Transformation or Distortion? Anthologizing Yiddish in a Postvernacular Age

Michael Boyden

How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish, ed. Ilan Sta­vans and Josh Lam­bert. (Rest­less Books, 2020), 512 pages, $29.99

“The Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer may have been the first to realize that the obliteration of European Jewry gave the ‘demon-writer’ leave to distort its culture and historical experience to his heart’s content.” 1 1 Wisse, Ruth R. “Slap Shtick.” Commentary July 1 (2007). Print. This sentence is drawn from the conclusion of an acerbic review of Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Ruth Wisse, published in a 2007 issue of Commentary Magazine. “The writer of fiction was now free to reinvent,” Wisse continued, “without challenge from the deceased, any aspect of the Yiddish-speaking world they had once inhabited.” If Wisse’s negative appraisal of Singer reflects the ambivalent status of this author within Yiddish literary circles, her main target were his “literary heirs,” the Chabons and the Shteyngarts who occasionally draw on folksy Jewish themes and sprinkle their fiction with Yiddish phrases. Where Singer was still profoundly steeped in the culture that he distorted for literary profit, these “babes in Yiddishland”—as Wisse derogatorily calls them—are no longer burdened by any real knowledge of Jewish traditions. As a result, they are free to scavenge the Yiddish repertoire for “shlock and shtick” literary effect.

To many readers less at home in Yiddish culture than Wisse herself, her critique of writers such as Chabon might come across as a bit niggling—among other things, she chides the author for getting the declension wrong in “der shvartser yam”—but in fact her critique is more serious, and politically charged. Chabon’s novel presents an alternative history in which the state of Israel fails to get off the ground and a small group of Jewish exiles—the “frozen Chosen”—decides to build a new state for themselves in Alaska with Yiddish as the official language. 2 2 Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union : A Novel. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print. While investigating a murder, a local detective significantly named Landsman uncovers a plot by Christian Zionists intent on returning to Israel. What shines through in this satire of Jewish exceptionalism, and what Chabon’s use of Yiddish-inflected genre fiction arguably serves to make palatable, is a form of modern-day Sabbatianism in which the Jew figures as a powerless exile without a homeland.

Isaac Bashevis Singer figures centrally in the anthology How Yiddish Changed America and How American Changed Yiddish, assembled by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Singer is the only author to make multiple appearances. His story “The Cafeteria” opens Part IV, “American Commemoration,” the longest section of the anthology devoted to the work of the “modern” Yiddish authors, i.e. those coming after the sweatshop literature produced during the Great Migration (covered mostly in Part I). “The Cafeteria” is followed by the essay “How Does It Feel to Be a Yiddish Writer in America?” which was originally published in a 1965 issue of Forverts, as well as a series of appraisals of Singer’s work and personality by well-known Yiddishists. Rather than a retro-modern outlier, Singer here appears as a representative author of Jewish American culture in its mature phase. This is a remarkable departure from earlier anthologies of this kind. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg’s seminal A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (first published in 1954) still largely centered on the work of the classical trio of Yiddish writers: Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Mendele Moykher Sforim. 3 3 Howe, Irving, Eliezer Greenberg, and Ben Shahn. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. Rev. and updated ed. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1989. Print. While the “fathers” of Yiddish literature still often epitomize Ashkenazi culture to American Jewish readers, they are conspicuously absent from Stavans and Lambert’s anthology, which focuses predominantly on the changing fate of Yiddish in America after the Holocaust, with Isaac Bashevis Singer as its figurehead. This is of course indicative of fundamental shifts in the Yiddish tradition, which this collection renders visible in interesting ways. In part, it might also reflect the particular sensibility of the editors. In a conversation with Lisa Newman at the Yiddish Book Center, Stavans claimed for himself and Lambert the role of “outsider insiders,” specialists of Yiddish who at the same time operate at some remove from the center of American Jewish culture – Stavans was born in Mexico, Lambert in Canada. 4 4 Newman, Lisa. “How Yiddish Changed America and How American Changed Yiddish,” with Josh Lambert and Ilan Stavans. Yiddish Book Center Audio. Rec 1 March 2020.

