Yiddishist Myths, and the Myth Yiddish Studies Can’t Live Without

Kenneth Moss

The life of mature Yiddishism was so brief and so embattled that it never really had time to develop its own mythologies—its own naturalizations of ideology—or at any rate to fully elaborate them. It may be that it is only in the universe of Yiddish Studies, or of an ex post facto contemporary Yiddishism, that the novels of Abramovitsh/Mendele, paeans to Hirsh Lekert and May Day in interwar Bundist textbooks, 2nd Avenue theater, and the Arabic-inflected Yiddish of the Old Yishuv can be imagined as part of the same field of phenomena.

The question of which mythologies Yiddishism did manage to cultivate sometime between its origins circa 1900 and, let’s say, 1942, framed the ambitious conference on “Yiddishism: Mythologies and Iconographies” co-organized by Karolina Szymaniak of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute and by Tal Hever-Chybowski and Natalia Krynicka of the Paris Yiddish Center (Medem Library) and held at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw on November 15 and 16, 2015. How far the two dozen or so conferees got in reconstructing the specific histories of those mythologies that Yiddishism did begin to produce is not entirely clear (or at least it was not entirely clear to the writer of these lines, who had the good fortune to be included in the conference as a respondent). Certainly some important beginnings were made toward the Begriffsgeschichte that Szymaniak, Krynicka, and Hever-Chybowski envision and will surely bring to fruition with their seemingly boundless energy. (Look for the first review of Shlislverter à la Reymond Vilyems on these webpages soon). But in fact, the question that dominated the conference was not so much that of mythology, of which Yiddishism had little, but that of myth, of which Yiddishism had plenty.

If the elaboration of mythologies was a foreshortened and largely unachieved undertaking by that stateless, resourceless, and dispersed movement, Yiddishism certainly drew whatever creative and compelling power it did have from a connection to some of the most central myths of modern European culture, especially those that appeal to the powerless: the myth of languages as repositories of particular collective spirit, the myth of the creator who can articulate the “genius of his race,” the myth of the Revolution and the last becoming first, the myth of interethnic harmony waiting just around the corner once empires and nation-states are done away with, and above all, the myth of the Folk as the source of human culture.

For the scholar, only two legitimate approaches to myth are really available: one is to expose the falsehoods of myths, and the other is to trace—whether coolly or with sympathy—a myth’s origins, workings, and effects. Both approaches were elaborated in multiple forms at the conference. Myths were busted. For example, the Polish writer-flaneur of noble birth Klemens Junosza, once thought to have liked Yiddish and Jews so much that he translated Mendele into Polish, turns out not to have known Yiddish, not really to have translated Mendele, and actually not to have liked Jews all that much. This myth was curated by, among others, a Bundist looking for a usable past of Jewish-Polish amity in the interwar era (Krynicka). Another paper targeted a myth still closer to the heart of Yiddishism, the shpilman-teoriye. The charming idea that early modern Yiddish poetic texts were composed and performed for Jewish audiences by a native class of Yiddish troubadours was invented, conferees learned, out of whole cloth in the 1920s. Yiddishist scholars of the time couldn’t resist the idea of a freestanding sort-of-secular Yiddish public culture with its own sort-of-secular literature flourishing somewhere between Mainz and Kazimierz under the noses of all those Hebrew-using rabbis and moralists (Bikard).

But most conferees were more keen to explore how Yiddishist myths were put to work in cultural life than to dispel them. A rich array of papers examined the most successful of Yiddishism’s bids to produce a mythology of its own out of its most genuinely popular myth, the myth of the Yiddish Writer. Papers on the uses of the writer’s name (Bar-Kochva), on writers’ cultivation of their own myth of closeness to the folk (Sztyma, Wiegand), and on the production of a visual pantheon in press caricatures (Żółkiewska), and sets of postcards featuring Jewish writers (Mazower) begin to map how the Yiddish Writer became a full-fledged mythology with its own institutions, icons, and publics (though what Mazower’s incredible postcard collections showed was lav-davke the production of Yiddish writers as Yiddish writers but rather as Jewish national writers, with Peretz and Reyzen appearing alongside Bialik and … Herzl! Collect them all, Yiddish Studies, if you dare!).

