Ibergegossen Authenticity: Heritage and Language Learning

The front page of Der Idisher Shrayber, a Yiddish-language newspaper published in New York at the start of the 20th century.

Back in March 2021, I wrote Queers Kvetching About Knishes in the Mame-Loshn, an exploration of what learning Yiddish would mean to me. It was, with all honesty, a bit of navel-gazing coupled with some research into books about Yiddish, Yiddishkeit, sexuality, and gender. And also Duolingo, with which I have, or had, a love-hate relationship. I waxed prolific about the problems of using an app, and the childhood memories that learning the language might bring up, and the issues around learning words of relevance or import to my life. In the end, I did nothing for six months (sounds like this blog, no?), and shelved the project through much of the spring and summer. When in doubt, it’s easiest to look elsewhere. In all seriousness, April was a tentative opening up in the United Kingdom, which meant that the spring and summer where devoted to a gradual return to some of the activities that weren’t possible during lockdown.

The fact that I was occupied elsewhere doesn’t mean that the idea wasn’t festering in the back of my mind. Many things have changed about my relationship to social media, work, and perhaps even identity in the interceding year (is it only a year?!), and that might have created a space for me to pursue, in a more relaxed fashion, a plan that I had thought was dead. Come August 2021, I decided to start with Yiddish, but not under the watchful eye of the obnoxious owl. Instead, I went back to a series that I loved as a teenager, the Assimil Sans Peine series, and started in on Le Yiddish Sans Peine by Annick Prime-Margules and Nadia Déhan-Rotschild. If you’re not familiar with the Sans Peine series (translated as With Ease in the English version, formerly Without Toil up to the 80s), they’re a bit of language learning fluff. They involve semi-absurdist dialogues, cartoons in a traditional French style, and bitesize grammar and vocabulary bits that are arranged according to difficulty rather than compact systems of knowledge. You don’t learn irregular verbs in one go, they come bit by bit.

Der Yid Vos Hot Khoruv Gemakht Dem Templ, a bilingual edition of Avrom Reyzen’s work, translated by Nadia Déhan-Rotschild prepared especially by MEDEM for learners of Yiddish.

I ploughed my way through the book (also the one on Dutch, but that was motivated by a trip to Amsterdam), making sure to stop in at the Maison de la Culture Yiddish in Paris when there to pick up some potential supporting materials. But the real problem was that I lacked audio support. I felt like I was acquiring lots of vocabulary and grammar but was at sea when it came to listening. So when I finished with the Assimil book some time at the end of the autumn, I toyed with the idea of using the Routledge Colloquial SeriesColloquial Yiddish by Dr. Lily Kahn. The Colloquial books aren’t usually geared for anyone wanting to learn substantive grammar or syntax, but they do give you a good conversational foundation. And the audio’s free, which is the real bonus. In the end, though, I opted for Dr. Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature & Culture (יידיש, אַן ארײַנפֿיר: לושן, ליטעראַטור און קולטור). And to deal with the issue of aural learning, I decided to go rogue and learn DIY style.

How, you ask? It wasn’t easy, but it sort of was. It’s true that there isn’t a massive amount of audio-visual material in Yiddish out there, especially material geared towards learners. A simple search on YouTube doesn’t bring up much, and trying to make due with Unorthodox as a didactic tool might do your head in. So instead, I made ample use of both podcasts and oral history videos to beef up my aural comprehension, and my understanding of dialect differences. Podcasts are useful to a point, especially given the contemporary topics that they treat, and the spontaneous nature of the conversation. I was especially keen on Vaybertaytsh, a Feminist Yiddish podcast with collaborators in the United States, Canada, and Australia; and also Dos Yiddishe Kol, a podcast based on WUNR 1600, a radio station out of Boston. Both podcasts can be found on Apple Podcasts, which meant that it has been easy to make time for language learning during walks to and from work, or while running errands, without being that annoying person whose Duolingo is pinging incessantly in the bathroom.

