On Being a Yiddish Hobbyist

If there is a bane of existence, it is tunnels. I live in Omaha, where there are a lot of tunnels. The town was originally very bluffy, but was graded in the early 20th century, and so a lot of houses were just left on little hills and tunnels were built to exit out onto the streets.

The whole city was built on a network of tunnels that were used for various public works, from water pipes to electrical wires to sewers -- every so often a street collapses into a sinkhole and it is possible to see that Omaha's streets are essentially a sagging sheet of pavement laid out over a network of tunnels. And there were little dugouts under houses that weren't so much tunnels as they were fruit cellars. If your house is old enough, you might have one of those. There were also some tunnels used to move underground from building to building -- a lot of downtown was connected in this way.

And in Omaha, everybody seems to think these tunnels were used by bootleggers to movie illicit merchandise. I am the research specialist at our local historical society, and must field questions about tunnels all the time. In fact, I'm giving an interview on the subject today, despite having told the person who is interviewing me that I am a spoilsport on the subject.

And I am a spoilsport because, overwhelmingly, these tunnels were not used by bootleggers. Omaha was a town that ignored Prohibition, which it did so easily because we had a political boss, Tom Dennison, who was in cahoots with the city's mayor and police department. There is simply no need to run bottles of booze through tunnels when it is much easier to load them up in trucks and drive them to wherever they need to go, especially when you can do this without any fear of arrest. And I tell people this, and they look depressed, and then go back to happily discussing how Omaha tunnels were used by bootleggers. I will never dispel the myth, and it will always be a thorn in my side.

I mention this as prelude, because I know what a pain in the ass hobbyists can be. They all clump up around a few subjects that they find especially exciting or interesting, some of which are pure urban legend. There is a persistent myth about an albino farm in a park north of the city that is perplexing and incomprehensible. I don't know why Omahans believe albinos live on farms, neither do I know why this scares people.

Hobbyists come in to do genealogical research, and I can see they are doing it wrong, and all of them insist on famous ancestors. Hobbyists research their own family home, determined to discover that it was historically important, and overlooking the things that make it really interesting, which are usually more quotidian but nonetheless valuable. Hobbyists call me to donate a newspaper about Kennedy getting shot, which we do not need another copy of, and it turns out they just threw out decades worth of private correspondence, which would be invaluable. Hobbyists get their facts wrong, go about researching history in a way that is frankly bizarre, and often construct strange, conspiracy-driven alternate histories based on faulty research.

And that's what I am to Yiddish. I know it. I am a lone hobbyist living in Omaha, studying the language on my own. I am not an academic on the subject. I am not even a Yiddishist. I'm just a lone weirdo with a peculiar leisure-time activity. I have known a lot of autodidacts in my time, and know just how weird and incomplete and misinformed their self-education often is, and know I am likely the same regarding Yiddish. I'm literally inventing my own way of learning Yiddish, and doing so on the fly. I don't have the background to know if anything I am studying is credible, and I don't have a community of scholars and experts to bounce my work off of. I don't even have native speakers in my life, but for the coarse Yinglish I grew up hearing my father speak.

And yet.

And yet, after you work at a historical society long enough, you start to develop a grudging appreciation for the hobbyist. Regional history is often mostly in their hands, because nobody else cares enough to do the work. Certainly nobody else is going to construct their family tree for them, or research their house. As a result, history is personal to them, rather than academic, and tends to be a living thing, rather than a museum piece.

Hobbyists sometimes engage with the past creatively. It's how I got my start in history -- as a playwright rather than a researcher. And those creative works may not be great history, but they can also serve as great popularizers of history. As a historian, I wince at "Gangs of New York," the Herbert Asbury book that republished rumor and urban legend as fact. But as a creative person, it delights me. It produced the Martin Scorsese film, of course, but has also influenced more than that -- it created new interest in genuine scholarship regarding the era, as well as new creative works. I've done both: I spent a long time researching Mose the Fireboy, a character that appeared in the books that turns out to have been based on a real person, and I also wrote a play based on another character, Sadie the Goat, who almost certainly wasn't a real person.

This blog is an experiment in Yiddish as a hobby, even knowing all the attendant problems and irritations that this guarantees. It's an activist blog, in the sense that it is intended to encourage others to explore Yiddish, and Yiddish culture, as a hobby. And this is deliberate. Because I want to encourage greater use of Yiddish, to popularize it, to encourage its continued use as the language of secular Judaism. This won't happen if the language is an academic subject, because there are a lot of people, like me, who don't have the money or the access to Yiddish in the academy. Moreover, I think it is important to encourage post-vernacular uses of Yiddish. As much as I appreciate the Yiddishist dream of restoring Yiddish as a widely spoken Jewish language, I don't think the years of study and Yiddish immersion that this requires is reasonable or even possible for many modern Jews.

I don't know that I can actually encourage Yiddish as a hobby. I think it is possible, because the popularity of books like Michael Wex's "Born to Kvetch" suggests there is still a great deal of  interest Yiddish out there. But even if there is interest, I might not be the one to popularize. I spent years in Minneapolis as a cultural critic, aggressively lobbying for the sorts of thing I thought Minnesotans should celebrate, and was mostly ignored. It may be that my particular tastes are just too far off the beaten path for others to share.

And there is another risk: That I am successful. That a growing group of Yiddish hobbyists follow my lead, memorizing long lists of Yiddish words for sex organs and gathering in bars to create Slivovitz cocktails. I know these people, because they're the same ones who ask me about tunnels. They will get Yiddish wrong. They will be interested in things that aren't important and ignore things that are important. They're the same people who took the word "chutzpa," which was a Yiddish expression of indignance at impudence, and turned it into an expression of approval for someone's nerve and mettle.

But they get to. That's what happens with a living language -- it's defined by the people who use it, even if they completely reverse a word's meaning, as has happened with the word "literally" in the English language. It's the hard lesson I have learned on the subject of community building, which is something I have been quite interested in in the past few years. I learned, to my chagrin, that a community isn't developed, but develops on its own, in the spaces where it is allowed to develop. And a community has its own agenda and interests, and has the right to those agendas and interests, and the best you can do is add your voice, rather than try to steer.

If there ever is a community of Yiddish hobbyists, they are going to decide what Yiddish means to them and even what words mean. They will decide how much Yiddish they want to know and how they use it. And not only is that their right, there literally is no other option but to let that happen. And how can I complain? It's what I am doing.

So here's a starting point: The Yiddish word for tunnel is "tunel."