Nov 08, 2015
“Since we both live in primarily English-speaking communities, having Yiddish as the language of the relationship makes it even more special, personal, and intimate.” “With my first partner, I really struggled with my identity in Yiddish . . . I felt like I couldn’t really, fully be me in Yiddish.” “With sexual role-playing activities, English or another language is preferable. Even though I think Yiddish is sexy, it is not necessarily an immediate turn-on.”
What does it mean to love in Yiddish? Ever since I entered the so-called “Yiddish World,” I’ve found myself fascinated by the romantic lives of Yiddishists. Through informal conversations with friends about our Yiddish speaking relationships, I’ve noticed many positive themes, among them: feeling that a mutual passion for the language created a special intimacy, a common bond, or added a welcome “intellectual touch” to the relationship. But I’ve also traced some troubling patterns: Some Yiddishists feel insecure over their fluency levels, argue with partners over when and how often to speak it, and, in some extreme cases, feel that they are only in love with either the English or the Yiddish speaking side of the person lying beside them.
I left these conversations curious and full of questions, which led me to create a survey that In geveb circulated last month. I wanted to explore the degree to which Yiddish plays a role in Yiddishists’ romantic lives, and why they challenge their romantic lives for the sake of speaking Yiddish.
Before we get into the numbers, let’s figure out what we mean by Yiddishists. While Hasidim are the vast majority of today’s Yiddish speakers, there are several thousand non-Hasidic Yiddish speakers. These Yiddish speakers, both those who have Yiddish from home and those who studied it in a classroom, are often referred to as “Yiddishists” by themselves and by others.The non-Hasidic speakers are a diverse group, including all kinds of Jews both secular and religious, and also many non-Jewish Yiddishists; Yiddishists are Israeli, American, European, Australian, and beyond; they are old and young. Among the youth there are a small number of heritage speakers, while significantly more who have learned Yiddish at intensive summer programs or in university classrooms. They convene at events like Yidish Vokh, and are ever-present on social media. They tend to know one another, not only locally but also internationally, and often date and even marry one another. These people make up the “Yiddish world,” an alternate universe not tied to physical space—a small but tight-knit community in which everybody knows your (Yiddish) name.
Yiddishists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries declared Yiddish a national language of the Jewish people. They modernized the language and standardized its spelling, and promoted Yiddish as a modern language with a high culture, appearing within a similar nationalist context as modern Hebraists and Gaelic revivalists. Some Yiddishists today connect to this nationalist tradition, but according to one definition, contemporary Yiddishists are simply people who choose to make Yiddish a part of their daily lives despite its impracticality; for them, speaking it is an ideological choice but not with the same goals as early twentieth century idealists. However, this definition of Yiddishism as a daily practice is not necessarily all-inclusive. A Yiddishist could also be someone who loves Yiddish and advocates on its behalf, but doesn’t speak a word. Some Yiddishists today mirror those of a century ago, focusing on promoting the language itself and its cultural legacy; while others try to create and inhabit immersive Yiddish spaces, such as Yiddish Hoyz and Yiddish Farm. Some Yiddishists are Hasidim or former Hasidim, and others were first secular Yiddishists who then became Hasidim, enticed partly by the opportunity to live in or near truly immersive “Yiddishlands” such as Kiryas Yoel or Boro Park. Still others view Yiddish as a way to engage with the Jewish past, present, and future in their daily lives outside of contemporary institutional Jewish culture.
Because Yiddishism is often both personal and political, the language manifests in intimate contexts as well as in social and academic settings. A Yiddishist may be someone who speaks the language with their romantic partner at a cafe, while reading poetry, or during an emotional conversation. Perhaps the couple speaks Yiddish together on the subway, sharing the fun of people-watching and gossiping in a secret language. They may even speak it in bed.
Yet some Yiddishists, despite their passion for the language, don’t feel “authentic” or like their “true selves” when speaking it. A Yiddish-speaking couple might code-switch, using their dominant language for heavy conversations, and Yiddish for the light stuff. A Yiddishist may date a non-Yiddish speaker and wonder if their partner can know the “real” person they are without knowing their “Yiddish side.” A Yiddishist might never speak Yiddish with their partner, except in bed.
Seventy participants from nine countries answered In geveb’s call. Only four participants were above the age of forty-one, a skewed sample surely influenced by the readership of In geveb and the fact that the survey was shared on Facebook, but indicative also of the blossoming popularity of Yiddish among young people (and that Yiddish summer programs are great settings for summer loving).
In fact, the survey’s skew toward youth worked in its favor; since only 23 participants credit their Yiddish learning to their own families, this generational slant can tell us a lot about the ideologies of those who chose to learn it later in life. After all, Yiddishists of an older generation may have had more exposure to Yiddish in the home and from native speakers from Eastern Europe, while today’s youth learned it mainly in academic courses. In this study, 80% of respondents learned Yiddish in a classroom, whether at a university or one of many Yiddish summer programs (such as YIVO, Yiddish Book Center, Yiddish Farm, Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the Naomi Prawer Kadar Program at Tel Aviv University, and others). 18.6% learned some or all of their Yiddish from a romantic partner.
