Saving the mother tongue from a dusty silence

Howard Marks is the chairman of Oaktree Capital Management in Los Angeles.

In the 1930s my mother forswore Judaism in favor of Christian Science for her children and herself, in appreciation for a hard-fought recovery from illness, and decided that we would attend church every Sunday. Although no longer a Jew in her own mind, when she spoke about a longshot like my doing my homework before watching TV, she often would use her one Yiddish expression: a nechtiker tog (“some other day” or “forget about it”). She couldn’t pronounce it properly, and I certainly cannot, a not so uncommon occurrence given most American Jews’ tenuous connection to the everyday language of their ancestors.

Although ties to Yiddish may be tenuous, the tie it provides to forefathers is profound. It is the language of the old country, and its ability to rekindle associations far exceeds its role in present-day communication. Thus two forces mark Yiddish: a very strong relational and historical value, and an equally strong tendency toward attrition. As generations have died off, facility with Yiddish has gone with them, and their descendants have disposed of the unreadable books left behind.

In 1973, Aaron Lansky took up the study of Yiddish in college and, upon learning that Yiddish books were disappearing rapidly, set out to save them and make them accessible. A simple task -- maybe a little quixotic or meshuga (crazy), but one by which one person changed part of the world. Statisticians told him 70,000 Yiddish books existed in America; thus far he has rescued 1.5 million simply by prospecting through community leaders and subsequent word-of-mouth. (So much for statisticians.)

Lansky’s book, “Outwitting History,” describes the effort that led to the formation of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. It also tells about the literature and history of Yiddish and describes its users. It depicts in a heartwarming way the New World discovered by Eastern European immigrants a hundred years ago, and the role that Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) continued to play in their lives. The book is highly readable and entertaining as it tells the history of the mame loshn, the mother tongue, of these Jews.


It’s fascinating and somewhat challenging to understand exactly where Yiddish fits in. Hebrew is the classical language of Judaism’s sacred books and religious ceremonies, but the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe developed another language for everyday discourse. Yiddish (which means “Jewish”) emerged in the 10th or 11th century among the Jews of the Rhine Valley. Although based primarily on German, Yiddish “was written in the Hebrew alphabet and derived as much as 20% of its vocabulary from Hebrew and Aramaic.”

And here’s the dichotomy. Yiddish was the spoken language for the Jews of Europe. But “educated men spent their days studying in Hebrew and Aramaic,” Lansky writes. “Although they spoke Yiddish, they considered it beneath them to read or write it.” When in the middle of the 19th century there arose a vibrant nonscholarly Jewish culture, it needed a language of expression. Hebrew wasn’t a good candidate; as a classical language, it hadn’t been spoken for several thousand years, and few nonscholars could read it. “And so . . . some of the braver Hebrew writers decided to try their hand at writing in Yiddish,” in which there was literacy. But at the same time Yiddish was the subject of derision. Although he employed it, writer Sholem Abramovitsh “made no pretense: He regarded Yiddish as ugly and unwashed, and adopted it only as a ‘necessary evil,’ a utilitarian means of spreading enlightenment among the masses.”

From this point in the 1850s began the great ascent of Yiddish culture. When waves of anti-Semitism afflicted the Jews of Europe and they sought safety in new lands, they brought their books with them and bought new ones. Yiddish books served as carriers of Jewish culture and memories of the old country, and they also enabled the refugees to learn the ways of their adopted homes.

But that very assimilation contributed to the decline of Yiddish. “In America ... we had a melting pot. Religious differences were okay; cultural and linguistic differences were not.” Thus Yiddish and much of the culture it conveyed began to disappear, and by the mid-1970s Yiddish literature was virtually out of print. Lansky reminds us, that, of course, “Yiddish had not died a natural death.... [O]ne out of every two Yiddish speaking Jews was murdered in the Holocaust, and ... Stalin ordered all of his country’s leading Yiddish writers shot on a single night.” Meanwhile, in America today, Lansky points to “one of the great ironies of contemporary Jewish life: Hasidic and extreme orthodox Jews, the only demographically significant segment of the Jewish population who continue to speak Yiddish and teach the language to their children, are completely hostile to modern Yiddish literature. For them, most Yiddish books are treyf posl, forbidden, unkosher.” Although thousands of American children learn to chant Hebrew each year for their bar and bat mitzvahs, very few learn Yiddish, which plays no role in religion. The resulting disappearance of Yiddish books is no mystery.


Yet Lansky continues to make progress. The National Yiddish Book Center is well along in the process of digitizing the books in its collection, so that the crumbling of their pages no longer endangers a culture, and so that they can be reprinted for sale efficiently and cheaply. And he has embarked on the next chapter -- the translation into English of the most noteworthy examples, with the goal of publishing two or three titles per year.

Since its inception, Yiddish has been a living language, not one of scholarship. As such it has seen birth and ascent, and it has neared its demise. Can one person’s efforts forestall that end? It’s a lot to ask, but readers of Lansky’s book won’t write it off as impossible. *