The cover of the Bulletin of the Jewish Section of the Institute for Belarusian Culture in three languages: Belarusian, Yiddish, and German.

Both pick up on topics like literature, Jewish history, gender, the history of Yiddish Studies, and new developments in Jewish life, as well as current events, which means that they provide listeners with a hefty amount of new words and phrases. Many of them link directly to contemporary urban life away from shtetl nostalgia. On the linguistic plane, Dos Yiddishe Kol tends to invite a few more first-language (and older) speakers than Vaybertaytsh. But both rely on second-language speakers and learners. Many of them are pretty fluent in the language and have no problem talking fluidly and eloquently about their subjects of interest. By and large, though, their accents are heavily influenced by American English (occasionally other dominant European languages, if they grew up outside of the US) and their lexicons are especially reliant on those found in college Yiddish courses. In many ways, this isn’t too different from learners of French, Italian, Arabic, or Mandarin in the US, with the exception that these people learnt Yiddish out of some heritage connection to the language, rather than as an intellectual pursuit or a corollary to a business or IR course.

The YIVO Institute’s guide to standardized Yiddish orthography, דער איינהייטלעכער יידישער אויסלייג.

This mix of first- and second-language speakers sort of mirrors the pedagogical materials available. Zucker’s book is largely based on the YIVO standard, but also includes literary pieces and folk songs that feature dialect components. It’s like with any other textbook that takes a more expansive view of language: you get a few snippets of living uses of Yiddish amongst a mass of instruction devoted to the constructed standard.

All of this brings up that ugly topic that those of us in area studies are very familiar with: authenticity. If you’re learning a language because you want to connect with previous generations, you want to do it in a way that reflects as accurately as possible the speech patterns of those generations. But when your grandparents and great-grandparents were swept away in genocide, and their culture suppressed or ridiculed to the point of silence by nation-building and anti-Semitism, there’s not much to work with. Dr. Rivke (Rebecca) Margolis of Monash University goes deep into this topic in her discussion with Esther Singer on Vaybertaytsh. The desire to be as “authentic” as possible is something that haunts many learners of heritage languages, and it can cause real tension when traditional linguistic communities (such as Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg) come up against organic or constructed communities of those reacquainted with the language (for another perspective, see Steve Hewitt’s piece about this for Breton).

Maybe we’ll park that idea for a moment and come back to the other source of materials that I’ve been using to supplement my learning. Podcasts don’t have a monopoly on spontaneous speech in Yiddish, and The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project shows this beautifully. While not specifically focused on Yiddish recordings, the Project has over 300 filmed interviews in the language. The interviewees are young and old, women and men, couples and single people, and come from across the world. Some were born in Eastern Europe and picked up Yiddish at home, while others learned it at school or in community groups in the diaspora. And they reflect a broad range of different accents and dialects. Not only do you get to hear the difference between Galician, Litvak, and Poylish, but you also have a chance to discern the influence of American English, Australian English, Brazilian Portuguese, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and other dominant languages on the speaker’s Yiddish. It’s a great way to learn about linguistic diversity and to begin to pull traits, turns of phrases, and pronunciations that match those that our grandparents or great-grandparents might have used.

For me, it’s been a way to understand more about Galician Yiddish, which my family would have spoken, but also the impact of Russian – the dominant language for at least half of my family – on the language. It’s made language learning a lot more personal and has shifted it away from the demands of value- or virtue-signalling within the general (North) American context back towards a bit of self-discovery. Maybe it’s even sparked some mutual recognition with a dispersed community towards which I have, at times, felt highly ambivalent. But it’s also really put language learning in general into a new light and has made me rethink other forays I’ve made previously.