58.6% of respondents identified as women, 35.7% as men, and 5.7% as trans, gender non-conforming, or genderqueer. Respondents reported having relationships that ran the gamut, from long-term romantic (45.7%), short-term romantic (51.4%), and marriage (27.1%); to primarily sexual, (18.6%). A significant 32% have been in one or more queer relationships, and more than half of respondents considered themselves very fluent in the language, a fact that reflects either the true fluency of the group, or, more pessimistically, indicates that respondents had a low standard for what high-level, fluent Yiddish sounds like.
Perhaps most striking, however, were the discrepancies between women and men. 70% of women described themselves as being in or having been in the less fluent position in the relationship, while only 16% of men described themselves as such. Only five respondents identified themselves and their partner as having been on “equal” levels.
Finally, speaking Yiddish with current or future children ranked as important for a staggering 86% of respondents, hinting at one reason why dating another speaker might be an attractive option, and common experience.
The juiciest data, however, was that of the qualitative variety. The respondents wrote with detail and candor about the role Yiddish played in their love lives.
First, I wanted to know when and how often people spoke Yiddish with their partners. Answers varied tremendously. Several couples spoke it exclusively, like one respondent who explained:
איך רעד מיט מײַן מאַן אין גאַנצן אױף ייִדיש די טעג. דאָס איז אַ באַשלוס װאָס מיר האָבן געמאַכט מיט עטלעכע יאָרן צוריק נאָך דער ייִדיש־װאָך, און איצט אַז מיר האָבן אַ קינד איז דער באַשלוס אַפֿילו שטאַרקער.
I speak Yiddish with my husband all the time these days. This is a decision that we made several years ago after the Yidish Vokh, and now that we have a child, the decision is even stronger.
Other respondents spoke Yiddish quite infrequently, citing that it “never really felt like ‘our language’ in any natural or authentic way.” Some couples made schedules, speaking Yiddish one or two days a week, and in one situation, a couple almost never spoke it until the break-up conversation, which they conducted entirely in Yiddish. In three examples, male respondents explained with varying levels of regret that while they speak Yiddish to their female partners, their partners almost always answer in English, or answer in English half the time.
Several descriptions touched upon the influence of Yiddishist ideology in their reasons for speaking the language within romantic relationships. One respondent wrote that her partner “believed for a while that through this relationship we could renew something in the contemporary Yiddish culture, bring a sort of tikkun to it.” Another wrote that it was “a form of acting out my commitment to the language’s survival in America, or to Yiddishism in a broader sense.” A third respondent explained speaking Yiddish with a partner as “a form of resistance to waspy, colonialist constructs surrounding relationships.” One respondent wasn’t a Yiddishist before meeting her partner, but through him teaching her the language, she “fell in love with the Yiddishist cause.”
Many respondents reported issues in their relationships arising from disparate fluency levels. Some respondents struggled with being the more fluent partner, such as one who wrote, “We initially met on the Yiddish Farm, so our relationship began in Yiddish, but once things became more intimate Yiddish felt limiting and we switched to English… I didn’t love feeling like I was in a more powerful position linguistically.” Another respondent of high fluency explained that while as a Yiddishist, he’s used to speaking the language at a higher level than other people, in a the context of a relationship, this becomes “more complicated.”
The majority of respondents reported switching to English during tense, emotional conversations, and many who were less fluent than their partners echoed the idea that they “couldn’t really, fully be (themselves) in Yiddish.” Additionally, one believed that if a male partner in a heterosexual relationship is more fluent in Yiddish, this “compounds his male privilege in the bedroom due to predetermined imbalances of sexual safety, dominance, and so forth.” Despite the potential pitfalls, however, some stuck to immersion from the beginning. In one such relationship, a respondent explained that even as a total beginner, “It was very important to me not to switch to English just because we needed to have a difficult conversation, or were tired . . . I can remember only twice in two years when one of us broke into English spontaneously, in moments of sudden anger.”
Regarding whether or not language ever caused a rift, approximately half reported that it played only a positive or neutral role in the relationship. Some respondents described speaking Yiddish as “fun,” “intellectually stimulating,” and a mode of “expressing Jewish identity.” The other half, especially those who spoke Yiddish with their partners most of the time, reported a variety of issues.
Several reported tension around disparate commitments to fluent, correct Yiddish between partners. “My Yiddish plateaued after a while, which caused a lot of tension with my first partner. I was happy to be conversationally fluent, and didn’t care to put in extra time to be more correct,” wrote one such respondent. Another echoed a similar issue, explaining “I think I feel pressure to speak a ‘perfect Yiddish’ for him, because mediocre Yiddish kind of eats at him...and then that’s made me feel too self-conscious to speak as freely as I would, let’s say, with another relatively new speaker, or just a good friend.”
