Book: Adventures in Yiddishland by Jeffrey Shandler

Firstly, let me say that Jeffrey Shandler's 2006 "Adventures in Yiddishland" is a decidedly academic book. It's subtitle is "Postvernacular Language & Culture." It is sometimes written with the dry tone and scholarly jargon of a postgraduate lecture. Mr. Shandler is an academic -- he is the Chair and Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. The book was published by the University of California Press, the same group that published such popular titles as "Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature" and "Crossing Aspectual Frontiers: Emergence, Evolution, and Interwoven Semantic Domains in South Conchucos Quechua Discourse."

That being said, Shandler also collects Yiddish kitsch, which he calls tchotchkes, so he may be an academic, but he's not inaccessible. I found his book to be perfectly readable -- quite enjoyable actually. But, then, I pursued an undergraduate degree in Jewish studies, so it may also be that I'm the right sort of audience for this book.

One of the tip-offs that Shandler is an academic, rather than, say, an activist, is that he has an important central idea and has given it an entirely unsexy name. The phrase he uses, and, as far as I can tell, coined is "postvernacular." And it no doubt is the right word, the exact word for his idea. A vernacular language is, if you'll forgive me quoting Wikipedia, a "native language or native dialect of a specific population," and Yiddish was that, once. For a small portion of Jews -- either old or very religious -- it still is.

But for the rest of us, Yiddish is not our native language. It's not used as an everyday language of communication. In fact, for modern American Jews, Yiddish really has no formal place -- it's not used in the synagogue, nor the summer camps, nor usually the sorts of places where Jews get together to do Jewish things, except sometimes embedded as atomized expressions in English speech. And yet it persists in a variety of ways, and Shandler's book explores the various ways it persists. His tchotchkes are one example. Yiddishists educational programs, another. Klezmer another. It's a deep look into some of the obscure alleyways of modern Judaism, and the author takes great interest in the fact that Yiddish has been embraced both by Judaism's ultra-right and activist LGBT Jews.

Shandler makes the convincing case that Jews have a long history with postvernacular languages: We continued to study Hebrew long after it ceased being a spoken language, thanks to it being the language of the Bible, and we retained Aramaic long after most Jews stopped speaking it, thanks to it being the language of the Talmud. In this book, Shandler looks at the ways Yiddish has been maintained, and the reasons why.

Something goes undiscussed, and it's worth mentioning. Both the Torah and the Talmud are essential Jewish documents, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on your upbringing. (The very Orthodox still learn Aramaic, but, as a boy attending a Reform religious program, I did not.) Yiddish has no similar document, and while the language produced some very fine literature, we do not treat literature in the way we treat holy texts.

Most American Jews would be perfectly satisfied to read I. L. Peretz in translation, and would not feel the need to spend years studying Yiddish to read him in his original language. But most Jews are required to read the Hebrew of the Torah aloud at their Bar or Bat Mitvah, and there are Hebrew prayers at virtually all Jewish events, and so there is both a compelling reason to teach Hebrew and a mechanism for doing so. Further, Hebrew is the national language of Israel, and most modern American Jewish institutions have Zionist leanings, and so there is additional reason to teach the language. This simply does not exist for Yiddish. Or it does, but only in haredi communities that use Yiddish the same way the Amish use Pennsylvania German, as a way of separating themselves from the mainstream world.

Yet Yiddish continues among mainstream Jews. I think this is worth exploring, as Shandler has done so, because it indicates some inchoate value Jews find in the language, even when it isn't the language of sacred texts or a Jewish nation. And Shandler finds that the language is plastic enough to be meaningful to all sorts of Jews for all sorts of reasons. Yiddish is a language of nostalgia for some. A language of activism for others. A language of comedy for many. A language of poetry for a few.

It's good stuff to chew on, especially if you're like me, or, in my case, are me, as I am. And by that I mean: If you're someone who is not just engaged in Yiddish, but wishes to actively encourage its use by other Jews. Some Jews may want to use aspects of the language because it makes them feel more Jewish. Some may want to use aspects of the language because it Judaizes their experiences, as with GLBT Jews and Jewish feminists, who wish to describe the uniquely Jewish aspects of their experience and want to use Jewish language to do so. Some may want to know Yiddish songs, because they feel aesthetically attracted to the music. Or maybe some will want to use Yiddish as a sort of countercultural argot -- it wouldn't be the first time.

Most of these people will not be using Yiddish as a vernacular language -- even for non-Haredi Jews who are fluent in the language, as Shandler points out, must create infrequent opportunities to use Yiddish as a vernacular, and as a result there is something performative about it. So Shandler's book raises all sorts of tantalizing questions about how people currently use Yiddish, how they might use it in the future, and how that might come about.

It just needs a sexier name than postvernacular. But what? What? The Freshest New Beats of Yiddish? Yiddish on Fleek? Yiddish Young Boots? Yiddish AF?

I'm probably not the right person to come up with a sexy name.