Review of Yiddish: A Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler

Michael Wex

Jef­frey Shan­dler, Yid­dish: A Biog­ra­phy of a Lan­guage. (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). 264 pp. $27.95.

In 1977 I informed my father that I was thinking of transferring from a Ph.D program in Mediaeval Studies to one in Yiddish at Columbia. He responded immediately. “Shoyte, vus darfsti in yidish? Idiot, what do you need Yiddish for? Konst shtarbn far hinger un yidish oykh, There are better ways to starve to death.”

It’s unfortunate that that my father isn’t here to see Jeffrey Shandler’s Yiddish: Biography of a Language, which not only provides a virtual catalogue raisonné of approaches to the language and its culture, but also, if only implicitly, an affirmative answer to my father’s question:

This book offers readers who have little or no familiarity with Yiddish an introduction to its significance within multiple scholarly perspectives, including European studies, Jewish studies, diaspora studies, and immigration studies, as well as language and culture studies…For those readers conversant with Yiddish and the field of Yiddish studies, this book’s format presents new ways of understanding familiar phenomena and scrutinizing conceptualizations of the language, its speakers, and their cultures (3).

As Shandler indicates, the book is focused on academic approaches to the history and development of Yiddish, its place in contemporary Jewish life, and its role in the service of various social and political tendencies, especially those more or less home-grown ideologies—Labour Zionism, Yiddishism, Bundism, Territorialism––that developed as integral components of modern Yiddish secular culture.

Such an approach is probably inevitable in a book aimed at students of Yiddish and academics in other fields for whom phrases like “displacement from a locus of rootedness” (31) or “an epistemic system that differentiates among categories of phenomena” (59) are more sikhes khulin than targum loshn, and Shandler has chosen to concentrate on reception rather than production, on often conflicting modalities of apprehension and utilization, which he negotiates with elegance and more than a little tact. His decision to take the publisher’s series title––“A Biography”––as a mandate to treat Yiddish as a living being whose life and activities can be outlined in “a series of short thematic chapters that follow the rubric of a biographical profile” (1-2) was a happy one. Even if Yiddish, pace many an old-time speaker, does not really redt zikh aleyn, Shandler’s focus on the uses to which it has been put and the lenses through which it has been viewed (not to mention the ears through which it has been heard), rather than on the internal dynamics of the language itself, allows for an inclusive—if necessarily succinct—overview of the various cultures that have developed in and around the language. The good news is that my father could not have been more wrong: institutionally, as a field of study or locus of conceptualization, Yiddish––the language that’s always supposed to be dying––has probably never been healthier.

The fact of my father’s wrongness, to say nothing of the ease with which he was able to sway me, is less important, less emblematic, than the way in which we were wrong. As Shandler points out in chapters titled “Name” and “Personality,” disparaging Yiddish in Yiddish—using Yiddish to delimit the spaces and uses appropriate to the language—is a longstanding topos. It’s one of the great ironies of post-Holocaust Yiddish history that so many people who might have been expected to welcome Yiddish’s growing presence in mainstream cultural and academic life should have greeted it instead with ambivalence and even indifference, almost inevitably (at least in my experience) citing a perceived lack of yidisher tam in its products: “Dos heyst bay dir yidish? You call that Yiddish?” Whatever else it is, it’s too formal, too stiff, not very colloquial, full of nisht geshtoygene nisht gefloygene neologisms––in other words, not quite their Yiddish, the Yiddish of native speakers born before World War II. The folkstimlekhkayt, the down-home folksiness and cultural obviousness of Yiddish that such people miss, has not vanished so much as it has changed, along with the folk that’s redefining it, and Shandler’s biography can be read as a chronicle of expanding notions of folkstimlekhkayt, from the old vos far a yid redt nisht ken yidish (what kind of [Ashkenazi] Jew doesn’t speak Yiddish) standard to the Yiddish being used and developed by cohorts of non-native speakers.

Those worried about the more traditionally folkish pH of contemporary Yiddish need look no further than the growing community of native speakers that uses Yiddish as its primary language and the adjective heymish as a badge of identity. There’s plenty of folksy Yiddish being spoken today, but most of it is coming out of Hasidim who have little, if any, meaningful Yiddish contact with people outside the boundaries of their social and religious world. A language once spoken by Jews of every social stratum, with dialects defined by geography, has become a sociolect––or pair of sociolects––based on different European variants and enjoying day-to-day currency only among ultra-religious Jews and a relatively small (if growing) group of more secularly-oriented enthusiasts of diverse backgrounds committed to speaking as much Yiddish as the exigencies of their personal and professional lives will allow. While the cultural distance between these groups is probably no greater than that between scholars of English literature and the members of snake handling churches, snake handlers are not the last mass redoubt of English as a primary language. They don’t know much gemore, either. The heymishe population has played a major part in sustaining Yiddish as a language of day-to-day speech and maintaining its connection to texts and practices that, no matter what you think of them, are indispensable to a full understanding of the language and its culture.

Shandler is probably best-known for having introduced the concept of post-vernacularity into Yiddish studies, a field rooted in the work of such people as Weinreich, Borochov, and Birnbaum, non-native speakers who had to fight their way to vernacularity, and the reification inherent to the post-vernacular idea might account for his relatively scant treatment of the linguistic aspects of Yiddish. Basic matters of conjugation and morphology are discussed as part of Yiddish’s “Family Background” and there is a brief discussion of dialects and phonology in a chapter called “Residence.” Although we get two full pages of verb conjugations and morphology, along with nearly half a page of nominal suffixes and endings, Shandler furnishes relatively few examples of the language at work. The most serious lacuna, though, is the lack of any discussion of Yiddish’s more recent “Family Background” as one of the smaller European languages––Lithuanian, Czech, Norwegian, to name but three––that came into themselves, so to speak, at roughly the same time as Yiddish and often became the official languages of sovereign states. To what degree does the development of modern Yiddish––including the choice of name––parallel developments in other small languages? How does the lack of an agreed-upon territorial imperative influence or affect the language itself and attitudes towards it? To what degree are attitudes to Yiddish––our own and those of others––beholden to territorial models? More discussion of such questions would have been welcome.

