Searching for Ashkenaz

Ross Perlin

Ashkenaz, the undiscovered country, lies just north of nowhere and a little west of wherever we want it to be. The search for Ashkenaz, which has only intensified in the days of its destruction and dissolution, was once all about having a clear and venerable pedigree for nation-building, but now it is a matter of mourning that unfinished nation.

A kind of Jewish geography, 1 1 As distinct from but related to the American version of “Jewish geography,” which is a ritual reenactment of (ever-fraying) tribal togetherness—six degrees of shleperation. Lines like these: “Your bobe lives in Aventura? Mine’s in Miami Beach.” “I hear you’re up in Riverdale. My son goes to Horace Mann, the little genius.” “Oh, Chevy Chase! I met my bashert at the JCC in Rockville.” largely extinct, maps the world with Jewish placenames and culture areas: Coney Islands of the Mind and Far Rockaways of the Heart. The (non-Jewish, political) borders were always changing, as they say, so Jews thought in terms of the fluctuating, unmarked borders between their own eydes—Jewish sub-groups variously defined by language, liturgy, and lifeways. These “Jewish nations,” now vanishing fast, have had strange and venerable lifespans.

Lite, pronounced Lee-teh in Yiddish, is not just little Lithuania, but the ghostly memory of the old oversize Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, proud home of the (Jewish) Litvaks, distinct from both (Christian) Lithuanians, or Litviner, and (Jewish) Galitsianer, who hail from the ex-Austro-Hungarian “crown land” of Galicia. Sepharad, the old country of the Sephardim, means a multicultural, Muslim-ruled Iberian peninsula of the spirit that scattered across half a world in a thousand brilliant fragments, from Sarajevo to Salonika to Essaouira. Yavan, a historical Jewish idea, corresponds only roughly to “Greece,” just as Tsarfat, a Jewish conception of France, is only a piece of “the Hexagon” that is present-day France. The cases multiply: a “Roman Jewish” diaspora of unknown extent, the world of Jewish Arabia and its flagship kingdom of Himyar, a “Baghdadi” Jewish nation that flourished and cohered from Mumbai to Shanghai.

The hardest land to locate, and perhaps the most loaded location of all, is Ashkenaz. Some Jewish placenames are archaisms, like Lite, but many derive from the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, a Borgesian feast of extinct names detailing the “generations of the sons of Noah”—the seventy nations that came into being after the Flood. Ashkenaz, son of Gomer (and great-grandson of Noah), gets two other nebulous Tanakhic shout-outs, in I Chronicles 1:6 and in Jeremiah 51:27. Talmudic tradition made a stab at latitude and longitude, settling on the lands south of the Black Sea in today’s northern Turkey. The name may well once have reflected an actual (non-Jewish) ethnonym or kingdom in that region, before it was pressed into service (for unclear reasons) to describe the rise of a new eyde in Germanic-speaking Europe. By the time Rashi in eleventh century Tsarfat produced some thirty glosses “in the language of Ashkenaz,” he was clearly referring to his Eastern neighbors, who were in the process of forging Yiddish.

Half a century old, Max Weinreich’s monumental Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language) remains the standard account of how this “fundamentally new chapter in Jewish history” came to be—a semi-ethnogenesis that has always been subordinate to, though inevitably more substantiated than, the earlier and much more culturally salient story of national origins in the land of Israel.

To put Weinreich’s “Rhineland Hypothesis” in a soundbisl: Ashkenaz was the result of Jewish population movements out of northern Italy and northern France, ultimately converging from the ninth century onward on the Rhineland cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, in what is today southwest Germany. That period of Jewish prosperity and scholarship ended in expulsions and annihilations, with desperate scapegoating during the Black Death in particular pushing most of the new Ashkenazi “culture system,” as Weinreich puts it, east, towards new centers like Prague and Krakow. Though riven by (ever-hardening) non-Jewish borders, this expanding Ashkenaz would ultimately stretch from Amsterdam to the Dnieper—and then from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires to Bnei Brak.