Several papers were less concerned with the making of myths than with their uses and effects. Are some myths less untrue—more resonant with sociocultural realities and potentials—than others? A paper on the idea and practice of the zamler pushed against a disenchanted reading of this icon as intelligentsia myth by arguing that successive versions of the myth of “gathering Jewish culture from the folk” (Mendelssohn-Tsunzer-Dubnov-YIVO) actually opened the door to real, if partial, assertions of autonomy by an ever-more diverse population of East European Jews (Hever-Chybowski). And perhaps the effects of myth can be, paradoxically, the discovery of unexpected truths: a paper by Yaad Biran argued that some Yiddishist visitors to interwar Palestine—most notably Opatoshu—were able to see the Old Yishuv as a complex form of human creativity because their commitment to the counter-Zionist myth of the undimmed creativity of “the folk” trumped their robust secularism enough for them to relate seriously to the worlds of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy in Erets yisroel. By the same token (or is it conversely?), a paper by Itzik Gottesman on the category-defying Yiddish folklorist Yehuda Elzet suggested that we think of myth as a shorthand for commitments to culture or cultural passions so deep as to remain immune to the logic of one’s own ideology. Elzet was a leading figure in the religious-Zionist Mizrachi party, a rabbi, and a committed Hebraist, yet also a lifelong and passionate enthusiast of both Yiddish folklore and the new Yiddish culture. In this sense, “myth” becomes a kind of placeholder for the need to theorize further the irreducibility of modern Jewish cultural engagements to their ideological legitimations.

A third category of argument might be said to have troubled these many papers on the uses and effects of Yiddishist myth. These were papers that in their critical reflection on myth did not so much expose the machinery of the myths as ask what a myth might conceal from its makers. The most unalloyed version of this approach was to be found in a powerfully critical paper by Marcos Silber on the changing relationship of Poland’s Yiddishist intelligentsia to Yiddish film. If, in the 1920s, the Yiddishist take on incipient Yiddish film was simply culturist contempt for its crudity, the 1930s saw a newly positive relationship underpinned by what Silber reads as an enchantment with Yiddish film’s most unrealistic feature, namely its production of a mimetically convincing monolingual soundscape at the very moment that Yiddish was in sociolinguistic freefall in the face of rampant Polonization. Film offered desperate Yiddishists the most basely escapist sort of Yiddishland at a moment when Yiddishist-diasporist hopes could only be preserved through mimetic fantasy (or, one is tempted to add, milleniarian narratives of revolutionary deliverance). Similar themes could be heard in the sharp-eyed comments of one respondent, Kamil Kijek, to the effect that Yiddish studies had yet to come to terms fully with the degree to which Yiddishist ideology in interwar Poland was a form of “symbolic compensation” in a game that Yiddishism had already lost to Polonization.

In terms that both resonated with and subtly resisted Silber’s suspicion that Yiddishist myth mostly fooled Yiddishists themselves, Leyzer Burko laid bare the mythic substructure of the great foundational work of postwar Yiddishist scholarship, Max Weinreich’s Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh. Burko read beneath its measured tone and heavy apparatus, to reveal an unabashedly Romantic history of Jewish diasporic creativity culminating in a mythopoetic vision of the inexhaustible creative vitality, not of Yiddish, but of Ashkenaz. This is both a devastating critique of the scholarly project on Weinreich’s own stated terms and at the same time a kind of redemption of Weinreich for myth (or is it for Jewish history?). The Weinreich of the Geshikhte is here recast not as a latter-day Wissenschaft des Judentums scholar come to erect a monument to a dead language but as a genuinely weird romantic thinker-fantasist of diasporic Ashkenazi identity.

