_Vanity Fair_’s “New Yiddishists”?

Mama-Loshn has definitely taken some heavy blows in the last century. The blandishments of America led millions to abandon it for English, while in Russia, Yiddish itself was used a medium of anti-Jewish cultural propaganda until economic dislocation and the promise of a bright, new future as Soviet citizens did much of the same (and the Black Years didn’t help). Hitler took care of most of those who were left in Eastern Europe. And, lehovdil, Israel did a number on the language itself. Those people for whom it remains a vernacular (e.g., Hasidim) are ignored or reviled by its scholars, and even many Jews are unaware that Yiddish is actually a language and not merely a pastiche of comical sounding words that allegedly add both hilarity and ethnic street cred to any humorous banter.

Through all this, however, Yiddish had its literature, a corpus as rich and diverse as any of the great national canons to arise out of the 19th century. Even if Yiddish were to disappear, or at the very least, continued in such a way as to ignore secular works, the status of the great Yiddishists–stretching from Sholom Aleichem to Chaim Grade–would be unchanging. Indeed, the very fact that actual Yiddish literature is so moribund today should suggest that the pantheon should remain unchallenged. But now, adding insult to a century of injury, is a particularly moronic bit of doggerel from Vanity Fair praising the works of the "New Yiddishists."

Now, Jewdar is not here to criticize Michael Chabon or Nathan Englander or any of the others mentioned in the piece. Some of their work we’ve liked, some–like Kavalier and Klay–we’ve absosmurfly loved. But liking it or not, these writers are not Yiddishists. "Yiddishists," pretty much by definition, are writers whose work is, you know, in Yiddish, or at least concerned with Yiddish. Even by the most liberal interpretation, there has to be some greater comittment to Yiddish language and culture than Jonathan Safran Foer mentioning "tuches" half a dozen times in Everything is Illuminated(we actually liked the book quite a lot, but the parts we liked were actually the ones with the Ukrainian sheygetz; the Jewish–sorry "Yiddishist" parts were gornisht mit gornisht.)

To our mind, the real problem is that Jewish culture has been so devalued by bad literary and art critics that a word like Yiddishist no longer has any value. For years, the word "talmudic" has been used to describe any Jewish artist’s work in order to lend it some veneer of Jewishness when it has none. "His paintings have a real talmudic quality to them…" Meaningless, but there it is. The problem is that if a writer with no Jewish content is "talmudic," what can we say about one whose–English language–work is laden with Jewishness? Apparently, they are "Yiddishists."

The whole article reads like the author came up with an idea, and then noodged a bunch of people–many of whom should know better–to say something about the "New Yiddishists." And what pearls of wisdom were dropped? Apparently, the New Yiddishists aren’t angry at Jewish culture, they’re asking "what does it mean to be a Jew in the modern world," and they are "reluctant to see themselves as a cohesive group." Are we nuts, or is their nothing that distinguishes "the New Yiddishists" from an 8th grade Hebrew school class? And is it possible that the reason why the writers profiled don’t see themselves as a cohesive group is because they aren’t? It doesn’t do much for the argument that one of the main writers cited–Jonathan Safran Foer–has actually only written one book involving a Jewish theme, and another’s most recent work is Civil War era historical fiction, which involves Jews, and is reasonably modern, but is that really what the above quote was addressing?

Of course we know, "Yiddish" just means "Jewish." But if that’s all you mean, then simply say "Jewish." The article would have been just as significant (or insignificant) had they simply been referred to as the "New Jewish writers." Instead, the piece’s author does nothing to enlighten the reader about these writers; all he does is further debase whatever currency Yiddish still has left. And we’re going to go out on a limb here and suggest that at least some of the authors mentioned in the piece have enough appreciation of Jewish culture to reject the term themselves.