This idea of authenticity, and its elusive nature, that Dr. Margolis speaks about is something that comes up in many other communities. Indeed, Margolis contrasts her experience learning and teaching Yiddish in community circles in North America with those of another minority linguistic group, Scottish Gaelic speakers and learners in Nova Scotia. Canadian Gaelic, or even Scottish Gaelic, is a lot more compact a linguistic space than Yiddish, and the speakers don’t have quite the same history as Yiddish-speaking Jews. But people descended from Scottish Gaelic speakers (let’s call them Gàidheil for shorthand) have faced similar assimilationist pressures within a settler-colony context (where they’re largely not Indigenous). And contemporary learners becoming reacquainted with the language are faced with a thriving community of traditional speakers in Cape Breton/Ceap Breatainn/Unama’ki, many of whom preserve dialects and innovative practices not found in the more standardized forms of the language taught in courses like Complete Gaelic or Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, or monitored by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

As I’ve been learning Scottish Gaelic for the last two years or so, I can tell you that Duolingo does offer one module called “Alba Nuadh” (“Nova Scotia”) which provides examples of the Canadian dialects, but this is not much different conceptually from what I found in Zucker’s book. Some of the other lessons have clear dialect divergence on show (is abhainn “river” pronounced /avejn/ or /awejn/?), but none of these examples are explained or even labelled as such. It’s up to the learner to discover what’s what and, trust me, given the dearth of material available on Scottish Gaelic linguistics online, it’s not always easy. Dachaigh airson Stòras na Gàidhligh, the Digital Archive for Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, has a fair amount of material on offer, but not everything can be accessed online. Similarly, An Drochaid provides some examples of Canadian Gaelic, but the site isn’t well maintained, and it’s not really envisioned as a learning tool for those wanting to understand the dialect. The closest thing to the Wexler Oral History Project that I can find for Canadian Gaelic is the website Cainnt mo Mhàthar (My Mother’s Dialect), which is supported by the Canadian and Nova Scotia governments and contains dozens of Gaelic-language interviews. You don’t get complete recordings here, but rather bitesize chunks on specific topics. I still feel like I’m a bit too basic in my knowledge to be able to follow them, but in spite of the occasional poor sound quality, they’re still good to get a feel for the flow of the dialect.

Ultimately, when it comes to Canadian Gaelic, it’s all a bit moot for me, as I’m not a Gàidheal and my connection to Canadian Gaelic, or Scottish Gaelic as a whole, is intellectual at its core. I’m not rediscovering my heritage, as with Yiddish, and it’s not my place to demand or refuse authenticity. The same goes for another language that I’ve been learning, Ilîlimowin, or Moose Cree (also known as L-Cree). As the L-Cree name suggests, this is one of dialect groupings along the Cree continuum (in most of which the language is called Nehiyawewin) that stretches, in geographical terms, from British Columbia through to northern Quebec. Why I started learning the language is another story for another blog. It suffices to say that I’ve maxed out my pedagogical tools, having blasted through the three books of C. Douglas Ellis’ Spoken Cree as well as Dr. Jimena Terraza’s A Pedagogical Grammar of Moose Cree for L2 Learners. Unlike Yiddish and Scottish Gaelic, there are very few other options for learning Ilîlimowin when you’re not a member of the community (one of them being the Facebook group ILR Moose Cree). So I’ve had to try my hand at practicing using other dialects of the language (Tomson Highway’s Pastaweetoon Kaapooskaysing Tageespichit is not easy!), and that’s brought up a whole host of issues.

The Ellis book is great because it is supplemented online by recordings of the dialogues and texts. But the recordings preceded the textbook, which was written by a settler ethnographer who felt the need for a textbook organized along Euro-Atlantic lines after having conducted ethnographic research from the 1950s-70s. Let’s leave aside all of the ethical issues that that raises, and come back to the linguistic content itself. Ellis’ texts are supplemented by another collection that he published, Cree Legends and Narratives from the West Coast of James Bay. Recordings of these texts are also available on the website above. What’s most noticeable between the two batches is that dialect is rarely controlled: some speakers are from the N-Cree groupings, and others from the L-Cree groupings. It’s beautiful to be exposed to the organic speech communities and their linguistic peculiarities, but it’s also exceptionally vexatious when you’re trying to build up some level of confidence about your aural comprehension. At the time, I found it insanely difficult to cope with as a learning tool, but my experience with Yiddish has really put this into perspective.

