Queers Kvetching about Knishes in the Mame-Loshn

I’ve learnt a lot of languages in my time. Even at a young age, I had an aptitude for it. We spoke English at home, and my first foray into language learning was at age 4, when my parents enrolled me in a bilingual English-French playgroup. This might seem like the natural, patriotic thing to do for a Canadian family, but when I look back on it, it seems strange to me. My dad’s first language is Russian, and no one in my family would ever describe themselves as a Francophone. Oddly (or maybe not), my first taste of second language acquisition was with a tongue to which I had no direct, emotional connection. In any case, French was the easiest one to learn, since its instruction was mandatory from grade 1 until 9 in the Ontario public school system, and there were so, so many incentives to continue pursuing fluency. But I’ve never been able to make my mind stay quiet for long, and I supplemented enforced linguistic patriotism with courses, classes, self-teaching books, and attempts at documenting languages in a half-baked attempt to pick up Italian, Spanish, Russian, Basque, Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Gaelic, Syriac, Korean, Urdu, Armenian, Serbian, Cree, and a whole load of other ones I’m probably forgetting. Some stuck, but others are probably just sitting there clogging up brain-ways, keeping me from ever understanding what TikTok is and why anyone would want to use it.

Two languages, though, have always been difficult for me. Well, maybe three, if you throw in German. I’ve tried learning it at various stages, but for some reason a combination of laziness and disinterest kicks in, and I never really learn which case endings go where. It doesn’t help that I have a partner who’s fluent in the language and can always be called up when I’m stuck on a website or desperately in need of coffee in Hamburg or Berlin. Such are the benefits of relationships.

There are two other languages, though, where the difficulty isn’t an issue of tricky grammar or of laziness, but of an ambivalence produced from deep, deep within me. The first is Hebrew, which is sort of the easier one to deal with. As a child, I went to afterschool Hebrew classes, like so many other Jewish children. To be sure, there was a heavy dose of Zionist indoctrination to be had. Most of the teachers were older women who had lived in Israel and were fluent in the language, rather than trained pedagogues. But the main thrust of their lessons wasn’t to inculcate us with a sense of duty to the State of Israel, or with a profound understanding of contemporary Israeli culture and politics. It was to provide us with enough of the language to be able to begin studying scripture in preparation for an eventual Bar Mitzvah. My family was anything but observant, and, in many ways, the strict connection between the language and a religion none of us believed in made Hebrew lessons seem like the ultimate exercise in futility. Why learn a language to demonstrate your commitment to a community you care little about, and that feels much the same about you? At age 8, I was withdrawn from Hebrew school, and have never really taken up the language since, in spite of my learning Arabic and Syriac at various stages in my adult life. It’s hard to remove the language from that quagmire-like mix of heritage, belonging, politics, and pressure with which I first learned to associate it at age 8.

A dark grey stone block with text engraved into it in Yiddish (Hebrew characters, top) and Lithuanian (Latin script, bottom) with a Star of David at the top of the Yiddish text. The stone panel is mounted with bolts to a the side of a building in a recessed alcove. The wall of the building is smooth and cream-coloured.
A commemorative plaque dedicated to the visit of Theodor Herzl, founding force of the modern Zionist movement to the city of Vilnius in 1903, and his meeting with members of the Jewish community’s leadership. The text is in Yiddish at the top and Lithuanian at the bottom. ©Michael James Erdman

There’s another language, too, where ambivalence keeps me from delving in headfirst, and that’s Yiddish. To be fair, I have made an attempt at learning it as an adult, but, as with so many languages, I bit off more than I could chew. I took a break and never returned once I realized that I had to choose between committing to learning the language and general social interaction. Yiddish, more than Hebrew, is the language that I feel to be an authentic and organic part of my heritage. I’ve learned Russian and Hungarian, both languages that I know my grandparents spoke as first languages, but it’s hard to see these as linguistic environments in which a part of me is reflected. After all, when my grandparents and parents left these places, it was their Jewish, rather than their Russian or Hungarian, identities that they chose to express. The environments in which the languages are spoken have changed drastically since large numbers of the Jews who operated in them were either murdered or left, making contemporary Magyarophone and Russophone cultures largely unconnected from anything that my Hungarian or Russian-speaking ancestors would have recognized (although a distinct Russian Jewish culture has developed in Israel).