We’ll be honest and confess that there’s a part of us that figures that we should jump on this bandwagon. After all, we’ve co-authored a pretty Jewish book (and one that uses various Yiddish words, though we made sure to leave out "tuchis."). We’ve studied Yiddish (though would never pretend to speak it), and we claim a certain amount of responsibility for Heeb’s language column (except for tushy-shtup; that was all Dreidel Hustler). Surely, we’ve got at least as much claim to being a "New Yiddishist" as Jonathan Safran Foer, whose second book wasn’t even about the Tribe (and we want to make clear we have no issue with him, and we hear he’s a lovely fellow, its just that his was one of the names mentioned). But tempting as it may be to get cards embossed with the words "Jewdar, New Yiddishist," we think we’ll follow the lead of UNC professor (and someone who actually has some claim to being a Yiddishist) Jonathan Boyarin, who, when we informed him of the Vanity Fair piece after shul on Pesach, responded completely untalmudically, "nebbich."

What do you think?

About The Author


The Tel Aviv-born, Milwaukee-bred Jewdar has a bachelors' from the University of Wisconsin, a Masters from NYU, and an Honorable Discharge from the US Army, where he spent two years as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division. He's the co-author of "The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies", the Humor Editor of Heeb Magazine, and a watcher of TV. Smarter than most funny people, funnier than most smart people, he lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and two sons.

17 Responses

  1. ModernTribeShopkeeper

    Great article Jewdar, which leads me to ask you and all of us a question — what ARE we? — all of us doing New Jewish Stuff or is there a “we”? I know Melich Heeb probably doesn’t want to join ranks with the rest of “us”. However, I would argue “we” ARE

  2. ModernTribeShopkeeper

    Let me add: we are beyond “Jewish hipster” which is def. not ModernTribe and, to me, signifies the most superficial (and passe) New Jewish Stuff.

  3. furioussquirrel

    JSF’s stuff has nothing to do with Yiddish, agreed, and I think the author’s macro point is a good one. But if you’ve read Dara Horn’s books, especially The World to Come, Yiddishist is an accurate appellation. I feel like this is one of those articles-in

  4. spinsker

    This is actually an old debate. The history of Yiddish culture is full of people who were NOT born and raised with Yiddish as mameloshen (Yiddish for mother tongue) but leaned it and championed it. Besides, this topic has been thoroughly studied and argu

  5. jewdar

    This is not what that debate is about. I have no problem with someone who wasn’t born and raised speaking Yiddish learning it and championing it, but the writers portrayed in the article (at least most of them) don’t fall under that description. Certain

  6. jewdar

    In fact, we’ll go further in agreeing with you, Spinsker, and note that one doesn’t even have to be a Jew to be a Yiddishist, precisely because of its cultural-linguistic signficance, and there have been a number of prominent non-Jewish Yiddishists, like

  7. spinsker

    Well, yes – you don’t have to be a Jew do be a Yiddishist. At the same time, obviously Yiddishism is not only about the language (as your two slightly contradictory comments show). What makes Yiddish unique is this impossibility to disentangle the languag

  8. jewdar

    Jewdar’s not sure what contradictory comments we made, and Jewdar has never read Dara Horn’s work, but being a “Yiddishist” is about more than using “Yiddishisms,” or being full of Yiddish culture. By that standard, Jewdar’s a Yiddishist. The entire Yes

  9. savethedeli

    I’m the aforementioned author (David Sax) of the VF piece , aka the “moronic bit of doggerel” you rip into with such bravado. It’s an honor to be torn asunder by one of my tribesman. Thank you. I feel like Roth at Yeshiva.

    Couldn’t say that I didn’t

  10. spinsker

    savethedeli – well said…but please be careful not to be so silly and state that “There aren’t any new native born Yiddish speakers and writers today. That distinction’s irrelevant.” There are more than a handful of them in the hasidic world and out

  11. savethedeli

    Spinsker, your point is well taken and I apologize for getting too silly with the above comment. There are indeed several Yiddish writers, including my friend Michael Wex, who are in the here and now. I wasn’t trying to insinuate that it was a “dead lan

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