Burko’s paper points, finally, to a fourth dimension of the conference’s treatment of myth: attention to the fate of Yiddishist myth after the destruction of East European Jewry and of the grounds of most Yiddishist visions. Evita Wiecki offered a gentle portrait of the persistent myth of the folk and of the naturalness of Yiddish as a mame-loshn in a history of the short and sad afterlife of Yiddishist school textbook production in 1950s Poland. A more complicated doubleness of vision marked fascinating papers by Jack Kugelmass and Janina Wurbs, both of which featured characters who, having outlived the Yiddishist hopes that had shaped their early lives, rewrote their texts or themselves in ways that resonated with more private and modest forms of myth. Kugelmass focused on the ethnographic travelogues of the professional traveler Haim Shoshkes to show how in the wake of the Holocaust Shoshkes rewrote a 1924-1927 travelogue marked by a hopeful vision of emerging Jewish-Polish amity in a wounded but not wholly disenchanted or demythologized voice. Meanwhile, Wurbs offered a bravura reading of two ephemeral texts from the most creative corners of New York Yiddishism in the 1960s-1980s. One was a map of Enge-benge-land produced by the late Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman as a fantastic idiolectic Yiddishist overlay for the map of the Bronx park her home abutted, which she used in her fabled outings with the children of several Yiddish speaking families. The other was the calling card of the poet’s late younger brother, the indefatigible Yiddishist teacher and sage Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter. The Yiddish on the card identifies Dr. Schaechter as “Reb Mordkhe Tshernovitser,” which Wurbs read as the encoding of a private joke referencing Schaechter’s earlier territorialism and positing instead the pure deterritorialized Yiddishism that he eventually came to embody. Both the map and the calling card can be viewed as the most ephemeral and unrealistic of fantasies, but as Wurbs and many in the audience knew, many of the children raised on this map of a nonexistent place are themselves now parents and even grandparents of Yiddish speakers and some of those to whom Schaechter presented his fanciful card are too. Nisht shlekht for flights of fancy.

The tremendous range of the investigations of Yiddishist myth on display at the conference, and the cheerful coexistence of multiple approaches that were once regularly counterposed as antithetical in a previous generation of Yiddish studies scholarship, suggests a very healthy outlook for a Yiddish Studies that has come of age. To this I would add a wholly unsystematic but enthusiastic note about my impressions regarding the changing composition of the field: the majority of the mostly young participants were not American but rather Polish, Israeli, French, or some sort of pan-European amalgam of the three. Papers were delivered not only in English but in Yiddish, without any sort of hand-wringing, and Yiddish was (alongside Polish) the dominant language of conversation between sessions. More speculatively still, it seems fair to say that much of the discussion was shaped by a new set of extra-academic concerns—a strange interpenetration of worry bordering on despair about Israel, about Europe, and about the future memory of Poland’s multiethnic past. Even this fairly skeptical participant-observer has to agree that in this case, these moral agendas mostly did not get in the way of careful thinking and may indeed have enriched the conference—not least when the indefatigible Karolina Szymaniak took participants on an impromptu nighttime tour of Yiddish literary Warsaw, which exists only as palimpsest of a palimpsest and which Szymaniak could only conjure for us thanks not only to her matchless knowledge but, surely, to a passion that animates that past with a sense of urgency regarding Poland’s present.

Yet the fact that the multiple moral agendas at work beneath the conference converge on Yiddish—which after all, is just a language in which people can say pretty much anything, and do—reminds us that the maturation of the field of Yiddish Studies does not necessarily mean its emancipation from myths. A penetrating paper by the young Polish historian Magdalena Kozłowska on the Hirsh Lekert myth and its uses in interwar Bundist youth culture threw into sharp relief the one myth that Yiddish Studies perhaps can’t live without. Kozłowska’s account illustrated how completely the Bundist lexicon of myths was drawn, not from any sort of Jewish cultural tradition (including Yiddishist traditions in the making), but from an already developed socialist tradition of iconography and ideological education. To put it crudely, Kozłowska revealed how willful it is to treat Bundist youth propaganda, Leyb Naydus, and Sarah bas Tovim in a single context just because all three used the Yiddish language. Arguably, “Yiddish culture” was nothing but a set of unusually divided, antagonistic, or even unrelated subcultures (including one that called itself “Yiddish culture” on Yiddishist grounds), so on what grounds other than mere practicality do we group the study of these things into a single field? On mythic grounds, of course. The idea that there exists a single world of Yiddish-language culture is the one myth that Yiddish studies as a field must constantly both reveal and conceal, and which it always reinforces simply by institutionalizing and reproducing itself at terrific conferences like this one. But then again, this same myth functions to inspire new and interesting inquiry, and it’s hard to imagine the same amount and breadth of inquiry without the field itself. Zol lebn der yidishistisher mitos!

Moss, Kenneth. “Yiddishist Myths, and the Myth Yiddish Studies Can’t Live Without.” In geveb, December 2015:
Moss, Kenneth. “Yiddishist Myths, and the Myth Yiddish Studies Can’t Live Without.” In geveb (December 2015): Accessed Feb 23, 2019.


Kenneth Moss

Kenneth Moss is an associate professor of Modern Jewish history and the director of the Jewish Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.