Possibly, it is this special status of “outsider insiders” that has allowed the editors to take liberties that might offend “orthodox” Yiddishists. As the title suggests, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish is less concerned with the continuity of the Yiddish tradition as it migrated from east to west than with tracing how it has shaped American culture and has in turn been transformed by that culture. With evident pleasure, the editors have mined old issues of Pakn Treger, the magazine of the Yiddish Book Center, for revealing examples of this process of cultural cross-pollination. There is a freshness to this venture that is truly infectious and that might inspire readers not directly familiar with Yiddish to acquire a taste of its possibilities under changing conditions. Along with “high” literature, the collection covers a variety of genres, including oral histories, interviews, dialogues, and occasional writings. Particularly interesting is the space devoted to graphic art, from the cartoons of the Yiddish press to the later work of American Jewish artists with ties to Yiddish culture, such as Maurice Sendack, Stan Mack, and Liana Finck. The editors’ liminal position might also account for the inclusion of Part II, “The Mother Tongue Remixed,” which contains a number of fascinating reflections on Yiddish as a language (along with a hilarious poem by Stanley Siegelman that captures the language’s irreverent quality). Equally entertaining is Part III, “Eat, Enjoy, and Forget,” which takes as its topic the changing American Jewish food culture. Displaying both a tender connection to that culture and a form of detached amusement at how it has fused with new cuisines and palates, this eclectic and playful section does justice to the editors’ stated aim to render a living culture rather than police a static and endangered identity.

This broadminded approach to Yiddish in all of its dimensions is most clearly visible part V, “Oy, the Children!” which gives pride of place to Wisse’s “babes in Yiddishland.” As the introduction to this section specifies, Yiddish ceased to be the primary medium of expression for many American-born Jews, which has considerably complicated their relation to the culture expressed in that language. Rather than seeing this as a tragic story of cultural attrition, however, the editors insist that “a complex relationship isn’t the same thing as no relationship” (271). In this vein, Stavans and Lambert have sought out examples of what Jeffrey Shandler would call “postvernacular” Yiddish, a mode of language use that privileges the secondary, symbolic level of meaning production over the primary function of communication. 5 5 Shandler, Jeffrey. Adventures in Yiddishland : Postvernacular Language & Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Print. p. 22 While it features few pieces originally composed in Yiddish, “Oy, the Children!” is almost equally long as “American Commemoration.” Apart from serious work about transgenerational issues by American Jewish authors such as Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick (whose “Sholem Aleichem’s Revolution” might have been a good fit for Part II as well), and Allen Ginsberg, this section also features more gimmicky entries, such as testimonies by personalities from the Yiddish theater and Hollywood, as well as a fake love letter by Isaac Bashevis Singer to his Mexican maid—“unearthed” from his papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center in Austin and “translated” anonymously for the Forverts—that satirizes the author’s clumsy brand of toxic masculinity. In between these poles, there is work that can be considered half-parodic, half-serious. Under this category falls an excerpt from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in which the detective Landsman encounters a prophet-like figure who might have come straight out of not only Moby-Dick but also one of Singer’s ghost stories.

Stavans and Lambert’s openness to such new inflections of Yiddish is bold but not without potential problems. On the upside, it opens out our field of vision to a vibrant mash-up culture that recycles Yiddish in creative ways and openly defies the assumption that the language is moribund. By attending to such hybrid cultural expressions, by no means the exclusive province of Jews, Stavans and Lambert furthermore manage to show how Yiddish still speaks to current debates. Where earlier anthologies, such as Howe and Greenberg’s, were largely a men’s affair, Stavans and Lambert insistently showcase the work of Yiddish women authors, from Anna Margolin, Kadya Molodowsky, and Celia Dropkin to more recently translated voices such as Blume Lempel and Rokhl Korn. The selection of a 1936 letter published in the Forverts about a person in a small Ukrainian shtetl whom we would now characterize as transgender is perhaps of not much value apart from the fact that it speaks to the concerns of LBTGQ community today. In other cases, however, the focus on gender allows us to reconsider Yiddish classics in a new light. Thus, the anthology features a sample from Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance featuring a lesbian love scene in an Eastern European brothel, which was censored when the play was first performed on Broadway. Interestingly, Stavans and Lambert also selected a contemporary spoof of this play by David Frischmann, in which gay yeshiva bokhers substitute for the lesbian prostitutes, as well as a conversation on Paula Vogel’s 2015 play Indecent, which reconstructs the controversy surrounding Asch’s play. Such pairings are a wonderful resource to make Yiddish classics come alive for students. In large part, we owe such daring juxtapositions to Stavans and Lambert’s tolerant approach to the diverse manifestations of Yiddish literature and their refusal to accept Howe and Greenberg’s claim that its history is “brief and tragic” (2).

In other respects, however, pointing attention to the survival of Yiddish in unlikely places might backfire, blocking rather than facilitating a sustained engagement with the language. Contrary to earlier, bilingual anthologies, such as Ruth Whitman’s Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry (1966) and Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry (1986), Stavans and Lambert make no effort to confront the reader with the original Yiddish texts (except for the epigraphs introducing the sections of the book). 6 6 See: Harshav, Benjamin, and Barbara Harshav. American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Print; Whitman, Ruth. An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. 3rd bilingual edition. Print.
For an anthology that explicitly foregrounds language mixing, it is surprisingly monolingual—this in contrast to Pakn Treger, which does publish English translations alongside Yiddish texts. The headnotes accompanying the entries are mere teasers that are not of much help in identifying movements and generational shifts in Yiddish literary history. The danger inherent in such an approach is that Yiddish is reduced to a mere condiment, a signifier of successful— and essentially unproblematic—assimilation. This danger shines through in Stavans’s otherwise entertaining essay on Leo Rosten (in part II). Countering Irving Howe’s dismissal of Rosten’s popular The Joys of Yiddish as a mere instance of “schmaltz culture,” Stavans states that it is instead “an homage to American individualism and creativity” (115). For Stavans, the “Yinglish” of American Jews as recorded by Rosten is not so much a symptom of the decline of a cultural identity as a measure of their remarkable ability, through a “stunningly resilient” medium, to make themselves, like “chameleons,” part of “alien turf” (111). In this optic, Yiddish is defined first and foremost as a continually changing language of translation and mediation that serves to measure Jewish immigrants’ progress toward inclusion in American society.

While Stavans’s reappraisal of Rosten might be regarded as a pertinent corrective to the cultural pessimism of American Jewish intellectuals like Howe and Wisse, it runs the risk of depriving Yiddish of the ideals of secular reform that the language has long embodied, at least for a significant period in its history, and that did shape American Jewish life in fundamental ways. This tension comes to the fore in the final part, “The Other Americas.” The rationale behind this concluding section seems to be similar to that informing discipline-bending initiatives such as the hemispheric turn in American Studies. However interesting and important, such initiatives often end up reinstalling some of the exceptionalist rhetoric that they were designed to counteract as a result of the institutional realities within which they take shape. A similar dynamic might be observed in Stavans and Lambert’s anthology. In certain respects, “The Other Americas” reflects a genuine attempt on the part of scholars with a real investment in such issues to show that Yiddish flourished not only in the United States, but also in places like Mexico City and Buenos Aires. The very last selection of the anthology, a chapter from Alberto Gerchunoff’s novel Los Gauchos judíos, seems to have been deliberately chosen to mirror the first, Abraham Cahan’s “A Ghetto Wedding,” and thus to point out connections across Jewish communities in the western hemisphere. In both cases, we are dealing with dramatic stories of immigrant weddings gone wrong in the new homeland. Both stories—neither of them, ironically enough, composed in Yiddish—are about the transformation of Jewish culture as it touches American shores, whether it be the Lower East Side or agricultural settlements in Argentina.

But, in other ways, the final section sits rather uneasily with the message of successful Americanization that underpins most of the rest of the volume (Restless Books markets the book as a “landmark celebration of one of our foundational immigrant cultures”). How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish primarily addresses the US-based reader with an interest in—but not directly at home in the culture of—Yiddish. As a result, the final section might come across as a mere add-on that does not fundamentally question the main storyline around which the anthology is more or less explicitly organized. While some of the selections point in a different direction, this storyline is very much that of successful acculturation. “Economically and culturally,” the introduction to Part I states, the Jewish immigrants in the US “had the opportunity to create businesses and institutions that could benefit their communities and the world. And they did” (5). While one can easily understand why the editors chose to structure the collection in this way, we should also acknowledge that it does leave part of the history of Yiddish untold. Moreover, the success narrative might easily flip over into its opposite, or what the narrator in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union describes as “Landsman’s view of things – ambivalent, despondent, and with no faith in anything” (345). It is the view of a man without a homeland who, having relinquished the desire for real change in this life, can do nothing but wait half-heartedly for a prophet-beggar to point the way to salvation.

All of this is not to suggest that How Yiddish Changed America and America Changed Yiddish is not a good read. Rather, it is a highly enjoyable collection assembled with undisguised love for Yiddish culture, which at the same time reflects that culture’s remarkable vitality and variety. There are enough interesting materials in the anthology to satisfy both the general reader and the student of Yiddish, who, after reading the translations and adaptations in the anthology, might be tempted to revisit and reinterpret the originals. The book’s narrative of defiant survival and exuberant creativity as opposed to tragic decline, finally, really does reflect the multiform manifestations of Yiddish in what might very well be characterized as a postvernacular age in its development. Today, Yiddish culture is studied, celebrated, and transmitted differently than before, possibly with more freedom but not with less passion or dedication. As such, How Yiddish Changed America and America Changed Yiddish constitutes a fitting tribute to the work of the Yiddish Book Center, which over the last four decades has contributed enormously to the development of Yiddish Studies in the United States and beyond, thanks to its interview and digitization projects, courses, lectures, outreach programs, and publications.

Boyden, Michael. “Transformation or Distortion? Anthologizing Yiddish in a Postvernacular Age.” In geveb, January 2021:
Boyden, Michael. “Transformation or Distortion? Anthologizing Yiddish in a Postvernacular Age.” In geveb (January 2021): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Michael Boyden

Michael Boyden is chair professor of English at Radboud University Nijmegen.