When Shandler does make linguistic comments, theygive occasional reason to pause. According to him, “The Slavic particle zhe can intensify verbs from other components in the imperative: Kum aher! (‘Come here!’) ~ Kum-zhe aher! (‘COME HERE!’)” (24). Ipkho mistabro, as we used to say back home, he’s got it the wrong way around. Zhe has the opposite effect on an imperative. Kum aher! can run the gamut from “Come here,” to “GET OVER HERE NOW!” depending on tone of voice; kum-zhe aher is warmer, less severe, closer to “Come on over” or “Why don’t you come over here.” Where zets zikh avek means “Sit down,” zets-zhe zikh avek (or even better, nu, zets-zhe) has more the feel of “Set yourself down” or “Take a load off.” The fact that one of the most prominent and influential scholars in the field can make so elementary an error and not catch it (or have it caught) while proofreading is disheartening, to say the least. I can’t imagine a similar slip in a book about French or German by a scholar of Shandler’s stature.

A similar, if more offhand misreading, is found in Shandler’s characterization of the noun khoge as a neutral term for a non-Jewish holiday (104). Borrowed from Isaiah 19:17, khoge means trembling or terror, the horrified obverse of the tremulous piety that gives rise to the term kharedi. Rashi glosses it as leshon shever ve-eyma ve-pakhad, “an expression of brokenness and terror and fear.” Aside from a happy coincidence of letters and sound, it has nothing to do with the Hebrew khag, which is used in Yiddish only in conjunction with the name of the khag being mentioned. Khoge is the negation of yontef, not its counterpart, the parodic version of the seasons of our joy. Az men klingt, iz khoge (“when [church] bells ring, it’s a khoge”), means “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” and is no more an expression of non-sectarian disinterest than saying that nitl (a relatively neutral term for Christmas) is a khoge: had you wanted to imply objectivity or respect, you’d have called it a kristlekher yontef.

As such glitches indicate, the prospects for spoken and written Yiddish (in the non-Hasidic world) don’t look nearly as bright as those for the academic discipline. Yiddish studies might be flourishing, but not for the most part in Yiddish. It’s symptomatic of something––maybe even a couple of somethings––that Der Veker, a general interest magazine that attracts writers from across the Yiddish-speaking spectrum, is published by (and mostly for) haredim. Although both Afn Shvel and Yidishland publish critical articles, I’m not aware of any print or online outlets devoted solely to academic writing in Yiddish. If such a lack of regularly-published, all-Yiddish outlets for critical and academic writing does not bespeak a persistence in treating Yiddish as a somewhat deficient zhargon as ill-suited to academic discourse as the language of Peretz’s “Monish” was to pitching woo, it would at least seem to imply a discomfort with using the language for such purposes —as well, perhaps, as a tacit admission that writing in Yiddish will do little to expand most authors’ audiences.

It isn’t as if Yiddish can’t support such prose, as Jonathan Boyarin proved twenty-five years ago in “Yidishe visnshaft un di postmodern,” the appendix to his Thinking in Jewish, reprinted as a stand-alone article on this very website. You don’t have to agree with anything Boyarin says; what matters is that he’s saying it in Yiddish, that he is able to say it in Yiddish. His assertion (from Naomi Seidman’s translation) that “Yiddish will be spoken the way it is written, not written as it is spoken, because the basic means of communication in today’s secular Yiddish is writing, not speech,” rings rather hollow––if it can be said to ring at all–– in the face of so little actual writing. For all its virtues, Boyarin’s article has yet to call forth a wave of published Yiddish-language discussions of post-post-modernism, and I wonder if its lonely eminence makes it as much post-vernacular performance as means of communication––especially when it comes with a translation.

It’s a question that Shandler could probably answer better than I. He is particularly good on the increasing engagement with Yiddish in communities that would once have shunned or merely ignored it. People like me, raised in Yiddish-speaking but decidedly non-Yiddishist environments among adults who spoke the language because––because what else were they supposed to speak?––have witnessed the transformation of Yiddish from a waning but widely used vernacular with little academic currency into an object of intense scholarly scrutiny, as well as a vehicle for the assertion of multifarious, often transgressive Jewish identities. Teenage me would have laughed himself silly at the notion that anyone would ever think to use Yiddish––and in public, yet–– to voice distance from the Jewish establishment. The same teenager would also have laughed himself silly at the idea that increasing numbers of intelligent people would voluntarily embrace a linguistic culture that he spent so much of his youth hoping to escape. Shandler is at his best in describing and explaining what has drawn people to Yiddish and what they’ve done once they got there. Yiddish: A Biography is the best available guide to how and why such a transformation has taken place and, cavils aside, should easily become the standard short treatment of the history and current state of Yiddish and Yiddish studies in English.

Wex, Michael. “Review of Yiddish: A Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler.” In geveb, May 2021:
Wex, Michael. “Review of Yiddish: A Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler.” In geveb (May 2021): Accessed Jun 20, 2021.


Michael Wex

Michael Wex’s books include Born to Kvetch and Rhapsody in Schmaltz.