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“Black Lives Matter” and Talking about Blackness in Yiddish: Stakes, Considerations, and Open Questions

Jonah S. Boyarin, Ri J. Turner and Arun Viswanath

INTRODUCTION

This arti­cle grew out of email and social media con­ver­sa­tions inspired by the effort, ini­ti­at­ed last spring by Jon­ah, to cre­ate and dis­sem­i­nate a list of vocab­u­lary for speak­ing and writ­ing in Yid­dish about the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in the wake of George Floyd’s bru­tal mur­der at the hands of police. A revised ver­sion of the list was dis­sem­i­nat­ed short­ly there­after by the League for Yid­dish, an orga­ni­za­tion of which Arun is a board mem­ber. More reflec­tions on this project can be found in the essay on the top­ic that Antho­ny Rus­sell, anoth­er con­trib­u­tor to the lan­guage-plan­ning effort, pub­lished in Jew­ish Cur­rents in June.

Ri (Reyze): Let’s start by talking about the stakes of this endeavor—both the creation of the vocabulary list itself and the various conversations that have happened and are still happening around it.

Jonah (Yoyne): I can speak to why I got this project off the ground. On a personal level, I want to be able to read, write, and speak about Black Lives Matter in Yiddish, because I love Yiddish and am committed to the BLM movement. Even though I am a non-native speaker, Yiddish is relevant to my daily life. If I’m serious about that, then Yiddish must have appropriate language for addressing this political moment, this movement, and the ideas they bring to the fore.

For the language itself, this work is exciting because new possibilities for Yiddish and Jewishness emerge when they encounter Blackness, including when they are enacted and affected by Black Yiddish speakers, among them Black Jews. The shifting, multifaceted beauty of diasporic Jewish languages and cultures lies in our rooted encounter, contribution, and interchange with neighboring peoples, ways, and tongues.

But that process has been stunted in America by whiteness. As James Baldwin famously said, “There is no white community.” Whiteness (by which I mean, that which systemic racism grants to and demands from white people) is a fortress, squatting angry and alone. Forgetful of its crimes, and lacking all sense of obligation (let alone belonging) to the past or the future, it nonetheless suspects that a reckoning is long overdue, and it is frightened. So it shuts its gates, arms itself to the teeth, and takes what it pleases. There is no creative encounter to be had with whiteness, only dominance and erasure. The rise of whiteness and bourgeois aspirations in Jewish communities; white Jews’ segregation from communities of color, including Jews of color; the Holocaust and its (racist) destruction of Jews and Jewishness—all of these have stunted our diasporic encounter in America. In the Yiddish world, we can and must ensure that opportunities to learn Yiddish are accessible to Black students and that Yiddish vocabulary is available for describing Black people, Blackness, and Black racial justice movements in a dignified and respectful manner.

In the realm of racial justice, I think all of us in this conversation share the conviction that racial justice needs to be actively enacted in every sphere of life. Language planning is one of many strategies available to us for doing that work. For example, when the League for Yiddish sent out a list of respectful, dignified terms for speaking in Yiddish about Black Lives Matter, it sent the signal that racial justice is relevant and important in our predominantly white Yiddishist circles. It’s one small way to break white silence.

More specifically, one of the tasks that needs to be tackled (and that we began tackling in the spring) is to address the continued use of the term shvartser in Yiddishist contexts for referring to Black people. Reyze, I think you’re going to say more a bit later about why it’s so important to address this, but for now I just want to say it’s necessary to provide both a reasoned critique of the term and a good alternative, so that Yiddish speakers who are alert to this issue will have the tools to interrupt the term’s usage when they encounter it.

Arun (Arele): I can talk a bit about the stakes of the language planning project. I’ve been thinking about three circles, each with something different at stake. Firstly, there are fluent Yiddishists who actively use Yiddish as a spoken language, even when it’s not the most obvious or convenient choice (and I count myself among these). Large parts of this circle are politically progressive, and care about this issue for the reasons that Yoyne described above, but their approach to it is shaped by two concerns that grow out of their identities as fluent Yiddish speakers and “keepers” of the language.

The first of those concerns is idiomatic and stylistic continuity, or in other words “How does this fit into existing systems of communication, and what precedent is there in the language?” This doesn’t reflect a militant anti-innovationist attitude, but it certainly entails some wariness, especially in the face of suggestions coming from non-fluent or non-native speakers, perceived as “outsiders,” and it correlates with the high value the Yiddishist community places on language ability and expertise. And it’s not only a question of idiom: these people—and again I count myself among them—are also concerned with how well proposed words will fit into the language grammatically, e.g., how and whether to decline blek if it were borrowed into the language as an adjective.