But is Yiddish any different? Yes and no. Yes, in that Yiddish was, and is, a language used primarily, if not exclusively, by Ashkenazi Jews. Yes, because Yiddish was the home language of my maternal grandparents, the language that was, at least passively, my mother’s first. Rampant xenophobia and anti-Semitism in early and mid-20th-century Canada produced strong pressures for assimilation, and a once-thriving Yiddish cultural scene is now no more. In The Defining Decade: Identity, Politics and the Canadian Jewish Community in the 1960s, Harold Troper explains, in passing, how social mobility among Toronto’s Jewish community went hand in hand, at least during the middle of the century, with an Anglicization that was more aggressive than in, say, Montreal. It should be that what I find in Yiddish is in some way a recouping of my extended family, of the experiences I lived day to day, and which shape the memories of my childhood, my peers, and my broader place in the world.

And yet no. That thing of Yiddish being dropped because of assimilation? Combine it with the fact that a more than half of all Yiddish-speakers in the world were murdered as part of the genocide suffered by Jews (alongside the Roma) at the hands of the National Socialists and their allies. Assimilation and genocide were double whammies that helped to knock Yiddish into the backseat, and enshrine it as the preserve of small, insular communities of exceptionally religious Jews (consider the set-up of Unorthodox – however problematic it might be – and Shtisl). The face and experience of Yiddish gradually started to change, going from a language of mothers, workers, revolutionaries, and bohemians, to that of social and religious conservatives, bent on eschewing integration. At the same time, the creation of the State of Israel, and the Zionist push for Hebrew as a modern pan-Jewish lingua franca, helped foster a separate linguistic space for those hoping to assert a unique Jewish identity bereft of the baggage of pre-genocide Europe. Jeffrey Gallant has a piece exploring this in the Jewish Currents archive, while Rafi Ellenson tries to make the case (and fails, in my opinion) for continuing to see modern Hebrew as the way forward for a progressive, contemporary Jewish identity

What’s there for baggage? Maybe it’s easier to express it through anecdote. A colleague of mine once told me about their trip to Prague. A fellow Jew, they decided to take a guided tour of the old Jewish Quarter. Their guide was an older Czech-Jewish woman, a survivor of the camps. At the end of the tour, someone asked her why the Jews of Prague didn’t fight back, and she shrugged. My colleague was, to some degree, disgusted by her response. They probably hadn’t read any Arendt (whether Eichmann in Jerusalem or The Origins of Totalitarianism), but that’s beside the point. The perception of a weakness, an accepted subservience, an inevitability of abuse that is retroactively assigned to pre-Holocaust East European Jewish culture infects so much of how we perceive the relics of that lost world. It poisons everything, including Yiddish.

A grey stone block engraved with text in Yiddish in Hebrew script (top) and Lithuanian in Latin script (bottom) separated by an engraved Star of David, mounted with bolds to the side of a building. The building's wall is cream coloured, smooth, and has three vents beneath the plaque.
A commemorative plaque identifying the Taharot ha-Qodeš Synagogue in Vilnius in both Yiddish and Lithuanian. The Synagogue was built in 1903 and is the only one still standing in the city. ©Michael James Erdman

This makes me sound twisted. But this approach to Yiddish is one that was partly manufactured by early Zionists and the promoters of modern Hebrew. If the Zionist cause of Israel and emancipation-through-settlement is to be accepted as the only solution to Jewish suffering and persecution, it has to be contrasted to a weak, effete, morally-bankrupt Yiddishkeit that was a natural extension of our ancestors’ lives in Eastern Europe (and probably the same for Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Amharic, and so many other linguistic communities). Maybe that’s a bit harsh, and it’s probably been twisted, magnified and warped in my own mind over the past 38 years, combined with the aftereffects of disappointment, isolation, homophobia and exclusion. But it’s what I’ve got to work with, and work through, whenever I start to take more than a passing interest in the language.

