In the final decades of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, three great writ­ers of Jew­ish fic­tion emerged: Sholem Jacob Abramovitz, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholem Ale­ichem, the lat­ter of whom authored tales that would lat­er crash into the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness as Fid­dler on the Roof. What did these fore­bears to Bernard Mala­mud, Saul Bel­low, Cyn­thia Ozick, and Philip Roth have in com­mon? All three start­ed out writ­ing in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, Lashon Hakodesh, before they turned to Yid­dish, the mamaloshen. Why? Pri­or to the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the con­se­quent revival of Hebrew as a liv­ing tongue, Lashon Hakodesh was the lan­guage of the Bible and, to believ­ers, the lan­guage in which God cre­at­ed the world. Potent stuff. As a vehi­cle for mod­ern fic­tion, how­ev­er, it had prob­lems. Hebrew was an ancient tongue, divorced from mod­ern life and inac­ces­si­ble to a mass read­er­ship. Yid­dish, by con­trast, was the lan­guage spo­ken by most Jews. The lan­guage they joked in, bick­ered with friends in , and used to pester their chil­dren. And so, when Peretz, Abramovitz, and Ale­ichem decid­ed to aban­don the prac­tice of Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als and write not in Hebrew but in Yid­dish, they were enact­ing an aes­thet­ic rev­o­lu­tion com­pa­ra­ble to Wordsworth and Coleridge, when they announced their aim to write poet­ry in the real lan­guage of men.” A door was opened.

But what does Yid­dish mean for Jews in the west today, most of whom know only a smat­ter­ing of cute-sound­ing words: schlep, meshugen­er, schlemiel, and schmuck? (Words com­mon­ly known and used by non-Jews too, of course.) On the one hand, for Ashke­nazi Jews, igno­rance of Yid­dish is a bench­mark of assim­i­la­tion. An illu­mi­nat­ing joke:

A woman on a bus in Tel Aviv speaks Yid­dish to her son, and every time he answers her in Hebrew, she cor­rects him: Speak Yid­dish.” Anoth­er pas­sen­ger over­hears and demands an expla­na­tion. The woman shrugs. I don’t want him to for­get he’s Jewish!”

As with all great jokes, the sub­text is uncom­fort­able. What, after all, is the woman say­ing? That the mod­ern, Hebrew-speak­ing Israeli, who lives in a Jew­ish state, is some­how not Jew­ish? Sud­den­ly the joke, like so many Jew­ish jokes, seems to flirt with antisemitism .

The sto­ry takes on anoth­er lev­el of sig­nif­i­cance when set beside this pas­sage from The Truce, Pri­mo Levis vital account of his long jour­ney home from Auschwitz. One night, Levi and his Ital­ian friends met some teenage girls speak­ing Yiddish: 

I turned to the girls, greet­ed them and, try­ing to imi­tate their pro­nun­ci­a­tion, asked them in Ger­man if they were Jew­ish, and declared that we four were also Jew­ish. The girls (they were per­haps six­teen or eigh­teen years old) burst out laugh­ing. Ihr sprecht keyn Jidisch; ihr seyd ja keyne Jiden!’ You do not speak Yid­dish; so you can­not be Jews!’ In their lan­guage the phrase amount­ed to a rig­or­ous logic. 

The idea that Pri­mo Levi (who is vir­tu­al­ly a saint for athe­ist Jews) isn’t Jew­ish enough for these girls is very fun­ny. But again there’s a trou­bling sub­text. If Levi was an athe­ist, and he was igno­rant of Jew­ish lan­guages, then where did his Jew­ish-ness reside? Sure­ly not in the sole fact of his oppres­sion by fas­cists? What an awful def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty that would pro­duce: to be a Jew means to be hat­ed by anti­semites, and noth­ing more.

At the heart of my nov­el was a query. What is it, exact­ly, that believ­ers believe?

I’ve said that igno­rance of Yid­dish is a mark of assim­i­la­tion for west­ern Jews, but as the two sto­ries I’ve recount­ed sug­gest, it is also per­haps a badge of shame. Espe­cial­ly for Euro­peans. One of the ter­ri­ble vic­to­ries of Nazism was the dev­as­tat­ing blow it struck to Yid­dish cul­ture. Before the war, there were an esti­mat­ed eleven mil­lion speak­ers glob­al­ly; today there may be as few as a mil­lion and a half. For this and oth­er rea­sons, Yid­dish is list­ed by UNESCO as a “ def­i­nite­ly endan­gered” lan­guage. Under Hitler’s orders, an entire lan­guage with a won­der­ful and idio­syn­crat­ic body of lit­er­a­ture was brought to the point of obliv­ion. Although there have been valiant attempts to keep the lan­guage alive, which is still wide­ly spo­ken in cer­tain reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly in New York and Israel, the mag­ni­tude of the loss is clear. When Isaac Bashe­vis Singer won the Nobel Prize in 1978, the tri­umph was sure­ly tinged with sor­row. The high­est lit­er­ary hon­or avail­able was award­ed to a Yid­dish writer only after the assas­si­na­tion of the lan­guage had been almost total. And with van­ish­ing­ly few chil­dren speak­ing it as their native tongue, the first Yid­dish Nobel lau­re­ate might also prove to be the last. 

So where does this leave the mod­ern Jew­ish writer, work­ing in Eng­lish? As I researched Fer­vor, my debut nov­el, I knew I would be indebt­ed to those pio­neer­ing Yid­dish writ­ers of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and to their suc­ces­sors in the twen­ti­eth: espe­cial­ly S. Ansky and Bashe­vis Singer. The rhythms of Jew­ish speech in Eng­lish and the cadences of Jew­ish jokes – it all goes back to those ear­li­er mas­ters. What came as a sur­prise to me was that to write a nov­el of con­tem­po­rary British life, I found myself delv­ing into Hasidic tales from the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, col­lect­ed and trans­lat­ed by Myer Levin, Elie Wiesel, and Mar­tin Buber. 

For at the heart of my nov­el was a query. What is it, exact­ly, that believ­ers believe?

Fer­vor nar­rates the lives of the Rosen­thals, a reli­gious fam­i­ly that threat­ens to tear itself apart pre­cise­ly because of a dis­agree­ment in beliefs. As she reach­es her teens, Elsie, daugh­ter of the fam­i­ly, begins to act in strange ways. She becomes aggres­sive and unpre­dictable. She self-harms. Fright­ens her class­mates. In time, her par­ents bare­ly rec­og­nize the girl. The prob­lem? She is under the sway of demon­ic influ­ences. At least, so her lit­er­al­ist par­ents believe. Her broth­er, an athe­ist, dis­agrees. His sis­ter is not beset by evil pow­ers; she is the vic­tim of ludi­crous par­ent­ing and unen­light­ened nonsense. 

To hold these con­tra­dic­to­ry views in place, my nov­el had to become a work of clear-eyed real­ism that was at the same time a work of extrav­a­gant fan­ta­sy. The para­dox inheres part­ly in the lan­guages that pull the char­ac­ters in oppos­ing directions. 

For the Rosen­thals, Hebrew is the lan­guage of absolute truth, Eng­lish the lan­guage of day-to-day real­i­ty. That there is a dis­tinc­tion between the two already mud­dies the waters of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Yid­dish, how­ev­er, is some­thing murki­er than either. For those born and edu­cat­ed in Eng­land, Yid­dish is the lan­guage of super­sti­tion, of folk wis­dom and mem­o­ry, where dyb­buks and golems and witch­es roam the shad­ows. The lan­guage in which the Zad­dikim spun their reli­gious tales replete with veiled Kab­bal­is­tic mean­ings. But Yid­dish is also the sym­bol­ic lan­guage of Europe’s mur­dered Jews. The lan­guage that all but per­ished in the same slaugh­ter. It is the ghost at the feast. And so the truths con­tained with­in this strange hybrid of Ger­man, Russ­ian, Slav­ic, and Hebrew must nev­er be dis­missed or con­signed to a for­got­ten age. Because as the moth­er on the bus reminds us: once you for­get Yid­dish, what else is forgotten?

Toby Lloyd was born in Lon­don to a sec­u­lar father and a Jew­ish moth­er. He stud­ied Eng­lish at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty before mov­ing to Amer­i­ca to pur­sue an MFA in cre­ative writ­ing at NYU. He has pub­lished short sto­ries and essays in Carve Mag­a­zine and the Los Ange­les Review of Books and was longlist­ed for the 2021 V. S. Pritch­ett Short Sto­ry Prize. He lives in London.