Secondly, the Yiddishist circle is concerned with ownership over the language in the face of a broader Jewish and non-Jewish world that frequently coopts and adapts Yiddish words. A common reaction to those who object to the term shvartser is “But that’s a kosher yidish vort (legitimate Yiddish word)” or “But it’s a completely neutral descriptor”! In other words, why should the use of this word as a slur in English by people who don’t even speak Yiddish—or even the fact that actual Yiddish speakers sometimes utter the word in a denigrating and racist tone—be allowed to dictate how Yiddish speakers without racist intentions use their own language?

Ri: Yes, and I just want to jump in here to say that while that reaction can be painful when it amounts to defending words that are clearly pejorative at this point, it also reflects an important concern. Obviously, all the questions we’re discussing here, and the questions driving BLM in general, are questions of power. To get more explicit about that for a second, I think one of our main aims in having this conversation is to confront the historical fact of American white Ashkenazi Jewish racism against Black people, as it is reflected in the fact that the most basic word in Yiddish for referring to Black people, shvartse, literally “Blacks,” has become recognizable as an ethnic slur in certain contexts. The history of shvartse is connected to pervasive anti-Blackness in the United States, and to the particular reality that white-skinned Ashkenazi Jews have had decades of (sometimes varying) access to the privileges of American whiteness that come directly or indirectly at the cost of the suffering of Black Americans.

At the same time, the Yiddish language is in many ways the most compact and symbolic manifestation of what the majority of American Ashkenazi Jews have lost (or given up, or had taken from us) in accessing American whiteness. As a result, it makes sense that for those of us who haven’t given it up or have chosen to reclaim it, it becomes one of the battlegrounds at the intersection between the benefits of white privilege and the costs of assimilation. In light of that, it’s natural to be sensitive to the incursion of English and Yinglish linguistic assumptions into the Yiddish sphere, particularly when those assumptions are presented as demands, as they often are when they touch on sensitive topics. The demand to stop using shvartse calls upon Yiddish speakers to stop defaulting to a habit that relies on white Jewish structural power over Black people, regardless of whether or not the word is intended neutrally. However, particularly in heated moments, it’s easy to mistake that demand for another all-too-familiar one: “Stop using your language and switch to English; it’s not ‘polite’ to speak a language that not everyone understands.” For its part, this latter demand is an outgrowth of non-Jewish white Anglophone structural power over Ashkenazi Jews, and it’s one of the fastest ways to push a Yiddishist’s buttons. None of this gives Yiddish speakers a pass for not dealing with pejorative or outdated words in the language, but I think it’s really important to understand what the hangups are, because (1) that’s intersectionality in a nutshell and (2) otherwise we’re not going to get unstuck.

Arun: Absolutely. And here I can segue to talking about the stakes for the second circle on my list, namely, the progressive Yiddish-adjacent Jewish world. That world is very much a gradient, with some people positioned closer to Yiddish and some further away, but for them, Yiddish plays the role of a vehicle for connection to their Ashkenazi ethnic roots—especially in cases where the Jewish religion plays a smaller role or none at all—and to their political leftist roots as represented by the Yiddish Labor Bund and others. And that’s where we start hearing non-Yiddish speakers or non-fluent Yiddish speakers asking questions like “How do I write ‘Black Lives Matter’ in Yiddish on this poster that I’m going to take to a protest tomorrow or on this meme that I want to share on Facebook?”

And the third circle that I’ve been thinking about is frum (religious Jewish) communities in which Yiddish is the primary or a strong secondary language. There are a lot of reasons why I can’t speak to what’s at stake for them in this language planning conversation (which, to be clear, is an entirely separate question than what’s at stake for them in the BLM movement), but I get the sense that there just isn’t much at stake because what a bunch of secular Yiddishists say or decide doesn’t really impact them or their Yiddish. The fringes that do interact with Yiddishists might complain or bristle a bit at suggestions that sound bizarre to them, but they don’t have much reason to care, or more precisely, to feel like their language norms are being threatened.

Ri: Just to jump in again, yes, maybe what you’re saying is true, but I think that even if the language planning question doesn’t matter to them, they matter a lot within the Yiddishist imagination of at least the second circle you mentioned. Because when we raise a question like “How do you say ‘Black Lives Matter’ in ‘authentic’ Yiddish,” there’s the temptation to jump immediately to, “Well, how would Hasidic Jews say it, since they’re the ones with a critical mass of native speakers and thus the ability to demonstrate ‘organic’ linguistic evolution that’s driven by the ‘authentic usage of the masses’?” And then at the same time, if we know something about Hasidic Yiddish, we probably also know that the answer to how Hasidic Yiddish speakers would say “Black Lives Matter” is quite possibly “Black Lives Matter.” Precisely because they do have a critical mass of native speakers, and the threat of English infiltration and inundation thus strikes them as less immediate, they may not have the same compunctions about using English loan words as a matter of course, or feel the need to translate something that so clearly comes from the English sphere into Yiddish words.

