[Mendele] test02

IVaisman at aol.com IVaisman at aol.com
Tue Aug 17 19:08:17 EDT 2004

As far as secular Yiddishism is concerned, the author has a thimbleful
of good news and sociolinguistic barrels-full of the bad sort.  First,
Fishman recounts some of the small and not-so-small triumphs of secular
Yiddish in the past years, most of which (the revitalization of the
_Forverts_, the growing number of Yiddish "vinklekh," the triumph of the
standardized orthography) are well known to followers of the "scene."
"All in all," he writes, "although the secularist scene certainly has no
reason to be self-satisfied or smug about its prospects, it can be
pardoned for smiling more often than it used to.  What a difference a
decade can make, on the one hand, and on the other, 'the more things
change the more they stay the same':  neither the secular Yiddishist
_practical_ aspects nor the _ideological_ underpinnings to the still
substantial and varied efforts of this 'wing' of the Yiddish world are
such as to currently engage either the attention or the adherence of the
vast majority of American Jews, whether old or young, native or foreign

Next follows a short series of the author's "diary entries" which are
meant to give the flavor of secular Yiddish events during 1999:  with
few exceptions, these are mostly literary and performance-oriented,
without opportunities truly to learn and use the language.  These
entries are a preface to Fishman's dissection of secular Yiddishism,
which will raise a few hackles and open not a few eyes to the movement's
ideological and practical failures.  "Yiddishism," says Fishman, "has
become largely peripheral and even exotic vis-?is the mainstream of
New York City Jewish life."[84] The author singles out some
characteristics of secular Yiddishism which are, he says, "less than
optimal" for more general RLS efforts:  "(a) a penchant for 'Yiddish
entertainment and spectator sports'; (b) an organizational venue and
organizational longevity skills... rather than vernacular spontaneity"
(Fishman here comments ruefully on the de-Yiddishization of the YIVO);
and "(c) a 'theoretical' preference for Yiddish Literary ('high')
Culture," 'theoretical' because precious little Yiddish literature in
Yiddish is now generally read in [secular Yiddishist] circles."  [84]
The author issues a warning which is too late to be prophetic:  "Few
would maintain that these [characteristics] come anywhere near to making
up for the lack of daily language use, or of demographic centers of
informal speech-network concentration, or of explicit ideological
self-definition, or of practical RLS prioritization within its own
shrinking orbit."[84]

According to the author, secular Yiddishists must straddle a huge GIDS
chasm:  there are still a surprising number of group activities in
Yiddish (stages 1, 2, and 3), considering the small number of secular
Yiddish speakers.  However, the "stage 6" milieu, i.e., the geographic
intersection of home, family, and community which both ensures
intergenerational transmission and serves as an anchor for further
functional expansion, is entirely lacking.  What then to do?  Fishman
identifies two main dangers for secular Yiddishism:  the overwhelming
pressure of modern secular culture and Yiddishism's own ideological
impoverishment and obsolescence.

He offers two solutions, palatable only to a committed core of
Yiddishists, who are themselves (like all groups) ideologically riven.
First, says Fishman, those who wish to ensure the intergenerational
transmission of Yiddish among secular Jews must create real, geographic,
intergenerational communities of Yiddish speakers.  In such communities
(modeled on the Maori "kehanga-reo" model described in "RLS") native
speakers would teach the language to children of nursery-school and
pre-kindergarten age, while young adults of child-bearing age would
learn Yiddish on weekends and evenings, in preparation for use of the
language on an exclusive basis in the home.  Further, the outmoded
ideology of Yiddishism (which Fishman curiously characterizes as
undefined), i.e., socialism, cultural autonomy, and Jewish
(non-religious) "peoplehood," must be exchanged entirely for something
more in tune both ideologically and socially with the great majority of
American Jews.