One reported that it caused a rift because “if the partner has friends or family who do not know Yiddish, it can be complicated and difficult to integrate them into my Yiddish-speaking social circles.” Finally, in a situation in which a couple spoke Yiddish exclusively, a female beginner reported a tragic miscommunication with a male advanced speaker: “There was a situation in which I thought he was dumping me . . . ” and so they stopped dating, “but months later I found out that that wasn’t what he said.”
******When it comes to sex, Yiddish played a varying role in respondents’ experiences. For some, the language was actually pivotal in their sexual awakenings. One respondent positively reflected, “My first queer sexual experience was in Yiddish. The opportunity to be queer somehow presented itself more easily in Yiddish than it did in English. It could be because we often discussed queer Yiddish literature together, and I think it’s also bound up in the fact that there have often been a higher proportion of queer students in my Yiddish summer programs than in other learning environments . . . In this way, I think Yiddish made me feel safe.” Others found Yiddish to be, simply put, sexy. One respondent explained that “it was really hot . . . using Yiddish as a language for queer sex, and is another part of revitalizing the language,” and another revealed that because her boyfriend loves Yiddish so much, “he gets more turned on when I speak it in bed than when I speak English. It’s fun to use it in bed, then, as a sort of sexy wildcard.”
Others struggled to use Yiddish in the bedroom. One felt that English “became necessary . . . when we discussed what we would want from each other sexually,” in terms of both pleasure and consent. Many responses echoed the feeling that because “erotic vocabulary isn’t often taught,” and because pornography and the American media are in English, “sexual role-playing” and “dirty talk” is simply “easier in English.” (Yiddish teachers, your students have spoken: You’ve got your work cut out for you. And Mordkhe Schaechter is here to help.)
Lastly, when asked if they had gone out with non-Yiddish-speakers since learning Yiddish, answers varied. Some hadn’t gone out with a non-Yiddish-speaker, others had and hadn’t asked their partners to learn, but most wrote that it was important for them that their partners show at least an interest. Most men had encouraged women to learn the language for them, while many female respondents implied that though a Yiddish-speaking partner would be ideal, they couldn’t be so choosy.
If speaking Yiddish in everyday life is an act of ideology or of commitment to the cause of Yiddish continuity, then speaking it in the most intimate of moments perhaps takes this commitment to a new level. However, many committed Yiddishists do not end up partnering with members of this small social world, a fact that does not necessarily correlate with less commitment to “the cause.” Some respondents reported teaching or encouraging their non-Yiddishist partners to learn the language, but many said neutrally or regrettably that their efforts have fallen flat. Several wrote that it is hard enough just to find the right partner; who could possibly focus on whether or not a potential mate speaks Yiddish? And of course, this survey didn’t make space for the likely multitudes of Yiddishists who have never been in a Yiddish-speaking relationship, as a matter of circumstance.
What, then, can we conclude from these findings? The commitment these seventy young Yiddish speakers expressed to having Yiddish play a role in their romantic relationships definitely hints at the vitality of the language amongst this admittedly small population. With 42.9% reporting that speaking Yiddish with their children would be “very important,” the stakes are high, as ideally both parents would speak the language in order to make that possible. The responses made it clear that Yiddishists are attracted to other Yiddishists for sex, summer flings, and long-term relationships and marriages. This attraction likely goes deeper than common language, as Yiddishists often associate the language with certain Jewish identities, ones that celebrate life in the diaspora and Ashkenazic heritage, connect deeply to Yiddish’s cultural yerushe, or subvert the pervasive Israel-centered Jewish identity. As one respondent explained, “Yiddish can be a way to think about a Jewishness that is seemingly out of step with current institutional forms of collective engagement, a potential linguistic community that has the ideological range, political and ethnic diversity, and cultural creativity often lacking in a lot of established contemporary Jewish life.”
The most extreme or committed among the Yiddishists, the ones who wish to speak the language with their partners most of the time, do so with the knowledge that their commitment to speaking Yiddish makes their relationships more complicated. What does it mean that Yiddishists are willing to put their relationships through hurdles and turmoil for the sake of speaking Yiddish? This points to a particularly strong desire to continue the language, possibly because some feel they aren’t their “authentic selves” in English, or that they can access a desired individuality in Yiddish, and need their romantic partner to know their Yiddish side.
The survey left me with a better overall sense of this intriguing phenomenon, but unsolved mysteries remain. Perhaps the reasons people seek love in Yiddish, despite its challenges, simply cannot be encapsulated by quotes and graphs. While the rarity of Yiddish romance is part of what makes it so intimate and enticing, due to the cultural and historical associations with Yiddish, these intimate relationships inevitably look outward toward larger ideological horizons as well. The Yiddish romance exists somewhere between the personal and the political, where the contemporary Yiddishist learns to love the language and its speakers.