Arun: It’s definitely true that there’s a lot of borrowing from English in the Haredi sphere, unaccompanied by fears of Yiddish being “lost” as a result, so there’s much less tendency to make a point of making things “sound Yiddish.” But I’ve actually seen various suggestions on Twitter from frum users about how to translate “Black Lives Matter” into Yiddish, and not all of them were simply transliterations from English. However, there’s probably also a difference between the question “How would you translate this into Yiddish?” and the question “What slogan would you shout if you were marching in the streets?”

Ri: Good point, thanks for that. I clearly don’t spend enough time on Yiddish Twitter.

Anyway, I can try to add something now about the stakes of this conversation as I see it, from my vantage point as a person who often finds herself in the position of trying to bridge the first two circles you mentioned, Arele (namely, fluent Yiddishists and Yiddish-adjacent Jewish progressives).

I want to expand on what Yoyne said above about the urgency of coming up with respectful and up-to-date language for talking about Black people and Black experience in Yiddish. As a Yiddish teacher and a veteran alumna of Yiddish summer programs, I can attest that the question of how to say “Black person” in Yiddish comes up constantly in the classroom, and 99% of the time, the conversation gets stymied by the teacher answering with a variation on one of three assertions: “The fact that Uriel Weinreich lists the word neger in College Yiddish doesn’t make him a racist”; “Niger is just the pseudonym that Shmuel Charney took because ‘Charney’ means ‘black’ in Russian/Polish; it has no racist overtones” (or the mythologized version of this: “Charney took the name to show his solidarity with African Americans”); and “Shvartser might be a slur in English, but it’s a neutral term in Yiddish.” And the student goes away unsatisfied, feeling like the teacher got defensive without providing any real answers.

Eli Bromberg’s recent article makes substantial progress toward addressing the second assertion on that list; and I think few of us are prepared to recommend the use of neger at this point, even within a fully Yiddish-language context. That leaves the issue of shvartser.

The debates about the term can be found elsewhere (for example, see Dovid Katz’s 1989 letter to the New York Times, as well as the editorial he mentions there and this rejoinder to his letter). But in short, while the word has historically been used in a Yiddish-speaking context in a non-pejorative way, it has also been used pejoratively in Yiddish-speaking contexts, and, especially, Yinglish and English-speaking contexts. The claim that “Even if it’s used pejoratively in Yinglish/English, it’s not inherently pejorative in Yiddish” isn’t persuasive in an American Yiddish context. First, it has indeed been used pejoratively in American Yiddish, and many of us have the sound of that usage in our ears to an extent that would preclude using the term neutrally. Second, the reality is that in practice, we’re operating in a bilingual Yiddish/English context much of the time, and so the Yinglish resonance of the term matters even if we wish it didn’t.

Arun: By the way, my understanding is that it’s not just an American Yiddish thing—the word is also used as a slur in Israeli Hebrew to refer to various categories of non-white Jews, I think.

Ri: Oh really? I didn’t know that. Actually, now that I think of it, one of my Argentinian students this summer mentioned that she grew up hearing it as a slur in a Spanish-speaking context too.

Arun: Right, all of which goes to show that this isn’t just a North American, English-language-context issue.

Ri: That’s really helpful to know and it makes me even more convinced that shvartser has to be taken off the table.

In any case, going back to the English/Yiddish bilingual context for now—in order to convince ourselves that it’s not realistic to expect shvartser to land neutrally today, it’s enough to reflect upon why we most likely wouldn’t today tell our students to use the term neger, even though it was generally neutral in its usage within a fully Yiddish-language context. For those Yiddish teachers who claim that English/Yinglish usage shouldn’t lead to certain Yiddish words getting placed beyond the pale, at least for use within a fully Yiddish context, ask yourselves why you most likely wouldn’t be comfortable recommending the term neger in class and whether that indeed has nothing to do with English. (For one teacher’s journey on this, it’s interesting to compare the difference between what Dovid Katz argued in 1989 on the subject and what he wrote more recently in his Yiddish Cultural Dictionary: recommending “Afroamerikaner” as the proper word, he writes about both neger and shvartser:Arkhaish un ba hayntikn tog mitn gutn viln mutl besofek” [archaic and today, at best, dubious].)

