As members of the progressive Jewish left continue to raise their fists while marching on behalf of movements that largely hate Jews and despise Israel, a beachhead of cultural pride and resuscitation was erected this week in lower Manhattan at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The annual festival “Yiddish New York” opened right before Christmas and will close out 2022 with a sampling of the old-world Jewish culture of Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement (what is now Ukraine). It will involve the new world too. Yiddish made its way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and served as the household language for many American Jews well into the 1960s.
Visitors to the festival can, both live and virtually, discover Yiddish with the world’s finest exemplars of the language and culture, including scholars, folklorists, dancers, actors, visual artists, curators, authors, activists and, especially, the excellent musicians who have, for decades, showcased the lush melodies and bouncy rhythms of klezmer music.
Indeed, the festival kicked-off with a viewing of Eleanor Antin’s 1992 Yiddish silent film, “A Man Without a World,” featuring an original score, played live on stage, by its composers—Alicia Svigals, the world’s foremost klezmer violinist, and the pianist Donald Sosin.
If you are fixated on the identity politics of others, and wonder whether Jews should be represented on the continuum, then Yiddish is the place to start. All throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews living in Europe, Russia and the United States produced a rich and varied fusion of literature, music, dramatic arts and scholarship.
It is an aesthetic culture that largely emanated from Poland. Of course, we know what happened there, and why most Jews today remain mute and largely ignorant of their mother tongue. The Holocaust claimed the lives of three million Polish Jews—a staggering 90% of the Jewish population of Poland. Of the six million Jews murdered in total, more than half were fluent Yiddish speakers.
Not just the Jewish people were consumed in those flames. Jewish culture was a casualty too.
In 1948, Israel became the cornerstone of Jewish life. Almost instantly, the new nation spelled the death knell of Yiddish as a spoken language. It pulled a switcheroo with the more liturgical Hebrew. Ever since then, the number of Yiddish speakers has been in decline.
A most precipitous decline, at that. In New York City alone, between 1885 and 1914, there were over 150 Yiddish-language publications. Today there are fewer than 10 nationally.
“Yiddish New York” is not alone in safeguarding and promoting the language and culture. Other entities are committed to the cause, such as the Yiddish Book Center and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, with its phenomenally successful Broadway run of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish. And for scholarship, there is the YIVO Library & Archives Collections.
It’s all God’s work. Someone has to do it. After all, his Chosen People, especially in America, are doing a terrible job accepting the responsibility that comes with the title.
In this mecca of multicultural diversity in which we live, where different identities, languages and rituals are celebrated, Jews have lagged miserably behind.
Others have lustfully reclaimed their cultural history. Jews, however, seem to recoil from the old world of Yiddish culture. Everything about it reminds them of their grandparents or great-grandparents—the poverty, insularity and unsophistication that once and still does define immigrant life in America. Rather than embrace that past, Jews are apparently embarrassed by it.
No other immigrant group assimilated so seamlessly into the American mainstream as did Jews. The endgame was becoming true Americans; the trick was to lose the Yiddish accents and Jewish mannerisms. Don’t flaunt the rituals. Discard the religious symbols and garb. Anglicize the names. Join the right clubs (start playing golf). Bash Israel as a dastardly human rights violator. Donate to the ADL so it can vindicate the rights of the transgender.
Oh, and get nose jobs.
The language of the Jews, despite its literary pedigree, actually became a running joke in Hollywood, with agents and moguls referring to one another as machers and mensches, schleppers and schmucks.
When you add rampant intermarriage to this cross-cultural homogenization of Jewish life, it is no wonder that Jews have diluted themselves into a delirious oblivion. How can a proudly authentic Jewish identity possibly survive amid all this self-obliterating immersion? It should come as no surprise that Jews are now grouped as blandly privileged and dreadfully oppressive white people. Assimilation is the new Scarlet A, and Jews have been wearing it all too well.
Meanwhile, Yiddish was allowed to die even as Jews took lessons learning Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. The once-mother tongue received a tongue lashing from the very people it was created to ennoble and protect. Jews probably know more about the Apache Indians of the Great Plains than they do about eastern European Jewry and Yiddish culture.
After decades of wanting to be someone else, Jews may not know who they are anymore. The preservation of a once-flourishing Jewish culture has never been a priority. Instead, Jewish artists continued to write novels, pen plays, paint canvases and make films, but with themes, images and plots devoid of Jewish soul.
Perhaps that’s why Jews are so agreeable in demonstrating their woke bona fides. They have no other bona fides to claim, aside from dancing the hora at weddings and ordering smoked salmon on their bagels. Nothing anchors them to the Jewish people other than some twisted notion that tikkun olam commands them to save the world for everyone except Jews.
Which begs the question: After all this cultural thinning and Israel-bashing, are many Jews still even Jews?
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and distinguished university professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled Saving Free Speech… From Itself.
Originally published by Jewish Journal.
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