Page 91 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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— T
h e
u t u r e
o f
id d ish
There is no exception to the rule that literature as an art form
can be created only in the language of the people. Russian
aristocrats spoke French for generations and often did not permit
their children to learn Russian lest it spoil their French accent.
But as long as they used French the Russians have not created
a single work of art in this language. They read French literature,
imitated the French, nourished themselves on spiritual remnants.
But from the moment the Russians began to write in their own
tongue, there arose among them Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoi, Dos-
toevsky, Lermontov, Turgenev—literary giants revered by the
Russian people and by mankind everywhere. Polish aristocrats
spoke French even longer than the Russian nobility. But I am
unaware of a single important literary work created by the
French-speaking Poles. Kochanowski, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Rey-
mont, Sienkiewicz, all wrote in Polish.
Jews were not the only ones who called their language “jargon.”
Russians, Poles, even Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and
Italians in earlier eras designated the language of their masses
as a “vulgar” language. For centuries intellectuals wrote a crip-
pled Latin. But only the “vulgar” languages produced Dante,
Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Milton, Rabelais, Moliere, Racine, Les-
sing, Goethe and Schiller.
The difference between Jews and other peoples was that long
after the others abandoned their prejudices towards the mother
tongue, a number of Jews still continued to spit into the well
from which they drank. To this very day one hears that Yiddish
is a “jargon,” a German dialect, a hodgepodge. In this respect
Jews are more backward than other people. Millions of Jews
still believe in assimilation, while some still look upon Yiddish
as a hostile rival of Hebrew; and since Hebrew has been revived,
Yiddish should be buried.
The truth is that not only has Yiddish produced works of high
artistic merit but even the works of lesser artistic quality and
the numerous memoirs, press articles, party literature represent
an incalculable abundance of Jewish history and culture. Also
the best Hebrew writing of the last few centuries bears distinc-
tive Yiddish characteristics and can be understood only if one
is conversant with Yiddish. Hasidic books are written in Hebrew
but they are full of Yiddish idioms and Yiddish expressions.
The profound influence which Feierberg, Peretz Smolenskin,
Bialik, Brenner, Agnon, Zeitlin, Frishman and other Hebrew
writers had upon Hebrew readers was not unrelated to the fact
that these writers thought in Yiddish even when they wrote in
Hebrew, and kept on portraying the Jew of the Galut, his sor-
rows, his hopes, his doubts. So did Mendele, Sholom Aleichem,
Peretz, Schneour, Berkowitch, Smilansky, Schoffman, Berdyczew-
ski, Sackler, Aaron Zeitlin, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and many others.