This past summer was particularly interesting for thinking about why the English/Yiddish bilingualism of our context matters, at least when it comes to American Yiddish students. In watching the progression of the dialogue about how to translate the “Black Lives Matter” slogan into Yiddish, I found myself reflecting that really two separate questions were being asked. One of them was the question that I’ve been describing here so far and that Yoyne mentioned above: how does one speak respectfully about Blackness and Black experience when speaking or writing Yiddish for an audience of Yiddish speakers? And the other question, the predominant one in the immediate context of the BLM protests, was “What do I write on the placard I’m taking to this majority-Anglophone protest tomorrow?”—a question I think many of us received in our inboxes in June.

Say for the moment that you want to argue that shvartser is a neutral term in a fully Yiddish-speaking context. Are you going to tell an American Jewish protester to write that on a placard that is going to be displayed in a majority Anglophone context, at a protest centered on Black lives, where, perhaps especially on the East Coast, a significant percentage of Black protestors are likely to be offended by the word (whether it’s used as an adjective or as a noun, by the way, to address an argument that I heard raised many times in this conversation)?

If not, you find yourself in the position of arguing that one Yiddish word for “Black” should be used in a fully Yiddish-language context, and a different word should be used in a bilingual (or perhaps post-vernacular) context. Now, maybe that’s a tenable position! But I personally don’t really think so, because there’s not that big of a difference between the protest scenario and the scenario of beginner Yiddish classes in an Anglophone context. In the latter situation, all the same resonances of the word are going to loom large, and I’m definitely not going to use one word for Level 1 students and then switch to another when they make it to Level 2.

Arun: Yes, I agree with your point that we’re operating in a bilingual context whether we like it or not, including in many Yiddishist spaces. Let’s keep in mind that those who learned Yiddish in adulthood likely heard the Yinglish slur before learning the Yiddish word, whereas those who grew up speaking Yiddish likely knew the latter first. I think it’s worth recognizing that the proportion of people who fall into the former group is getting larger and the proportion of people who fall into the latter group is getting smaller, and that’s part of what’s driving the tension we’ve been seeing over this issue lately within the Yiddishist community.

Ri: Right, totally. And to return to the question of “ownership” of the language that you raised above, I also don’t think it’s fair to assert that fluent speakers have more right to “ownership” over the language than beginners, or even than Ashkenazi Jews who speak no Yiddish at all but still want to use it on a placard for the reasons of cultural and political heritage that you mentioned. Are post-vernacular uses of Yiddish complicated, often nostalgic, sometimes insulting or even damaging to the status of Yiddish as a language? Absolutely! Does that invalidate the earnest motivations and needs behind those post-vernacular usages, or the right of the descendents of Yiddish speakers (or of other Yiddish enthusiasts who have other sorts of meaningful ties to the language) to mobilize Yiddish for their own purposes, particularly when those purposes are laudable, as they arguably are in this particular context? Not at all. And while I certainly think we can have a critical conversation about the modes and impacts of those usages, I don’t think dismissing the linguistic needs of these post-vernacular users of Yiddish is a respectful or responsible approach to language planning, nor does it reflect Yiddishist values, insofar as contemporary Yiddishism is (among other things) about providing people with paths back to a lost heritage in a radically inclusive manner.

Arun: Right. And another thing, to the question of whether or not Yiddish speakers should have to care about the English resonances of Yiddish words: we’ve heard people come to the opposite conclusion in other cases. For example, you and I have both heard people say you can’t use the word tselke in Yiddish to mean “cell phone” because tselka means “virgin” in Russian, but then some of the same people turn around and argue that the English resonance of shvartser shouldn’t be allowed to impact its usage in Yiddish. It’s true that tselke is a new word whereas shvartser has a longer tenure in the language, but I’m not sure that excuses the inconsistency in the logic.

Ri: Right, except the difference between the two cases is that no one feels like Russian loanwords are a threat to Yiddish right now, whereas English, as a dominant lingua franca, is a clear threat. And in a way that’s what all these tensions are about, really—making a protest sign in Yiddish in the first place is in large part about resisting the dominance of English and saying, “No, as an Ashkenazi Jewish American I have a linguistic identity beyond English” (and, the subtext is, an ethnic identity beyond American whiteness). And at the same time, from the other side, insisting on the continued viability of shvartser is also about resisting the idea that it matters how the word sounds to an English speaker. And in the course of these dialogues, especially on Facebook, we also saw Yiddishists rejecting the idea of importing blek into Yiddish as a loanword (too rooted in English) and rejecting Afro-Amerikaner, Afro-Eyropeer, etc., as alternatives (too US-centric). In fact, everyone on all sides of this discussion is grappling with the dominance of English, American hegemony in the global arena, and the consequences of both things for Yiddish. And obviously it’s not a coincidence; those hegemonies are intimately bound up with white supremacy, which is why it feels particularly salient to mobilize Yiddish in the context of protesting police brutality.

