Post-philology in Old Yiddish Studies

Aya Elyada

Jerold C. Frakes, The Emer­gence of Ear­ly Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture: Cul­tur­al Trans­la­tion in Ashke­naz, (Bloom­ing­ton, IN: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017), 320pages, $60.00

In his book, The Emergence of Early Yiddish Literature: Cultural Translation in Ashkenaz, Jerold C. Frakes offers a close analysis of early Yiddish works of lyric, drama, and epic, which came into being as a result of the cultural exchange between pre-modern Ashkenazi Jews and their non-Jewish, mainly German and Italian surroundings. As a new study in the field of Old Yiddish literature, published in accessible English and combining close reading of primary sources with contemporary modes of critical analysis, this volume presents an important contribution in various respects. First, it helps promote the visibility of the field within present-day international scholarship and the broader public alike. Frakes achieves this by presenting the richness and diversity of Old Yiddish literature, by translating large segments of Old Yiddish texts into English, and by demonstrating the relevance of this early modern Ashkenazi corpus for the broader fields of comparative literature and cultural studies. Second, the book enriches the extant scholarly corpus on Old Yiddish literature, which is, unfortunately, rather limited in scope and in large part already outdated and/or linguistically inaccessible to present-day readers. Frakes’ book, moreover, helps promote relatively new and certainly welcome tendencies in Old Yiddish studies, which aim “to move beyond the strictures of conventional philology” to “twenty-first century ‘criticism,’ that is, literary and cultural study” of the Old Yiddish texts (6). As Frakes makes clear, “[t]he book’s post-philological interests are in – among other things – issues of politics, gender, narratology, and cultural liminality and hybridity” (4).

In addition to its methodological strengths, one should note the impressive breadth of the book. Stretching over a period of three and a half centuries and encompassing vast geographical territories, the book discusses three literary modes of Old Yiddish literature (lyric, drama, and epic), which emerged in the “literary borderlands” between Jewish textual tradition and “the textual worlds of Middle High German, Renaissance Italian, and Humanist Latin” (vii). The focus of the book on “quasi-secular” Old Yiddish genres, as opposed to religious-pious genres, deriving entirely from Jewish tradition in loshn koydesh (Hebrew-Aramaic), allows for a particularly illuminating perspective on the emergence of early Yiddish literature. As Frakes argues, not only did these texts transform the canon of Jewish literature, “making space for new modes of cultural expression never before possible in Jewish culture” (20), they also shed valuable light on the cultural interactions between the Jewish Ashkenazi minority and the surrounding Christian culture. “The problem at issue,” Frakes notes, “is the extent to which Ashkenaz was open to outside cultural influence and the mechanisms of that influence” (11).

The focus on an intriguing corpus and the important scholarly agenda notwithstanding, the book is not without flaws. One important point is the tendency of the author to make assertions without sufficient basis in facts. To give one example: in the lengthy introduction to the book, Frakes claims that “as long as the issue is a written text and not oral communication, then with few and ultimately insignificant exceptions, non-Yiddish speakers have never read Yiddish literature (until the very recent mediated access granted by translation)” (9). This, however, is quite misleading. In fact, there are many examples of early modern translations of Old Yiddish literature into German (and to a lesser extent into Latin), prepared by Christian scholars for a Christian readership. One might agree that these translations probably did not influence non-Jewish literature, but they were by no means “insignificant exceptions”. They were published by known Hebraists and theologians of the time, in works that saw several editions and were distributed in quite a few copies. Moreover, the Christian translators of Old Yiddish texts specifically intended their translations to provide Christian readers with access to the closed Jewish world and to help them get acquainted with contemporary Jewish culture. Frakes’ assertions, therefore, as if early Yiddish literature “did not and could not ‘represent’ the minority culture to the majority culture,” or that “early Yiddish literature was … in important respects hermetically sealed to the outside” (9) are, at best, inaccurate. In the same vein, Frakes’ emphasis toward the end of the book, that the earliest extant love song in Yiddish was “composed not in … Hebrew, which was also known to … some Christian representatives of Humanism, but in Yiddish, which all but sealed it to Gentile access” (229-230) is even more puzzling, for Frakes is surely aware that quite a few Christian Hebraists could and did read texts in Yiddish. This, of course, is just a minor example, but surely, such factual inaccuracies have no place in a historically oriented study.

Yet my main point of criticism would be that the conclusions of the book are somewhat disappointing. Despite the book’s rich and complex treatment of a wide array of works, it only partially succeeds in providing a better understanding of the mechanisms of cultural translation in Ashkenaz, or of the historical conditions that allowed for such cases of literary and intellectual transfer. The fact, for example, that early Yiddish drama emerged from the integration of Jewish textual traditions on the Book of Esther with Christian artistic forms (chapter 4) is truly fascinating, and can teach us a lot about the social and cultural interactions between the Ashkenazi minority and the Christian majority. This is equally true for the fact that early Yiddish epic was imported from contemporaneous Christian literature, while undergoing adaptations to Jewish taste and sensibilities (chapter 7). Yet for anyone already acquainted with Old Yiddish literature, and especially with the extant research in the field, this is hardly a novelty. Indeed, “the larger thesis of the volume” as presented by Frakes, “that a translation of culture took place across a range of literary genres of early Yiddish literature via discursive negotiation, for after all it is a matter of analytical selection and adaptation that makes early Yiddish literature possible” (229), has already been suggested and demonstrated by previous Yiddish scholars. For example, these scholars have shown, as Frakes does in the present volume, that the Jewish translators refrained from adapting religious Christian texts. Instead, they either borrowed literary conventions for the production of inherently Jewish texts (as in the case of early Yiddish drama), or confined themselves to translating more “neutral” cultural material, “neutralizing” or “Judaizing” religious motifs when necessary (as in the case of early Yiddish epic). One might have expected Frakes’ volume to go beyond these suggestions and deepen our understanding of the topic by providing, for example, a more satisfactory response to the important questions with which he opens the book (p. 1), rather than indulging in lengthy explorations of the Yiddish texts. This is not to suggest that Frakes’ literary analyses of these texts are not interesting or rewarding in and of themselves, but one cannot ignore the somewhat frustrating discrepancy between the elaborate textual analyses and the quite modest conclusions they eventually yield.

Interestingly, Frakes himself is also aware of this shortcoming. He concedes, for example, that the book’s conclusions “often can do little more than identify somewhat more precisely … what it is that we still do not know” (2), or that they simply remain “tantalizingly elusive” (229). Frakes’ assertion that the sparsity of the sources prevents us from arriving at “compelling answers” or “conclusive arguments” is of course quite plausible, but it cannot entirely justify the “provisional, essai-like mode of the analysis offered by the present volume” (230). At least a more serious attempt should have been made. Moreover, the fact that Frakes dismisses in advance any possible demand for clearer, more evidence-based and historically convincing arguments as stemming from “a purely empiricist perspective,” or as looking for “conventional empirical conclusions” (232), questions, in my eyes, the book’s value for historians and historical research. Nonetheless, as I emphasized at the beginning of this review, the present volume is an important and welcome contribution to the field of Old Yiddish studies. One can only hope (as the author himself states) that it will entice new studies on this important topic, which will further advance our understanding of the historical Yiddish-German encounter, and of the fascinating phenomenon of cultural translation in early modern Ashkenaz.

Elyada, Aya. “Post-philology in Old Yiddish Studies.” In geveb, October 2019:
Elyada, Aya. “Post-philology in Old Yiddish Studies.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed Oct 24, 2021.


Aya Elyada

Aya Elyada is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.