For centuries, Ashkenazim (or at least an Ashkenazi elite) conceived of themselves on some world-historical or existential level as being in exile from the land of Israel. This displacement of identity, along with the demographic facts of sprawl and minority status, meant that Ashkenaz (from a modern, national-political point of view) remained a largely unimagined community, as much a sleeping proto-nation as any other in central and eastern Europe. Common cuisine, clothing, custom, liturgy, and the like were all well and good; likewise theater, literature, political movements, and the press, a modern culture-in-the-making. But it was Yiddish, the almost-but-never-quite official language of Ashkenaz, a portable homeland in and of itself, that would embody a continuous history of flexibility, hybridity, and ambiguity. It was language, above all, that would have to smooth over aspects of Ashkenazi “nationhood” that were considerably knottier than in (say) the Czech or Polish cases: an unstable admixture of secular and religious elements, the lack of a contiguous territory and of an agrarian tradition that would help justify it.

“The history of Yiddish and the history of Ashkenaz are identical,” averred Weinreich. Though his “Rhineland Hypothesis” fits some of the evidence, there are sound linguistic and demographic reasons for pushing the genesis of Ashkenaz eastward in space and forward in time, as argued by the linguists Alice Faber, Robert King, and Dovid Katz. While all varieties of Yiddish have the character of a Germanic fusion language with substantial Slavic and Hebrew-Aramaic components, they seem to have undergone constant, complex interactions, across centuries, with a great number of Germanic varieties. Reconstructing why Yiddish may have ended up with “Silesian” consonants and an “East Franconian” plural diminutive is a critical but potentially impossible task, as Leyzer Burko explains.

Today it may not matter much whether Ashkenaz really hit its stride around 1500 in Bavaria or Bohemia, versus 1000 in the Rhineland, or even if Western and Eastern Yiddish spring from quite different Germanic rootstock. By the 1930s, when Ashkenazim comprised some 90 percent of the world’s Jewish population, “Ashkenazi” had become synonymous with “Jewish,” as is sometimes still true in America today. As with whiteness in America, or Han-ness in China, the Ashkenazi world lost in self-awareness what it gained in (internal Jewish) hegemony.

After all, the link between Ashkenaz and Yiddish is finally and utterly broken—a process that started over 300 years ago, when Western Yiddish began succumbing to emerging national languages like French, German, and Dutch. In the past century, the shift has overwhelmingly been to English, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. As Ashkenazim have become major figures in a dozen literatures, from Danilo Kiš (Serbo-Croatian) to Dora Gabe (Bulgarian) and Italo Svevo (Italian)—not to mention the likes of Bellow, Bialik, and Blok—Yiddish literature, besides a few last caretakers, has withered into oblivion. The Hasidic, Haredi, and Litvish worlds are particular offshoots of Ashkenaz, each taking itself for the trunk, none immune to deepening threats from English and Hebrew.

Genetics, darkly, may be the final frontier for Ashkenazi identity and recognition. The studies are not unequivocal, but it would be a perfectly cruel fate for this inverse of a nation to share nothing but blood. The search for Ashkenaz is now performed every time a list of Jewish Nobel laureates is scanned in a fit of ethnocentric pride, every time the fearful test for Tay-Sachs or BRCA genes is taken. A recent study, drawing a faulty correspondence between the “origins” of Yiddish and the possible provenance of some contemporary Yiddish speakers’ genes, attempts to relocate Ashkenaz back to a nebulous nowhere near the Black Sea—updating Talmudic geography with the unslayable Khazar hypothesis.

Yiddish looks nothing like an “Irano-Turkic-Slavic” language, but there are two highly endangered Turkic Jewish languages, Karaim and Krymchak, each with plausible Khazar links that no one is much bothered about. Siting ancient Ashkenaz in Khazaria rhymes, absurdly, with the idea of moving modern Ashkenaz to Madagascar. Irreducibly exotic, endlessly wandering, vanishing into myth, who are these people anyway? Khazaria is desired for a double magic: discrediting the modern state of Israel (for being founded by steppe-dwelling Ashkenazim) and putting Ashkenazi otherness, quite literally, in its place.

Even when it honors the evidence, the search for Ashkenaz is still the search for a mythic geography, an ingathering of the (secondary and tertiary) exiles that obscures more gradual, equivocal, centrifugal, mestizo developments. This is what stories of origin are meant to do, everywhere. Over three-quarters of today’s global Jewish population is still (vanishingly, to varying degrees) living out the fate of Ashkenaz, genetically, religiously, linguistically, and culturally. We look for our reflection, but all the mirrors are covered.

Perlin, Ross. “Searching for Ashkenaz.” In geveb, June 2016:
Perlin, Ross. “Searching for Ashkenaz.” In geveb (June 2016): Accessed May 06, 2021.


Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist based in Brooklyn.