I am an admirer of Harold Bloom. Oh, that I had his erudition. In a recent New York Review of Books essay, (The Glories of Yiddish New York Review 11/6/08), he reviews a book by Max Weinreich titled History of the Yiddish Language. While I do not speak Yiddish (or Hebrew or any other foreign language very well), I was fascinated by Bloom’s review.
There were two elements of his analysis of Yiddish that struck a responsive chord. The first is that “irony is endemic” to the language and second that questioning is one of its central features. Endless irony and questioning, both ways of speaking and writing I like to employ. Heavens knows why.
Earlier I wrote about the continuous questioning in the language of Night Train to Lisbon. It was the reason I liked the book so much, a style of speaking and writing that seems rare today, like Yiddish. As far as I can tell, neither Prado or Gregorious was Jewish and I doubt Mercier, the author of Night Train to Lisbon, is either. Who knows?
I greatly enjoyed reading Bloom’s review, The Glories of Yiddish and collected several passages. There follows a selection:
But then, irony is endemic in the very nature of Yiddish, a fusion always conscious of its otherness…
“Yiddish speakers speak not so much with individual referring words as with such clusters of relations, ready-made idioms, quotations and situational responses. Since each word may belong to several heterogeneous or contradictory knots, ironies are always at hand.” Uriel Weinreich
It is not the denotations that the language covers but the emotive and semantic directions of the hearer’s empathy. In this mode of discourse, the overt clash, ironic or clever, between words of different stock languages in one sentence is a major source of meaning, impact, and delight.
The fate of an American Jewish culture that possesses no distinctive spiritual and aesthetic components is difficult either to describe or to prophesy.
If assimilation is defined as a minority’s adoption of the customs, values, and habits of the majority, the American Jews are leagues beyond mere absorption into the cultural diffuseness of their country. I can no longer know (or care) which of my many students are more-or-less Jewish, and many of them do not know either. Should this be deplored? Increasingly I am uncertain.
…my classes are filled by many Asians and Asian-Americans who have replaced Jews as the most alert and able of students.
…the Talmud always is close by, helping to make Yiddish perhaps uniquely the language of questions.
The uncanny familiarity of Yiddish for Jewish…has something to do with its insinuating, questioning quality. Yiddish is the Hamlet of languages: the Prince of Denmark’s play abounds with questionable enigmas and a plethora of instances of the word “questions.”
Though Yiddish and Talmud share the style of generally answering questions with fresh questions, I cannot imagine the Talmud written in Yiddish.
Neither American nor Israeli Jews are now a text-centered people, any more than American Gentiles are. Deep reading wanes, and bilingualism is a vanishing phenomenon.
The vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday soon will be no more.