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
Polish-Jewish Literature: I Had Dream byItzhak Katzenelson
I had a dream, a terrible dream: my people was no more, my people disappeared. I rose screaming: Ah! Ah! What I have dreamed is happening now! Oh, God in heaven! – Shuddering I shall cry: what for and why did my people die? What for and why in vain did it die? Not in a war, not in battle … the young, the old, and women and babies so little – – are no more, no more: wring your hands! Thus I’ll cry in sorrow both day and night: What for, my Lord, dear God, why?
Itzhak Katzenelson (1886-1944) - One
of Poland’s Jewish poets and dramatists who wrote in both Hebrew and
Yiddish. Prior to World War II he wrote mostly for children. During
the war he was consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto and later to the camp at
Vitel in France, whence he was sent to Auschwitz where he perished.
Soviet Educational Advertisement in Yiddish, 1920 The “Kheyder” (traditional religious school) is compared to the modern “Rotn shul” (“Red School”): “The old school has fostered slates. The red school prepares healthy, capable working men, builders of the Soviet Order.”
Solomon Borisovich Yudovin (Iudovin) Jewish People’s Party Soviet Union, ca. 1918
The Yiddishe Folkspartei (Jewish People’s Party) was founded by the historian Simon Dubnow following the 1905 pogroms in the Russian Empire. The party took part in several elections in Poland and Lithuania in the 1920s. The artist of this poster, Solomon Yudovin, unlike several other Russian Jewish artists of that period such as Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky, did not embrace modernism but remained a figurative, realistic artist throughout his life. He likely created this poster between 1918 and 1923 while he lived in Vitebsk, a predominantly Jewish city that was at that time an important center for the Russian avant-garde.
Translation from Yiddish: The Jewish People’s Party. Vote for ballot line #4 for Jewish cooperation
I’m working on a calligraphic commission for a client who wants me to include reference to his Lithuanian-Jewish heritage from Vilna (Vilnius). While researching imagery from Jewish Vilna, I found this charming film about Jewish Vilna from 1939 — in Yiddish with English subtitles. It shows various aspects of Jewish life in the city, the Jewish Quarter, synagogues, the marketplace, YIVO headquarters, and more. It ends with footage of Jewish children swimming and demonstrating athletics — an image of the flourishing Jewish future… Of course, Jewish Vilna was destined for horrendous destruction only a few years later. What a bittersweet treasure this film is!
The Bovo-Bukh, written in 1507–1508 by Elia Levita, was the most popular chivalric romance in the Yiddish language. It was first printed in 1541, and was the first non-religious book to be printed in Yiddish. There were over forty editions.
“Religion is a hindrance to the Five-Year Plan. Down with religious holidays! Religion is a weapon for enslaving the worker. Join the union of militant apikorsim.” Printed in Moscow, ca. 1928.
Shortly after this poster was printed, the Moscow and Leningrad choral synagogues were closed by force. By 1932, just three synagogues remained in Leningrad. By 1938, most Jewish religious functionaries had been arrested.
Isaac Leib Peretz, depicted on a Yiddish postcard, c. 1910 Isaac Leib Peretz (also known as Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (יצחק־לייבוש פרץ) and Icchok Lejbusz Perec or Izaak Lejb Perec (in Polish)) (May 18, 1852 – 3 April 1915), best known as I.L. Peretz, was a Yiddish language author and playwright. Payson R. Stevens, Charles M. Levine, and Sol Steinmetz count him with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem as one of the three great classical Yiddish writers. Sol Liptzin wrote: “Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz was the great awakener of Yiddish-speaking Jewry, and Sholom Aleichem its comforter… Peretz aroused in his readers the will for self-emancipation, the will for resistance…”