Again, as a settler in Canada (I usually only use the term vis-à-vis Indigenous people; in relation to Anglo-Canadians I prefer to call myself an ethnic or children of immigrants, since xenophobia and anti-Semitism are still core components of Canadian statehood), it’s not my place to comment on authenticity, standardization, or dialect. What I have realized is the fine line that does have to be walked between authentic linguistic communities and the pedagogical needs of learners outside of such communities. While very different in their historical contexts, both Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island and Yiddish-speaking Jews have seen access to more organic linguistic communities and heritage shattered through genocide, dispersion, and aggressive policies of assimilation on the part of dominant nation-states. This can make the choice between the authentic and the expedient a bit of a zero-sum game. As a result, it really is up to learners to decide how important contemporary competency is compared to connection with heritage and lineage. Dr. Yaron Matras explores some attempts by Romani language activists to bridge this gap though pluralistic linguistic preservation and revitalization in his paper “Transnational policy and ‘authenticity’ discourses on Romani language and identity”. But the journey is a very personal one, and depends on each individual learner’s desires, family, and community connections and background, as well as ease of access to first-language speakers from specific communities and regions.

פראגנ פונ לעניניזמ (Fragn fun Leninizm), Joseph Stalin’s work Concerning Questions of Leninism, in its Yiddish translation featuring Soviet orthography, published by the famous Emes Publishing House in Moscow in 1936.

There’s one last realization that I’ve made, and it’s a reflection on the ethos of my original post. The search for a more authentic and personal connection to Yiddish has also brought me to scholarship on the sociolinguistics of the language. The most insightful piece that I read was Dr. Gennady Estraikh’s monograph Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development. Estraikh tracks out the vagaries of Yiddish language policy before and after the October Revolution. The narrative he constructs caused all sorts of ideas to pop up regarding comparisons with Turkic and other languages in the USSR (read: another blog and/or paper). But it also highlighted the massive shift that began among the Jews of the Russian Empire long before the rise of the Soviet state. The Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism might have decimated Yiddish cultural production in the 20th century, but decades prior to that thousands of Jews were actively, and happily, abandoning Yiddish in favour of Russian, German, and Polish. Apart from the ideological war between Hebrew and Yiddish, the hard reality of social advancement and urbanization meant that Jews in the regions from which my grandparents and great-grandparents hailed made conscious choices to integrate, if not assimilate, into the dominant linguistic sphere.

All of this is to say that it might be wise for me to take less of an ideological stance myself. An exclusionary approach to Yiddish, based both on a desire for authenticity, and an assignation of cultural and linguistic change to actors outside the community, does no one any good. Yiddish is a language of family connection, but so too are Russian, Hungarian, German, and, yes, English. And the influences that they’ve had on one another, and that the non-Jewish languages have taken from the Jews who spoke them, are all part of a complex linguistic lay of the land that can’t be overlooked. I’d love to be able to speak Yiddish the way that my grandparents did, or at least in a way that would make them proud. But I’ve also got to accept that the reasons they turned away from the language are likely similar to the reasons why I have struggled to connect to it. It’s likely that their speech bore traces of German, Russian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Hebrew, English, or any other number of dominant languages, and that it made them seem like impostors or deserters to older generations as well. After all, it’s selfish to assume that our generation is the only one experiencing historical change.

That’s the odd thing about authenticity. It only works when you practice it in relation to yourself. My flat r’s or nasal intonation when I speak Yiddish might make me cringe from time to time, but, hey, at least they’re don’t require any rehearsals or fact checking to feel real.

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