Jonah: I, for one, am haunted by the feeling that as a non-native speaker, I am not doing justice to the Yiddish language—that in fact I am doing injustice to it, crushing it under the weight of my Anglicized syntax, pronunciation, and vocabulary. So much Yiddish has already been lost to English dominance (and that of German, and French, and in certain contexts, Israeli vernacular Hebrew), torn and cajoled from the mouths of our grandparents’ generation, along with Ladino, Arabic, and a thousand other “Jewish” or “secular” languages. My unwitting Anglicization of Yiddish is an echo of this awful process, and having grown up around native and fluent Yiddish speakers, I am aware that my relatively Anglicized Yiddish can be a painful reminder to them of how much we have lost. This awareness has at times for me been paralyzing. And yet my insistence that Yiddish is alive, that it is a tremendous resource for humanity today, my stubborn love for the tongue against all odds, means that I must use it, and use it in a way that reflects my diasporist values, to, in the words of Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, “recognize our identity as simultaneously rock, forged under centuries of pressure, and water, infinitely flexible. Diasporism is anti-assimilation, not anti-change”. 1 1 Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 222.

Ri: Totally. You’ve summed up the dilemma so well; you and I will never be able to speak or write Yiddish one hundred percent fluently, and yet I too am convinced that something is better than nothing. Vi zogt men, “Bemokem she’eyn ish iz a hering oykh a fish. 2 2 As Jonah has explained elsewhere, this idiom “is a complex Hebrew-Yiddish-Russian pun that takes a pompous 2,000-year-old Mishnaic injunction to ‘man up’—’b’mokom sh’eyn ish, hishtadel l’hiyoys ish’ (‘in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man’)—and replaces the second phrase to make it ‘b’mokom sh’eyn ish, iz a hering fish’ (‘in a place where there are no men, even a herring is a fish’). In other words: make do with what you have, but don’t pretend it’s anything fancier than what it is.”

In some sense I feel like we’ve failed to do what we set out to do here from a language-planning perspective: namely, propose a real alternative to shvartser that addresses all the objections everyone has brought up (to blek, to Afro-Amerikaner, etc.). But actually I think we can resort here to the idea that linguistic evolution occurs organically (even though we know that that’s a myth on some level, as I implied before -- but that’s a discussion for another time!). Once we’re all clear that shvartser is off the table, some other option or options will emerge as the new term(s) of choice, simply by necessity. As Anthony Russell wrote when he tweeted the link to the Yiddish #BLM vocabulary list: “It is imperfect. [...] These are linguistic suggestions, not official decrees; the beginning of a conversation, not the end; catalytic and collaborative in spirit— not final or definitive.” And as he added in his interview for the Allusionist podcast, all the people who were complaining on Facebook that the options that have been proposed are inadequate are more than welcome to do the legwork to come up with alternative options that they’re happy with—just as long as those options are something other than shvartser.

In the meantime, a point that I saw raised repeatedly in the Facebook threads about all of this, by Yiddish teachers Abby Howell and Esther Singer among others, is: If we have to choose for the time being between a racial slur and an American/English-centric term like the loanword blek, the latter may not be a perfect solution but there’s not really any question which option is better. And that’s what’s going to happen anyway; people are going to use blek or Afro-Amerikaner, Afro-Eyropeer, etc., or mentshn fun afrikaner opshtam because those are the non-pejorative options that we have at hand, and then we’ll see what happens from there.

MLA STYLE
Boyarin, Jonah S, Ri J. Turner, and Arun Viswanath. ““Black Lives Matter” and Talking about Blackness in Yiddish: Stakes, Considerations, and Open Questions.” In geveb, October 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/black-lives-matter-in-yiddish.
CHICAGO STYLE
Boyarin, Jonah S, Ri J. Turner, and Arun Viswanath. ““Black Lives Matter” and Talking about Blackness in Yiddish: Stakes, Considerations, and Open Questions.” In geveb (October 2020): Accessed Dec 01, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jonah S. Boyarin

Jonah S. Boyarin is a writer, anti-racist educator, and Yiddish translator.

Ri J. Turner

Ri J. Turner is a translator and Yiddish teacher at the Maison de la culture yiddish ~ Bibliothèque Medem in Paris.

Arun Viswanath

Arun "Arele" Viswanath's Yiddish translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone appeared earlier this year.