Adven­tures in Yid­dish­land: Postver­nac­u­lar Lan­guage and Culture

Jef­frey Shandler
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012
In his most recent work, Jef­frey Shan­dler does an enor­mous ser­vice for any­one who stud­ies or cares about Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. His analy­sis of the postver­nac­u­lar Yid­dish cul­ture which arose fol­low­ing World War II, when Yid­dish speak­ers dimin­ished from approx­i­mate­ly 11,000,000 to an esti­mat­ed one mil­lion, is clear and ele­gant­ly writ­ten. The post­war postver­nac­u­lar, he explains, is what we have with us today, when the lan­guage is no longer spo­ken by great num­bers. 

At the out­set, Shan­dler declares that his work focus­es on exam­ples of Yid­dish cul­ture con­sid­ered to be the most pop­u­lar or accom­plished.” Although he says it is selec­tive, it cov­ers a wide range: lit­er­ary trans­la­tion, col­lege class­es in Yid­dish, Yid­dish text­books, con­ver­sa­tion groups, per­for­mance, sum­mer camps, and klezmer fes­ti­vals, as well as stick­ers, T‑shirts, children’s and adults’ board games, even refrig­er­a­tor mag­nets. In addi­tion, he describes the efforts of peo­ple teach­ing their chil­dren Yid­dish today and the many places at which adults of all ages study the lan­guage, includ­ing Oxford, Paris, Vil­nius, and YIVO (now based at NYU). 

The chap­ter Found­ed in Trans­la­tion” is one of Shandler’s best and has as its epi­graph the words of the Yid­dish lit­er­ary crit­ic, Shmuel Niger: One lan­guage has nev­er been enough for the Jew­ish peo­ple.” Trans­la­tors of 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture, whose work has made the leap from Yid­dish to Eng­lish or Hebrew to Yid­dish pos­si­ble, also have made world lit­er­a­ture— such as the works of Shake­speare, Longfel­low, Wilde, Poe, Spin­oza, and Strind­berg— avail­able in Yid­dish. Shan­dler con­sid­ers espe­cial­ly note­wor­thy the trans­la­tion of the Torah into Yid­dish by Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden). 

Shan­dler points out the prob­lems Yid­dish speak­ers new to Amer­i­ca expe­ri­enced going from Yid­dish to Eng­lish, as illus­trat­ed by Ire­na Klepfisz’s Fradel Schtok”; this poem exem­pli­fies what it means for a Yid­dish writer to be lost in trans­la­tion. In a care­ful analy­sis, he also demon­strates why Cyn­thia Ozick’s sto­ry, Envy; or, Yid­dish in Amer­i­ca,” is the most wide­ly known treat­ment of post­war Yid­dish cul­ture in the U.S. 

Most peo­ple who have not stud­ied the lan­guage would prob­a­baly dis­agree with Kafka’s dec­la­ra­tion: you under­stand Yid­dish bet­ter than you sup­pose,” but Jef­frey Shan­dler ably shows that because of the many aspects of postver­nac­u­lar cul­ture in our post-Holo­caust era, Yid­dish is nei­ther dying nor dead.
Julia Wolf Mazow, retired uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish instruc­tor, stud­ied Yid­dish in the Oxford and YIVO sum­mer pro­grams. Her trans­la­tions from Yid­dish have appeared in BRIDGES.

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