Review of Rebecca Margolis’s Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission

Miriam Borden

Rebec­ca Mar­go­lis. Yid­dish Lives On: Strate­gies of Lan­guage Trans­mis­sion. Mon­tréal: McGill-Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2023. 376 pp. $39.95 CAD.

“Pipik,” my 18-month-old said, gesturing to his navel—a new discovery. He had located and named the vestige of the connection that had bound him to me, and to countless other generations before us. The word he chose is a vestige too, a link to his ancestors that’s now entirely his own. It was a new discovery for him, and for me.

This is precisely what Rebecca Margolis’ new book Yidish Lebt: Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission explores: how a diverse range of native, heritage, and new speakers have ensured not only the continuity of a minority language widely thought to be endangered, but evolved Yiddish into a site of creative renewal in the Jewish world.

The study intervenes in recent scholarly efforts to understand the semiotics of Yiddish by shifting the conversation away from Yiddish as symbolism and toward one asking broader questions of language continuity, transformation, and expansion. Margolis is less interested in how Yiddish becomes transformed through its diverse modes of use, and more interested in how it transforms those who choose to transmit it. Accordingly, the book departs from Jeffrey Shandler’s elaboration of the postvernacular, and other theories of the meta-meanings of twenty-first century Yiddish, and heads instead in a refreshingly different direction. 1 1 Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). Also Amelia Glaser, “From Polylingual to Postvernacular: Imagining Yiddish in the Twenty-First Century,” Jewish Social Studies 14, no. 3 (2008): 150-164; and Netta Avineri, “Yiddish Endangerment as Phenomenological Reality and Discursive Strategy: Crossing into the Past and Crossing Out of the Present,” Language and Communication 38 (2014): 18-32. This is not a book about what Yiddish means today, but about the strategies that have historically ensured its vitality.

Focusing on moments representing efforts to promote Yiddish connection and continuity, each chapter is devoted to a different model and a different era: transmission within families (1950s to today); participation in community youth theatre groups (1960s to 1970s); ventures in publishing, anthologizing, and translation (1970s to 1980s); singing in immersive and community spaces (1990s to 2000s); and digitization, social media, and subtitled cinema (2000 to present). In the process, Margolis deftly illustrates the complex nature of Yiddish today by foregrounding the voluntary nature of Yiddish engagement and the role of innovation in the transmission of the language that has led it to emerge as a vehicle for young people to engage with their identity. “The focus here is not the losses to Yiddish but the degree to which subsequent generations have configured new domains for the language.” 2 2 Rebecca Margolis, Yidish Lebt: Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023), 17.

In addition to her thorough and thoughtful scholarship, Margolis makes an important intervention into what we know about spoken, published, sung, and filmed Yiddish: in a move that feels revolutionary, she focuses solely on Canada. Among the literature on Canadian Jews, there are very few monographs on Yiddish, and in this quiet gulf, Margolis’ Yidish Lebt responds vociferously and defiantly to University of Winnipeg German professor emeritus Jack Thiessen’s 1973 Yiddish in Canada: The Death of a Language. The focus here on Canada—not in comparison to other major destinations for Jewish immigrants, but to their exclusion—indicates a confidence about the value of Canadian Jewish research and its relevance that is seldom reflected in the field of Yiddish. Canadian Yiddish is often presumed to represent wider trends in American Yiddish. But with works like this, the otherness of Canada’s Jews to most discussions of Yiddish — especially in relation to the United States — does not vanish. It receives top billing. In re-centering the conversation away from the United States, where the sheer number of Yiddish speakers, both Hasidic and secular, and the amount of research produced there, preserves its status as a comparative giant whose shadow is not easily escaped, Margolis demonstrates that Canada is distinctive for its history of Yiddish transmission while also transnational and global in outlook. Rather than seeming small and rather limited in relation to its southern neighbor, Yiddish in Canada takes on new meaning, significance, and relevance. In this book, Canadian Yiddish has something to say.

