Yiddish-speakers themselves, including some of the most prominent Yiddish writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, routinely referred to their language as Zhargon – Jargon. It was a bastard tongue, bad German, a linguistic mishmash, hardly a language at all. Jews intent on assimilation found it particularly odious. In Germany for example, Jews tried to reduce Jewishness to a Konfession, a religion divorced from culture, insisting they weren’t Jews at all, but rather “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion” Go make the case in Yiddish, where every word, every linguistic tic, is a reminder of peoplehood. Consider, for example, Max Weinreich’s example of a more or less random Yiddish sentence: Di bobe est tsholent af Shabes – The grandmother eats warmed-over bean stew on the Sabbath. Bobe, “grandmother” is a Slavic word that entered Yiddish in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Est was adopted a thousand years ago, from Middle High German. Tsholent, bean stew, came from Old French more than a thousand years ago, probably from chaud, “hot”, and lent, “slow” – a fitting name for a dish that Jews keep warm on the Sabbath, when cooking is not allowed. And Shabes, “Sabbath,” is a Hebrew word that dates back several thousand years. Quite literally, Yiddish is a living chronicle of Jews’ historical experience, proof of their peoplehood, and therefore spills the beans on assimilationist aspirations. No wonder Bourgeois Jews hated it; no wonder scholars ignored it. In 1873, for example, the German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz afforded Yiddish just two paragraphs in his magisterial six-volume History of the Jews. Never mind that Yiddish was then the first or only language of 80% of the world’s Jews; for Graetz, it was “eine halbtierische Sprache,” a half-bestial tongue.
- Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky