Some­one recent­ly asked me why I write in Yid­dish. This is a ques­tion I receive with some reg­u­lar­i­ty. Of course, it’s some­thing that’s asked of those who engage in any pro­longed way with the lan­guage. When I was a stu­dent in the Uriel Wein­re­ich Pro­gram in Yid­dish Lan­guage, Lit­er­a­ture, and Cul­ture at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research, my Yid­dish gram­mar teacher, the emi­nent lin­guist Mord­khe Schaecter, said some­thing along the lines of that he nev­er asked a stu­dent why s/​he was study­ing Yid­dish. Would a stu­dent of French be asked why s/​he were study­ing French? The ques­tion implies that there is a need to jus­ti­fy the study of this lan­guage, the lin­gua fran­ca for East Euro­pean Jews for cen­turies and a cul­tur­al repos­i­to­ry for so much that is Jew­ish, as evi­denced by the language’s very name, which, after all, means Jew­ish.” Aren’t these char­ac­ter­is­tics alone suf­fi­cient rea­son? I won­dered if Dr. Schaechter want­ed to turn the ques­tion on its head: Why don’t more peo­ple study Yiddish?

The ques­tion has added poignan­cy of late due to the pub­li­ca­tion of my most recent book, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-kraters: gek­libene Yidishe lider/​A Mouse Among Tot­ter­ing Sky­scrap­ers: Select­ed Yid­dish Poems. As its sub­ti­tle sug­gests, the book is entire­ly in Yid­dish. In fact, it is my first one to be only in Yid­dish. It includes the Yid­dish poems from my pre­vi­ous books as well as uncol­lect­ed oth­ers. When I told a poet friend about this, she asked, Who will read it?” I assured her there are indeed Yid­dish read­ers left. I wasn’t sat­is­fied with my response to that ques­tion. A more appro­pri­ate one might have been that the ques­tion of read­er­ship is sep­a­rate from the ques­tion of writ­ing. But nei­ther was I sat­is­fied with the answer I gave in real time to the ques­tion raised at the out­set of this essay.

I write in Yid­dish because I refuse to be denied my cul­tur­al her­itage. Yid­dish was a cru­cial ele­ment in the ultra-Ortho­dox yeshi­va world in which I was raised. Yid­dish words and expres­sions pep­pered speech. The teach­ers and the offi­cials of the yeshi­va spoke Yid­dish. My par­ents spoke Yid­dish. I speak Yid­dish today with my father. And yet grow­ing up, I nev­er read or even heard of the works of the canon­i­cal Yid­dish troi­ka of Mendele Mokher Sefarim, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Sholem Ale­ichem, let alone the works of more recent Yid­dish mas­ters such as David Bergel­son, Jacob Glat­stein, Itzik Manger, or Blume Lem­pel, an inno­v­a­tive writer whose work Ellen Cassedy and I spent many years translating.

When I read Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture today, I’m immers­ing myself in a world that’s famil­iar and also alien. That world is famil­iar because of the reli­gious life cycle that fig­ures promi­nent­ly in many Yid­dish texts, and alien because of how far we are from the world not only of the East Euro­pean shtet­lakh but also of cities such as Łodz, War­saw, and Vil­nius. And it’s dis­tant because I have no mem­o­ries of study­ing this lit­er­a­ture in my youth the way some­one raised in a sec­u­lar Yid­dishist envi­ron­ment, who attend­ed a Workmen’s Cir­cle school or a Yid­dish school, would have.

When I write in Yid­dish, I’m plac­ing my own small flag, how­ev­er tat­tered, how­ev­er imper­fect, in the realm of new Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. I’m stak­ing a claim for Yid­dish as a cur­rent, dynam­ic, ever-evolv­ing lan­guage for lit­er­ary cre­ation and my own tiny tent with­in it. In Yid­dish, I can exist in the beys-medresh dis­put­ing Tal­mu­dic minu­ti­ae or study­ing eth­i­cal texts and at ral­lies and demon­stra­tions fight­ing for jus­tice. I can be in the butch­er shop and the gro­cery store, perus­ing Paskesz can­dy offer­ings and in the salons sam­pling the lat­est lit­er­ary releas­es. I can be singing Ask­inu sudose at the third Sab­bath meal and Harb­stlid” by the Yid­dish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottes­man. I can … Well, you get the idea. All of that and more — past, present, and future — is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly avail­able to me.

And when I write in Yid­dish, I don’t have to think about a glos­sary or about how to make the reli­gious and oth­er terms and expres­sions in my work acces­si­ble to read­ers. Read­ers of Yid­dish will know the mean­ing of words like Shvues or hav­dole or shad­khon­im. Nor do I have to think about the translit­er­a­tion sys­tem I am going to use and whether I should translit­er­ate words Yid­dish­ly or Hebraical­ly and what translit­er­a­tion sys­tem I should use. My read­ers won’t need that guidance.

And yet, Yid­dish is not my first lan­guage. I have to look many Eng­lish words up in the dic­tio­nary — not only to deter­mine their par­al­lels in Yid­dish, but also their gen­ders. I have to think about the case of a par­tic­u­lar lin­guis­tic con­text. I have to con­sid­er whether what I’ve writ­ten works idiomat­i­cal­ly in Yid­dish. I have to find some­one to proof­read. That per­son has to have both a pro­found knowl­edge of Yid­dish and a proofreader’s sen­si­bil­i­ty. Once a man­u­script is ready, I have to find a pub­lish­er will­ing to work with Hebrew fonts. This per­son usu­al­ly doesn’t know Hebrew or Yid­dish, which caus­es numer­ous design and lay­out chal­lenges. I am extreme­ly for­tu­nate that I have found indi­vid­u­als who sus­tained my Yid­dish work in so many ways at each stage of the cre­ative process.

I am there­fore con­stant­ly remind­ed of the audac­i­ty need­ed to cre­ate lit­er­ary work in a lan­guage that is not one’s first. Some might call it fol­ly. But this ten­sion between com­fort and strug­gle, between famil­iar­i­ty and dis­tance, is ever present. Some­times it feels like out­right para­dox: that which sets me free also weighs me down. The very tool used to explore my own her­itage lim­its the essen­tial free­dom need­ed by the writer. Sim­ply put, I can’t let Yid­dish go.

Even if I don’t ask myself Why do I write in Yid­dish?” the ques­tion of Will I con­tin­ue?” is ever present. My com­mit­ment to writ­ing in Yid­dish is nev­er a giv­en for me; it requires con­stant renew­al. The added lay­er of work entailed requires a self-inter­ro­ga­tion: Will this project also entail Yid­dish? To this point, the answer has been yes.”

Of course, writ­ers want read­ers. We want our work to be con­sid­ered, absorbed, and savored. We want it to bring under­stand­ing, plea­sure, or beau­ty into the cos­mos of read­ers. But we also write for spe­cif­ic rea­sons, some of which have to do with our own his­to­ries and back­grounds, while oth­ers have to do with spe­cif­ic con­tin­gen­cies of the moment. Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture is replete with exam­ples of those who didn’t start writ­ing in Yid­dish or who wrote in mul­ti­ple lan­guages. Arguably the nation­al poet of Israel, Hayy­im Nah­man Bia­lik wrote Yid­dish poems. Rachel H. Korn first pub­lished in Pol­ish. Vladimir Medem, the Bundist the­o­reti­cian, wrote in Russ­ian first. And there were so many oth­ers. These writ­ers had a range of approach­es vis-a-vis mul­ti-lin­gual­i­ty. Some turned to Yid­dish from oth­er lan­guages. Some turned away from Yid­dish. Oth­ers wrote in mul­ti­ple lan­guages. Of course, there was a con­sid­er­ably more vibrant Yid­dish con­text in their days, but my point is that my path is hard­ly a new one. And the exam­ples of mul­ti­lin­gual writ­ers out­side of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture are vast. Think of Samuel Beck­ett, Joseph Con­rad, Vladimir Nabokov, to name but a few.

My work takes place in the con­text of ongo­ing Yid­dish lit­er­ary activ­i­ty around the world today. Con­tem­po­rary Yid­dish writ­ers include Velvl Chernin and Michael Felsen­baum, the Israel-based pub­lish­ers of my most recent book and cen­tral forces behind the Library of Con­tem­po­rary Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture; poets of the Yugn­truf Yid­dish writ­ing cir­cle in New York, and many oth­ers, from Mel­bourne to Los Ange­les and Indi­ana. Many of these writ­ers pur­pose­ly cre­ate in sev­er­al lan­guages. I take heart from the mul­ti­lin­gual exam­ple of these fore­bears and con­tem­po­raries as well as sus­te­nance from their endur­ing cre­ativ­i­ty. I find mean­ing in mov­ing between lan­guages, in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with read­ers through these dif­fer­ent means. Per­haps Dr. Schaechter would be pleased.

Image via Library of Congress

Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub is the author of six books of poet­ry: The Edu­ca­tion of a Daf­fodil: Prose Poems/​Di bil­dung fun a geln nart­sis: prozelid­er, A moyz tsvishn vakldike volkn-krat­sers: gek­libene Yidishe lider/​A Mouse Among Tot­ter­ing Sky­scrap­ers: Select­ed Yid­dish Poems, Prayers of a Heretic/​Tfiles fun an apikoyres, Uncle Feygele, What Still­ness Illuminated/​Vos shtilka­yt hot baloykhtn, and The Insa­tiable Psalm. Tsug­reyt­ndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/​Preparing to Dance: New Yid­dish songs, a CD of nine of his Yid­dish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was hon­ored by the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage as one of New York’s best emerg­ing Jew­ish artists and has been nom­i­nat­ed four times for a Push­cart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award.