Unlike the United States, which experienced an earlier German wave of immigration, the first major Jewish immigration to Canada in the 1880s came from Eastern Europe. In 1931, 96% of the more than 150,000 Jews who had immigrated to Canada reported Yiddish as their mother tongue. They quickly formed the country’s most urbanized population: 97% of Jews in Canada were city-dwellers in 1931, compared to 34% of Canadians as a whole. Antisemitism was embedded into the society Yiddish speakers entered, and in response to their social and economic exclusion, they formed tightly knit autonomous communities in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Yiddish in Quebec flourished in particular due to the linguistically bifurcated competition between English and French, which paradoxically created space for minority languages and allowed Jews to form what poet Irving Layton termed a “third solitude.” 3 3 Layton wrote, “In Montreal the dominant ethnic groups stare at one another balefully across their self-erected ghetto walls. Three solitudes.” See Irving Layton, “Preface,” The Collected Poems of Irving Layton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971). But despite the explosion of sociological and cultural infrastructure that emerged as a result of mass immigration and societal exclusion up until the 1930s, by the 1950s generations of Canadian-born Jews were unlikely to hear Yiddish spoken at home, and by the 1970s scholars predicted the total demise of Yiddish in Canada within a couple of decades. However, Yiddish cultural activists mobilized, creating new avenues for continuity, and as a result of their efforts, Canada today remains a site of dynamic and diverse engagement with secular Yiddish. Perhaps most notably, Montreal and Toronto are the only cities in North America today with secular Jewish day schools that include Yiddish in the curriculum.

The same is true of other countries, like Mexico and Australia, where Eastern European immigration followed patterns similar to that of Canada and where Yiddish education endured far beyond midcentury. This too recasts the United States as the exception, not the rule. Writing on Jewish Canadian literature in English, Michael Greenstein points out that while Ellis Island’s huddled masses were welcomed into America’s melting pot by Emma Lazarus’ words, in Jewish immigrants to the port of Montreal were left to wait to be recognized by an nascent Canadian mosaic “that did not force a quick abandoning of Yiddish roots.” 4 4 Michael Greenstein, Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), 5.

In elegant prose over six meticulously researched chapters, Yidish Lebt offers an expansive, detailed, and deeply thoughtful study of the many ways Yiddish has been preserved, transmitted, and reimagined over the last seventy years. The scope of the study and the research methods employed is impressive, with analysis spanning surveys, interviews, archival materials, and new media. Though Margolis’ focus is on secular Yiddish, she achieves something few others have managed: she integrates analysis of secular and Hasidic phenomena of language transmission in a dynamic coupling that reveals both the parallels and the conflicts between them.

The study takes its theoretical framing from sociological and postcolonial concepts of third places/spaces of the formal and informal exploration of identity. Margolis uses the term “created language spaces” to refer to “deliberately constructed sites for people to engage with non-dominant languages,” the family home, informal groups intentionally opting in to using the language, organized festivals or retreats, and spaces digital or otherwise that produce opportunities for engaging with the language educationally, creatively, or socially. 5 5 Margolis, 14.

Though the focus is on strategies of minority language transmission—and to that end, the study frequently pauses to engage in comparative perspective with efforts to promote other Canadian minority languages, such as Indigenous languages and Gaelic Scottish—the book also serves as a meticulously researched history of Yiddish in Canada since the 1950s, and therefore a fitting complement to Margolis’ earlier work, Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Cultural Life in Montreal, 1905-1945 (McGill-Queen’s, 2011). While that book explores the emergence and establishment of the Yiddish community in Montreal, this one reflects on the endurance of that community beyond the immigrant generation. It traces the way Yiddish evolved from the language of Jewish newcomers to Canada to the language of Canadian Jews, and the way Yiddish was (and remains) a critical component of the formulation of postwar, non-European Jewish identities. Jewish Roots is concretely historical. Yidish Lebt is more reflective, asking how a minority language has energized successive generations of Canadian Jews. The story Margolis tells is one of extraordinary creativity and determination, in decade after decade and against all odds, to preserve and transmit a language few thought would reach the end of the century.