It is worth quoting Fishman's proposals in detail, although readers of
his occasional columns in the _Forverts_ will have seen them before:
"In the very midst of a generational whirlwind of 'return to English
speaking but tradition venerating Orthodoxy (and even ultra-Orthodoxy',
a return which has effectively robbed secular Yiddishism of any but the
most minimal role in the consciousness of the last two younger
generations, the time may have come to admit that progressive and
secular culture _per se_ is also a great handicap for RLS and,
therefore, a decided minus for the future of secular Yiddishism....
[S]ecular Yiddishism's high-tech, spectator-sport, and minimalist 'now
and then'...  Yiddish lacks the separation and the insistence on
difference that are needed to maintain its own beloved language...."[86]

"Secular Yiddishism needs to be recast from its original 'nationalism,
anti-clericalism, socialism plus literature' model to a model that
stresses 'Jewish tradition-friendly Yiddish secularism' or 'Judaism
plus' as an add-on modification to any other model of traditional Jewish
life.  Most religious Jews do not aspire to a 'Jewish secularism' of
their own.  Yiddishists might proudly claim _that_ as a goal (via
Yiddish theater, choruses, media, scouting and camping, etc.) in
addition to the usual range and variety of traditional observances that
define traditional American Jewish communities....  A conscientious
shift from (a) secular Yiddishism to 'Yiddish secularism plus' and (b)
from 'Yiddish appreciation' to 'active Yiddish use' via emphasizing the
first language acquisition locale of home-family-neighborhood-community
functioning, is obviously not for everyone....  But it is a beginning to
the search for an answer to the dilemmas of 'being neither fully alive
or fully dead'."[87-89] The first solution -- the creation of an
intergenerational, geographic speech community -- is difficult enough,
especially when one considers that small groups of Yiddishists have
already attempted such linguistic experiments in past years.  Those
involved have characterized them as ill-planned if noble ventures (see,
for example, Sheva Zucker's entertaining essay in the 25th anniversary
issue of _Yugntruf_ about her generation's attempt at a "Yiddish
house").  Nevertheless, Fishman, or a "Fishmanist", might say in
response that these previous ventures lacked the proper basis in RLS

The second proposal of Fishman's, on the other hand, might be
very troublesome to those who wish Yiddish to be a safe harbor from the
problematic, anti-modern, or distasteful elements of traditional
Judaism.  However, the inconvenient truth is that love for the language
as a cultural tool or symbol is by no means equivalent to a living
commitment to its survival.  If one wants to use Yiddish to remake
Judaism, one might first have to adopt a more traditional Judaism in
order to preserve Yiddish, or at least "secular Yiddish."  In fact, the
observer of today's "secular Yiddishism" might well find that Fishman's
proposal of "tradition-friendly secularism" has been ratified by events.
The leaders of most still-surviving secular Yiddishist organizations are
much more tradition-friendly, even quasi-Orthodox, than would have been
the case even 10 or 20 years ago.


The ultra-Orthodox scene, writes Fishman, is "almost the diametric
opposite of the secularist scene."[88] In the Kharedi milieu, Yiddish is
used for home, family, and community, and intergenerational transmission
is a natural phenomenon (although problems may be cropping up with the
younger generation; see below).  However, despite the obvious and
colorful "all- [or mostly-] Yiddish" life which is available just over
the Williamsburg Bridge, those on the "other side," i.e., the
Manhattan-based secularists, refuse to see it, and deny its application
to their world -- much as the ultra-Orthodox often refuse to countenance
the possible importance of secular Yiddish literature.  (However, this
too might be exaggerated in Fishman's description; anecdotal reports
abound of Sholem-Aleichem reading circles among the ultra-Orthodox.
Whether this is true is an open question.)

Fishman cites the lively and sometimes hostile Mendele discussion that
ensued upon Janet Hadda's "defection" from Yiddishism as proof, if any
were needed, that secular Yiddishists "[reject] that language which
exists within reach and [do not implement] that language which they
[purport] to prefer."  That is to say, secular Yiddishists agree that
the ultra-Orthodox actually speak Yiddish, and that it is their children
who will perpetuate the language in coming generations.  However, they
often and reflexively rail against the (a) fanaticism and (b) disdain
for Yiddish literature present among the Khareydim.  Fishman does not
directly address the first "argument" of those secular Yiddishists,
though one might cite the adage "Different strokes for different folks":
i.e., the ultra-Orthodox do not benefit from a modern philosophy, but
neither do they suffer from the dislocations and anomie that are endemic
to the secular Jewish community.  And their "fanaticism" manages to
maintain Yiddish as a widespread and intergenerationally transmitted

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