I’m not the only one with feelings along this track – including in an academic or scholastic setting. In her spectacular account of the politics of the Yiddish-Hebrew debate, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish, Dr. Naomi Seidman explores the clear gendered nuances of the abandonment of Yiddish (the mameloshn or Mother Tongue) for modern Hebrew (based on the loshn-koydesh or Sacred Tongue, which combined Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic). The penultimate chapter is especially enlightening, looking at changing perceptions of the two languages at a time of increasing Zionist settlement in Ottoman Palestine. Seidman’s focus on the Hebrew-Yiddish divide ends before the Second World War, although she does examine, however briefly, the inability of the Holocaust to efface completely these gendered divisions (it does flip, though, many other aspects of the relationship between the two languages). On a different track, Dr. David Shneer’s (z”l) thoroughly enjoyable and exceptionally informative “Who Owns the Means of Cultural Production? The Soviet Yiddish Publishing Industry of the 1920s” provides a view onto a different imagining of a Socialist, emancipatory Yiddish culture apart from Hebrew and Zionism that was, ultimately, snuffed out by late-Stalinist anti-Semitism. Apart from this, though, what is clear is that the perception of Yiddish as a defeatist, infantile, effeminate, and borderline humiliating idiom in comparison to the virile, masculine, and macho modern Hebrew has a long pedigree that stretches back well before the catastrophe of the Second World War.

The world-renown Barry Sisters perform Bei mir bisti sheyn.

To be fair, it’s not just the sort of stuff that you’d normally discuss with your therapist that spawns ambivalence. Check out Jewish Currents’ listing of articles with the tag “Yiddish”. Jewish Currents is just one (American) example of left-leaning reckonings with contemporary Jewish identity and culture. But the sheer number of backwards-looking pieces is instructive. How many of them deal with contemporary issues, like the use of Yiddish for environmental activism, or how to express gender non-conformity in the language? How many explore the adaptation of the language to times of social distancing, or to same-sex relationships, anti-racism, remote working, late-stage capitalism, evangelical Christianity, or NFTs? And how does that sit with someone whose brief exposure to the language taught them words like fagele but not the means of describing their inner desires and aspirations?

Others have answered these questions well before my angst-ridden language learning attempts. Back in 2007, the Forward, once the premiere Yiddish newspaper in North America, carried an article by Kathleen Peratis on the heavily Queer aspects of the Yiddish revival, entitled “And the Award Goes to… Queer Yiddishkeit”. (A more current overview of all that this entails can be found on Rokhl Kafrissen’s blog) The products of this queering are now on full display: Ingeveb, the Journal of Yiddish Studies, has a small but meaningful list of articles dealing with LGBTQ+, feminist and critical theory issues relating to Yiddish; Sasha Berenstein has collated a listing of Trans/Nonbinary terms in the language on Medium.com; Kadima Reconstructionist Synagogue has run online Queer- and Trans-focused Yiddish classes, as did the Boston Workmen’s Circle; and, really, the cream of it all is The Pink Peacock, run by Morgan Lev Edward Holleb and Joe Isaac. It’s an anarchist, Queer Yiddish café in Glasgow that takes no prisoners in realizing an incredible act of intersection between so many different elements in the lives of contemporary Jews and their solidarity networks.

Let’s not forget academia, where Queer Theory, Critical Theory and Jewish Studies have all been able to cross-pollinate and explore those aspects of Yiddish-speaking Jewish identity that weren’t necessarily on show for us as kids. These include, but are not limited to, Dr. David Shneer’s (z”l) Queer Jews from 2002; Dr. Golan Moskowitz’s Maurice Sendak in Queer Jewish Context; broader looks at LGBTQ+ Jewish experiences in Dr. Zohar Weiman-Kelman’s Queer Expectations, as well as her article “Speaking Truth to Power in Yiddish: A Queer Jewish Literary History”; Dr. Daniel Boyarin, Dr. Daniel Itzkovitz, and Dr. Ann Pellegrini’s Queer Theory and the Jewish Question; and Dr. Jeffrey Shandler’s “Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory”. A lot has also focused on the Yiddish stage and performance traditions, especially when it comes to gender-bending and cross-dressing on- and off-stage: consider, for example, Dr. Rebecca Rosen’s “Hassidic Drag: Jewishness and Transvestism in the Modern Dances of Pauline Korner and Hadassah”, or Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel’s “Top 10 Queerest Moments in the Yiddish Theatre.” Mainstream (as mainstream as is possible) organizations aren’t left out in this intersection either, as the Yiddish Book Center too has grappled with Queer Jewish identity in its oral history projects, notably in an interview with Rebekah Erev.

At the heart of it is that I have to come to grips with the fact that my identity, and my experience, involves so much more than just being a Jew whose family once lived in Eastern Europe. I’m gay, I’m an immigrant, I’m living with a Sheigetz boyfriend (a German no less!) in East London and trying to limit my participation in a carbon-guzzling, hyper-consumerist society as best I can. Can’t I just compartmentalize and learn the language without having to address these? After all, there are lots of materials and opportunities out there for me to learn Yiddish without, a priori, contradicting these aspects of my being: Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture; the Yiddish Book Center’s incredible collection of Yiddish-language materials for learning and practice; YIVO’s Yiddish courses; the Yiddish Institute’s host of resources for approaching the language; Kultura Collective’s Yiddish courses; the Yiddish Academy’s free online lessons; and a bevy of local groups, communities and collectives all trying to make Yiddish more accessible. And, of course, universities around the world teach Yiddish, including Berkeley, Rutgers, the University of Toronto, University College London, INALCO, and many more. There’s no guarantee that any of these, though, would provide that special sense of cultural connection that I crave. Who knows, maybe Duolingo’s upcoming Yiddish course will help with this. From the sound of this Guardian article, however, the hard decisions here might be more around dialect than adapting the teaching and usage of the language to a community that’s more assertive in its diversity than it might have been a century ago.

Which leads me to another sore point. I’ve used Duolingo lots and have lots to be thankful to the Owl for. But Yiddish feels different. I mean, not that it’s inherently different, but it’s different for me. In approaching it, I think I have begun to conceive of the differences between language reclamation and language learning. Duolingo takes languages and packages them nicely to minimize the cultural divergence between what is comfortable for a white American and the social context in which the language is spoken. I noticed this with Korean, where there is truly minimal effort to explain the extent and importance of, say, honorifics and register-based verbal forms. So, at the outset, using Duolingo makes me suspicious that I might gain some of the purely linguistic base I’d need, but that my desire for reconnection to a socio-linguist component would be largely frustrated.

Beyond that, though, the Instagram-esque repacking of minority languages like Yiddish makes me a bit uneasy for the feelings I know it will bring out in me. Take this video from Lindsay Williams about why you should learn Yiddish. Let’s put aside the borderline anti-Semitic characterization of Yiddish being “cooler than a secret handshake, having a whole language you can share with people” (1:12) – you know, for when the World Jew Council meets to decide the fate of global finance. Williams also fails to mention that the revival in interest in Yiddish stems from a deep-seated desire to reclaim something that was lost, whether through genocide, (coerced or willing) assimilation, or internalized anti-Semitism. It’s hard for me not to approach this language without feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy about the disinterest in my family and my heritage; about my inadequacies in honouring the memory and culture of my forebearers. Vuz, you could learn Turkish but not Yiddish? We might want to know what schmuck or chutzpah really mean, but then we’d also have to face the fact that we cutesified and infantilized the language in which our grandparents composed poetry, organized strikes, and pleaded for their lives and those of their loved ones. And that can sometimes create enough of a reason on its own to put down the textbook, without worrying about irregular past tenses.

So where does this leave me? Already, having expended 2800 words on this topic feels something close to cathartic. My usual response to this side of my identity has been to run, but there is something constructive about confrontation, about piecing apart what things means and where and how to apply a balm. It feels odd to focus on the pain of doing something I love – learning languages – and the implications that it might have for my sense of self and my connections, or lack thereof, to people both living and passed. Even here, I have to catch my own internalized anti-Semitism, that same stereotype of weakness, femininity, and subservience that casts Yiddish, and those who speak or spoke it, as unworthy of care, compassion, or understanding. I have to realize that I too can have messy feelings and not be imprisoned in trope. After all, take out the word Yiddish, and that could also be a statement about struggling with internalized homophobia, too. I can’t say that all this will suddenly plunge me into the fervent study of the language. But it has given me a new appreciation of something missing from my being. Perhaps one day, just as I sit down with FaceTime to listen to the stories of my now-aged mame, I’ll take the time to listen to the legends and lessons of the mame-loshn, and let them build a bridge between me and the ancestors I’ve neglected.

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