At the heart of language transmission, it becomes clear, are young people. Margolis’ discussion of Yiddish youth activism represents the book’s most substantial addition to her foundational work on the history of Yiddish Montreal, with an illuminating discussion of the changing conditions for Jews in Canada of the 1960s and 1970s that set the stage for young people to reinterpret the place and meaning of Yiddish in Jewish culture. While Yiddish declined within the mainstream, youth were targeted as the carriers for the language into the future. Though they grew up far from the Eastern European Yiddish environments of their parents, for some children of Holocaust survivors Yiddish formed a vital part of their young lives in Canada. Surrounded by Yiddish culture (music, theatre, community programs), educated in shuln and summer camps, and raised by Yiddish-speaking parents who maintained a commitment to one or more ideological movements that valued Yiddish, this generation created a hybrid Yiddish culture that bridged the Old World of pre-Holocaust Europe and the New World of postwar Canada. Margolis likens their efforts to a rope with multiple strands: “The more strands were interconnected and the more young people were actively engaged with them, the more productive and complete the transmission of Yiddish to the next generation would be.” Drawing on archival materials, print media, and interviews, Margolis presents “three enduring modes of youth-oriented community activism: (1) by adults for youth in a community model: a drama workshop that became the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre; (2) by youth for youth in an international model: a group and journal formed by and for young people in Yugntruf-Youth for Yiddish; (3) by adults for youth in a national and regional model: the Yiddish Committees of the Canadian Jewish Congress.” 6 6 Margolis, 87. Influential individuals who emerged from this environment stand out and underline the logic of Margolis’ strategic focus on Yiddish in Canada: David Roskies, Ruth Wisse, Sheva Zucker, Sarah Mlotek Rosenfeld (a co-founder of KlezKanada).

Postwar Yiddish writing shines in Margolis’ handling of postwar publishing in Canada since 1945. She foregrounds “the hopes for continuity associated with book production combined with an expansive community apparatus to support it” within a history and analysis of the wider implications of Yiddish book publishing after the Holocaust. Margolis joins scholars who argue for the vibrancy of Yiddish writing after the war, showing that, “post-1950 Canadian Yiddish writers rejected the model of Yiddish literature as simply the forerunner to new literary traditions in the majority language. Rather, they wrote and published in greater capacity than before, while exploring alternate avenues to disseminate their work to broader audiences.” 7 7 Margolis, 134.

Tracing Yiddish publishing from the early postwar years through the 1980s, Margolis provides a detailed and invaluable survey of Yiddish writing in Canada, very little of which has been assessed by scholars. And, opening the door to further scholarship, she provides a crucial resource for researchers and translators in an appendix to the volume listing all two hundred Yiddish books published by Canadian resident writers between 1945 and 2020.

If one feature of Yiddish toward the close of the twentieth century was accessibility—namely, through translation—Margolis expands this discussion to consider an eminently more accessible, inclusive, and participatory mode of Yiddish language transmission that has gained increasing momentum in the twenty-first: singing. In an integrated discussion of Yiddish, klezmer, and queer Yiddishkeit, Margolis displays the full range of possibility unlocked by Yiddish song and the festivals and retreats where it features most prominently: Montreal’s KlezKanada (founded 1995), the world’s largest multi-day immersive retreat devoted to Yiddish music and culture; the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir (founded 1925); and the Vancouver Jewish folk choir (founded 1979).

Finally, Margolis’ discussion of Yiddish transmission in new media and film highlights the multifaceted ways Yiddish language is being adapted to the digital age and beyond, with special consideration for Canadian new Yiddish cinema. There is a growing corpus of film in non-official languages in Canada, perhaps, as Margolis suggests, because bi- and multilingual film is more common there and better tolerated by audiences. Surveying a number of films, with a particularly sharp analysis of the Yiddish humor of the YidLife Crisis web series, Margolis shows that Yiddish on the Canadian screen—whether big or small—is a space where the latest generation is exploring its relationship to the language, often in the language.

That, fundamentally, is the essence of this study: a close look at the ways Yiddish has functioned as a vehicle for the creative reinvention of Jewish identity for each generation that has encountered it. Each generation under discussion corresponds to a particular form of Yiddish transmission, and Margolis’ multidisciplinary approach emerges with a rich, multifaceted, and hopeful vision for Yiddish continuity in the hands of those to come. Ultimately, this book shows that the language that, as the saying goes, redt zikh, truly only does so not when looking backward, to the past, but when looking ahead to the future.

Borden, Miriam. “Review of Rebecca Margolis's Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission.” In geveb, June 2023:
Borden, Miriam. “Review of Rebecca Margolis's Yiddish Lives On: Strategies of Language Transmission.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


Miriam Borden

Miriam Borden is a PhD candidate in the Yiddish program at the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto.