What is the Language of Contemporary Yiddish Scholarship?

Sonia Gollance

Yiddish Culture in Past and Present Scholarship (May 27-28, 2015, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

As Uriel Weinreich famously declared in his textbook, College Yiddish, “yidn in ale lender redn yidish.” Jews speak Yiddish in every country and on every continent. While Weinreich’s words may seem quaint or nostalgic to some students today, it is certainly true that Yiddishists and scholars of Yiddish can be found all over the world. They (or we) even organize opportunities to travel the world and meet with each other at conferences and other academic events—and while many countries are alike in the fact that they all are home to a variety of Yiddish scholars, Yiddish conferences vary tremendously based on location and context. The annual Symposium for Yiddish Studies in Germany is conducted in both Yiddish and German; the academic panels at the Montreal International Theatre Festival (2009 and 2011) emphasized the performing arts. An Israeli Yiddish conference is unique for the amazing lunch spread of kosher-certified salads, but not only for that. In the words of Avraham Novershtern (Hebrew University):

מיר זענען נישט קיין דיבוקים, מיר זענען מענטשן פֿון פֿלייש און בלוט, און מענטשן פֿון פֿלייש און בלוט דאַרפֿן זיך אַ מאָל טרעפֿן.

We aren’t restless spirits, we are people of flesh and blood, and people of flesh and blood need to meet with each other on occasion.

During a recent research fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to attend a number of Israeli academic conferences. In the process, I made two general observations about Israeli conferences: 1) May and June is conference season, with a steady stream of back-to-back panels, keynotes, and Q&As that are 2) frequently conducted in English. The international workshop “Yiddish Culture in Past and Present Scholarship,” which I attended in Jerusalem, was no exception. Organized by Aya Elyada (Hebrew University), the conference took place in late May and the official language was English. While I was there, it seemed to me at times that the storied kulturkampf between Hebrew and Yiddish in the yishuv had been replaced by a bout between a number of languages of Jewish experience, a bout in which English was now a major player.

English and Hebrew politely clashed in the academic discussions as speakers debated which language was best for the next generation of Yiddish scholarship. Hana Wirth-Nesher’s (Tel Aviv University) keynote address mentioned the fact that Yiddish scholarship typically no longer takes place in Yiddish. Several other speakers, including Marc Caplan (Center for Jewish History), discussed the shift from Yiddish to English in Yiddish academic research from the early twentieth century to the late twentieth century. Caplan’s talk identified 1973 as a critical year that saw the publication of the final great achievement of the pre-war Yiddish intelligentsia, Max Weinreich’s Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (History of the Yiddish Language), while also ushering in a new era of Yiddish literary criticism in English, with Dan Miron’s A Traveler Disguised. While the keynote stressed the importance of English literary scholarship and models of canon formation borrowed from luminaries such as T. S. Eliot and Erich Auerbach, Mikhail Krutikov’s (University of Michigan) response stressed the unique character of scholarship in languages such as Polish, German, and Russian. Each of these languages has a unique corpus of translations (the starting point for most students today), particular approaches to scholarship, and distinct national ideas of what is important for the Yiddish canon. In response to a question by Chava Turniansky (Hebrew University) regarding Hebrew language scholarship, Krutikov claimed that a broader interest in Yiddish scholarship beyond translation into Hebrew would need to wait for a few generations because there is not yet enough critical distance for Israeli society to look upon Yiddish as a precious thing. The situation of Yiddish in Israel, he claimed, presents a model in which scholars seem to advocate for a return to something that was lost but represents, in the present, no danger. Some Israeli scholars may lack the sense of the precarity of Yiddish that might spur their counterparts in other countries, and as such nostalgia may be a necessary impetus for future Yiddish scholarship in Hebrew. Novershtern, in contrast, views Hebrew as a particularly fruitful platform for Yiddish scholarship. During a discussion of his new book on American Yiddish literature, which was published in Hebrew, Novershtern explained that he did not want to write his monograph in English. He argued that producing the book for English-language readers would require writing a lot “between the commas” so as to contextualize Jewish and Yiddish culture for an audience unfamiliar with its trappings. Novershtern claimed that Hebrew-language readers would not need such background information. I can see Novershtern’s point, but all the same many scholars of American literature are waiting impatiently for an English translation of his book. Over the course of the discussion, the speakers mentioned most of the current centers of Yiddish scholarship, although I was disappointed that no one mentioned the fact that Yiddish is an official minority language in Sweden. I would have been interested to hear the scholars’ perspectives on how official recognition and state support could create a unique environment for Yiddish Studies there.

