Week 33: The Bad Essay

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 224 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 126 hours
I have reviewed 2,788 individual flashcards

Eagle-eyed mathematicians among you might notice from my stats above that I missed a few days of study this week and did not add many new cards to my flashcard deck. I am having a bit of a problem, and it is less one of will than it is one of sleep. I adjusted my schedule a few months ago to take my dog out at 6 am -- previously I had been taking him out at 7 am, but sometimes he seemed frantic and I did not want him to be uncomfortable.

This has turned out to be unworkable. It simply threw my schedule off to such a degree that I was not getting the amount of sleep I needed, which led to a lot of naps, which led to me sleeping when I would otherwise add new flashcards, or study, or just have the sort of life someone has when they are awake.

Additionally, because of a backlog of words and proverbs I was having trouble memorizing, my study time just kept ballooning. One must be a bit organized if one if going to study a foreign language on one's lonesome, but, in this instance, one was not so very organized that one could handle both exhaustion and increasing time commitments.

I have started taking the dog out at 7 am again, and he doesn't mind it. I don't think he desperately needed to pee. I just think dogs are crepuscular, and so are full of pep at dawn and twilight, and when we first got the dog dawn was at 6 am. Now dawn is at 7 am and he seems perfectly happy to sleep until then.

I have also changed my program. I have reduced the amount of Yiddish proverbs I teach myself to a few per day, and have started to learn vocabulary from a specific Yiddish instruction book. And that brings me to what I like to call "The Bad Essay."

The book is called "Say It in Yiddish," is a small Yiddish phrasebook, and was authored by linguist Uriel Weinreich, along with Beatrice Weinreich, who was an author and ethnographer, as well as being Uriel's wife. Uriel, in particular, is a well-respected name among Yiddishists. Although he died at the terribly young age of 40 in 1967, in his short life he managed to contribute an awful lot to the study of Yiddish in America, including having authored a book on college Yiddish in 1949 and an English-Yiddish dictionary published posthumously.

"Say It In Yiddish" is also the subject of the Bad Essay I mentioned. It was written by author Michael Chabon in 1997 and published in Harper's under the title "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts." Chabon had purchased the book some years earlier, and it had long perplexed him. He called it "Probably the saddest book that I own" and detailed his confusion that there would be a book of everyday expressions in Yiddish put out after the Holocaust. If I can pull of paragraph that seems to summarize Chabon's bemusement, it is this:
What were they thinking, the Weinreichs? Was the original 1958 Dover edition simply the reprint of some earlier, less heartbreakingly implausible book? At what time in the history of the world was there a place of the kind that the Weinreichs imply, a place where not only the doctors and waiters and trolley conductors spoke Yiddish, but also the airline clerks, travel agents, ferry captains, and casino employees?
Chabon got pushback on this from the Yiddish community. I don't know how much, but, knowing Yiddishists, a little can feel like a lot. He claims YIVO complained to him, they say they never did, but whoever complained, it is understandable. Because when Chabon asks "What were they thinking, the Weinreichs?", it's a question with an answer, and it's an answer he didn't look for.

Jeffrey Shandler provides the answer in "Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture." Firstly, he points out that this was not a project instigated by the Weinreichs, but instead by the president of Dover, and that there was a time and place when the phrasebook could be used. The time was 1958, when the book was published, and the place was Israel, where there was a sizable number of Yiddish speakers, as there were in Paris, Montreal, Mexico City, and other places in the world that had a large settlement of European Jews.

Despite Chabon's assumption, Yiddish was not then a language of ghosts, and still isn't. So Chabon's essay was built on a false premise, albeit one that remains popular: That the Holocaust exterminated Yiddish, and any phrasebook that came out after the Holocaust was an act of invention, an act of pretending there was a world of Yiddish speakers still out there.

Here's the thing, though. Very little of Chabon's essay is dedicated to "Say It In Yiddish." Most of it is dedicated to him attempting to imagine where this book might have been useful, his own act of pretending. He imagines Jews moving to Alaska after the Holocaust and setting up an arctic world, a sort of alternate Israel based on Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish culture. Here is how he describes it:
It is a cold, northern land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer. The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin, Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us, whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world. It would be absurd to speak Hebrew, that tongue of spikenard and almonds, in such a place. This Yisroel–or maybe it would be called Alyeska–is a kind of Jewish Sweden, social-democratic, resource rich, prosperous, organizationally and temperamentally far more akin to its immediate neighbor, Canada, then to its more freewheeling benefactor far to the south. Perhaps, indeed, there has been some conflict, in the years since independence, between the United States and Alyeska.

If this sounds familiar, it is because this essay led to Chabon's book "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," his multiple-award-winning 2007 novel. It is possible to level the same criticisms of the novel that Yiddishists did against the Bad Essay: That it presupposes that modern Yiddish is such an impossibility that the only way to engage in a literary exploration of the subject was to invent an alternative world.

This is a fair cop, but, at the same time, Chabon's book is one of the few truly popular works of modern fiction that takes seriously the idea of a secular Jewish world informed by both Yiddish and by Eastern European Jewish culture. The book is a vast act of imagination dedicated to the subject of Yiddish, and I haven't crunched any numbers, but I suspect that there are quite a few people out there who this book inspired to take an interest in Yiddish, and who now have an idea of what a modern world would look like were Ashkenazi American Jews to embrace a less-assimilated version of Ashkenazi Jewishness.

If I take a lesson from this, it is as follows: It is okay to be wrong about Yiddish sometimes. Of course, I did not have to work too hard to come to this conclusion, as I am fairly sure that most of my engagement in Yiddish is wrong in fundamental ways. But somehow I don't think we would have wound up with "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" if Chabon had not been wrong about Yiddish, if he had understood that there was a post-war resurgence of Yiddish, so much so that in many of the biggest cities the language could serve as a sort of Jewish Esperanto: One need not speak a dozen languages to get along in Israel, Mexico City, Paris, and Montreal. One merely need to speak Yiddish and find the Jewish part of town, and all of a sudden knowing how to say "Where is a hotel?" or "I need a doctor" became very useful.

In fact, Chabon has inspired me. I decided to work my way through "Say It In Yiddish" specifically because of his essay, because I wondered what value the book might have nowadays to a lone Yiddish student studying on his own in Omaha, Nebraska.

I'll report back.