Writ­ings on Yid­dish and Yid­dishkayt: The War Years, 1939 – 1945

  • Review
By – February 5, 2024

What is yidishkayt? As trans­la­tor and edi­tor David Stromberg explains in the intro­duc­tion to Writ­ings on Yid­dish and Yid­dishkayt, It can mean Judaism, Jew­ish life, any­thing hav­ing to do with Yid­dish cul­ture or lan­guage, and … can be Jew­ish­ness or even Yid­dish­ness.” While these may all seem like rough­ly the same con­cept, tak­en togeth­er, they cov­er every aspect of Jew­ry (in this case, pri­mar­i­ly Ashke­nazi Jew­ry) — reli­gios­i­ty, his­to­ry, folk­lore, lan­guage, art, and lega­cy. The key to under­stand­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple and Jew­ish life, espe­cial­ly dur­ing World War Two, is to regard yidishkayt not just as an ide­ol­o­gy, but also as a way of life that com­pris­es the entire­ty of the Jew­ish experience. 

This col­lec­tion of essays by Isaac Bashe­vis Singer pro­vides a sol­id foun­da­tion for inter­pret­ing the ques­tions and themes that plagued many Jews liv­ing in Amer­i­ca dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Singer and his old­er broth­er, Israel Joshua, immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States right before the war broke out, and were there­fore caught some­where between the Old” and New” Worlds — at a time when the Old World was being dec­i­mat­ed by the Nazis. These essays are Singer’s attempt to save even a frac­tion of the world from which he came. He cen­ters his argu­ments main­ly on the impor­tance of Jew­ish, and specif­i­cal­ly Yid­dish, lit­er­a­ture in pre­serv­ing Jew­ish cul­ture. As Singer writes in a 1945 essay, No oth­er peo­ple [except the Jew­ish peo­ple] has as great a chasm between its lit­er­a­ture and its life as do the Jews.”

Singer’s essays, many of which were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in peri­od­i­cals like Der Forverts (The For­ward), touch on a wide range of top­ics, from Jew­ish law and thought to cur­rent events. The col­lec­tion can be bro­ken up into three main cat­e­gories: infor­ma­tion­al essays that muse on the cus­toms and his­to­ry of Jew­ish life; ques­tions about how Amer­i­can Jews can pre­serve the ele­ments of Jew­ish life that are being destroyed in Europe; and essays that reflect on Jews’ place in the world, both his­tor­i­cal­ly and in the wake of the Sec­ond World War. A focal point through­out all of his essays is Yid­dish: Yid­dish writ­ers, the spo­ken Yid­dish lan­guage, and the cul­ture asso­ci­at­ed with Yid­dish-speak­ing Jews. He frets over the absence of Yid­dish and Jew­ish knowl­edge in the minds of Amer­i­can youth, and the intense assim­i­la­tion that occurred as a result of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the US. Com­bined in a book like this, his essays almost become a call to action. 

Singer’s col­lec­tion empha­sizes that, while Jew­ish peo­ple­hood is not a mono­lith, it has always been inter­con­nect­ed. Amer­i­can Jews would always be affect­ed by the events that were hap­pen­ing an ocean away — just as Torah, Tal­mud, Kab­bal­ah, and folk­lore would always pro­vide a foun­da­tion for Jew­ish life. There was no escap­ing, avoid­ing, or for­get­ting the harsh real­i­ty of what it was to be a Jew in that moment, in any moment. And yet despite the pro­found per­son­al and col­lec­tive sad­ness that Singer feels, he holds onto his love for and loy­al­ty to his peo­ple and cul­ture. This work is a pre­cur­sor to books such as The Fam­i­ly Moskat, which pre­served a pic­ture of Jew­ish life in Poland. 

Writ­ings on Yid­dish and Yid­dishkayt is an acces­si­ble sur­vey of the moment in which Singer was liv­ing. It draws from his­tor­i­cal sources in a way that read­ers with­out too much back­ground knowl­edge can under­stand. Singer speaks quite col­lo­qui­al­ly, often sprin­kling Jew­ish say­ings or sar­casm into his analy­ses. Through­out his career as a whole, he not only lift­ed up Jew­ish life, but he also com­mit­ted it to the mem­o­ry of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. His ded­i­ca­tion at the begin­ning of the book sug­gests as much: To the Jews of the Holo­caust — those who were mur­dered and those who sur­vived.” He’s not just talk­ing about lit­er­al sur­vivors; he’s talk­ing about the gen­er­a­tions that would come lat­er, that would need to remem­ber in order to con­tin­ue on. 

Isado­ra Kianovsky (she/​her) is the Devel­op­ment Asso­ciate at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and has loved Jew­ish books since she was about eight years old. She grad­u­at­ed from Smith Col­lege in 2023 with a B.A. in Jew­ish Stud­ies and a minor in His­to­ry. Pri­or to work­ing at JBC, she interned at the Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute, the Jew­ish Wom­en’s Archive, and also stud­ied abroad a few times to learn about dif­fer­ent aspects of Jew­ish cul­ture and his­to­ry! Out­side of work, she loves to write and spend time with her loved ones.

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