The scholars who weighed in on what should be the preferred scholarly language for Yiddish Studies did not come to a conclusion. However, there was something of a consensus that digital projects (one might even say digital languages) were an exciting way to make texts available to Yiddishists around the world. Joel Berkowitz (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee) offered a survey of contemporary theater scholarship that focused on new research directions, several of them digital. Krutikov specifically mentioned In geveb as a good publication model in the discussion following the keynote address. Novershtern argued in his welcoming remarks that Israeli digitization efforts, such as the Jewish Historical Press project, were a reason why Hebrew University was a fitting host for the workshop. While these scholars were enthusiastic about the potential for digital scholarship, there was less discussion about the digital medium itself. Berkowitz shared an example of new opportunities for collaborative work with the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project, but his talk did not offer a reflection on the process of collaborative projects more broadly. Digital scholarship is an area that has been embraced by many Yiddish scholarly and cultural institutions, despite having the potential to change the field in substantial ways. Perhaps if the conference had been organized along methodological, rather than disciplinary, lines, a deeper interrogation of the digital turn would have come about organically. I would have been interested to hear scholarly perspectives about the role of the Yiddish Book Center’s massive digitization projects (some in collaboration with other institutions, including the National Library of Israel) for Yiddish canon formation. Only Novershtern pointed out the potential pitfalls of a scholarly environment in which so many materials are available through the Internet: by the next conference even more materials will be digitized, but why, he asked, would Yiddish scholars need to meet when we could just sit at home and access the resources remotely?

The conversational languages of the conference did not necessarily mirror the academic discourse. While English and Hebrew were rivals as scholarly languages, English and Yiddish were the primary spoken languages of those present. Participants in the Yiddish workshop tenaciously incorporated Yiddish into the academic conversation––even when they were not native speakers. Participants often felt compelled to speak to the emotional value of Yiddish in English in their presentations or to switch to Yiddish during coffee breaks. Novershtern delivered his opening and closing remarks, as well as his remarks about his new Hebrew-language monograph about American Yiddish, in Yiddish. Turniansky claimed to be so jealous that Novershtern got to use Yiddish that she switched to Yiddish for part of her response to the panel on Old Yiddish. Several panel chairs opened sessions with greetings in Yiddish, and a noticeable number of participants and attendees conducted conversations during meals and coffee breaks in Yiddish. While many among the international group of scholars normally speak Yiddish amongst themselves, the conference was also a unique opportunity for participants to speak Yiddish as a matter of choice, even when it was not the obvious common language. In fact, when it came to the question of actual spoken language, Yiddish had the last word. Participants were treated to a walking tour of Jerusalem in the footsteps of Yiddish writers, led by Yaad Biran (Hebrew University), who used the travel narratives of Yiddish writers who had visited Jerusalem to guide our exploration of the city. This last official event for participants was conducted entirely in Yiddish, as the conference language and national language faded away and scholars could simply indulge in a yidish vort.

Gollance, Sonia. “What is the Language of Contemporary Yiddish Scholarship?.” In geveb, November 2015:
Gollance, Sonia. “What is the Language of Contemporary Yiddish Scholarship?.” In geveb (November 2015): Accessed Feb 24, 2024.


Sonia Gollance

Sonia Gollance is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Yiddish at University College London.