other side of the street, a young Jewish woman walked by_
and _she was_ shot and killed.
(7) _R: Di gas iz ful geven mit dajtSn vos hobn getrogn ojf di aksl
baln Snit_ [?]
CT: The street was full of Germans who carried bales of fabric on
their shoulders [? ]
a. The street was full of Germans, who carried _sharp (.
4. Zaretski, Izaak. _JidiSe gramatik_ (Vilna: Vilner farlag fun B.
Kletskin, 1929), points out the specific details of contractions,
prosodic rules and co-articulations in natural speech, considering
this feature of Yiddish pronunciation one of the major didactic
problems for students in Yiddish schools; see, for example, the title
of the paragraph: _FonetiSe rejd gliderung, gliderung fun Sriftlexn
tekst_, p.283. This no longer seems to be a problem for the teaching
of Yiddish beyond the borders of the now extinct ?Yiddishland?. The
only modern Yiddish descriptive grammar that distinguishes between
forms of pronouns in stressed and unstressed positions is Birnbaum,
Solomon A. _Yiddish. A Survey and a Grammar_.(Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1979), a very useful publication that unfortunately is
not being used in contemporaryYiddish teaching.
5. Nachman Blumental, the author of a unique dictionary of Yiddish
slang during World War 2, begins the Introduction to his book with
these noteworthy words: _ven ix hob zix gefunen in mit 1944 jor in di
grenetsn fun mizrax-pojln un getrofn mitn klejn bisl jidn, vos ix hob
dortn gefunen, hob ix kimat zejer loSn nit farStanen. Azelxe Sinujim
zenen do forgekumen in meSex fun der kurtser tsajt fun majn
opveznhajt ? a draj jor_. [ In 1944, when I found myself on the
borders of Eastern Poland and came together with a few Jews I had met
there, I could barely understand their manner of speaking. A great
many different forms had developed during my absence ? some three
years]. See Blumental, Nachman. _Verter un vertlex fun der hurbn-
tkufe_ (Tel-Aviv: Farlag Y.L. Peretz, 1981), p.7.
6. This attitude can be illustrated by the editors of the Grojser
verterbux fun der jidiSer Sprax: ?Mir nitsn di kirtsung sl. [Slavic]
vi a varenung az dos iz nit kajn pasik vort far der klal-Sprax, sajdn
in spetsjele situatsjes [?] un vi an onvejz afn fakt, az dos vort hot
men genitst in rejd, vos zenen ibergezetikt mit verter fun di arumike
slaviSe leSojnes. mir betn di, vos nitsn dos verterbux tsu lejgn axt
af ot der kirtsung sl.? (Vol. 1, p. 17). See also Geller, Ewa.
?Hidden Slavic Structure in Modern Yiddish?, _Jiddische Philologie:
Festschrift fuer Erika Timm_ (Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1999),
p.66, footnote 3.
7. In this paper, I transliterate Yiddish according to the
international linguistic system used in his early publications by
Uriel Weinreich and, more recently, by Paul Wexler, to distinguish
the genuine character of the speech I am analyzing from the college
Yiddish standard.
8. To translate these words accurately, one needs to know that the
names of streets and squares in Polish require a casus obliqui (
dependent case); therefore the name of the world-famous Polish-French
composer Frederic Chopin is rendered as a Polish street name ul.
Szopena (genetivus or possessive case). This manner of naming streets
was taken over by the Yiddish speakers of the local areas.
9. For a detailed socio-linguistic analysis of this process see
Geller, Ewa. ?Od zargonu do jezyka standardowego, czyli co jest
obecnie obiektem badan jidyszystyki (rozprawka socjolingwistyczna?,
RozdziaL wspolnej historii. Studia z dziejow Zydow w Polsce_(Warszawa:
Wydawnictwo Cyklady, 2001), pp.395-411.
10. About the process of acculturation of Polish Jews of German
origin at the beginning of the nineteenth century see, for example,
Ronikier-Olczak, Joanna. W ogrodzie pamieci (Warszawa: Znak, 2002).
11. The first scholar to apply the name ?Yiddish? to both the Eastern
and the Western languages of the Ashkenazim was Solomon A. Birnbaum,
See Weinberg, Werner. ?Die Bezeichnung Juedischdeutsch?, _Zeitschrift
fuer deutsche Philologie_ 100 (1980):253-290. About the unjustified
use of the same name for both languages see Simon, Bettina.
_Jiddische Sprachgeschichte_ (Frankfurt am Main: Juedischer Verlag
Suhrkamp, 1993): _[ ?] die Sprache der Juden im deutschen Sprachraum
und die heutige ?Ostjiddisch? genannte Sprache der osteurop?ischen
Judenheit auf Grund struktureller Unterschiede nicht als Einheit
zusammengefasst werden k?nnen und nicht gemeinsam als ?Westjiddisch?
und ?Ostjiddisch? unter dem Oberbegriff ?Jiddisch? zu subsumieren
sind_, p.218.
12. See for example the title of the third volume of the _Language
and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry_, ?The Eastern Yiddish-Western
Yiddish Continuum? (Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2000).
13. See Ojslejg takones fun jidiS. (Vilna: YIVO, 1935); _Takones fun
jidiSn ojslejg_. (Vilna: YIVO, 1937).
14. _Takones fun Iidiszn Ojslejg_ (PrawidLa Pisowni) (Warszawa:
Centralny Komitet Zydow w Polsce, 1947), p.1.
15. Birnbaum, Solomon A. _Yiddish. A Survey and a Grammar_ (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1979), p.100.
16. See Isaacs, Miriam.?Yiddish in the Orthodox Communities of
Jerusalem?, in Kerler, Dov-Ber (ed.), _The Politics of Yiddish_
(London: Altamira Press, 1998), pp.85-97.
End of The Mendele Review Vol. 08.012
Editor, Leonard Prager
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