Yiddish Fire

"It is no mere coincidence that 100 percent of the great secular writers grew up in traditionally religious Ashkenazic society. The Yiddish that is worth saving is rich in cultural, historic, and traditionally Jewish nuance; it cannot be fathomed in a cultural vacuum, with the words and grammar being abstracted out of the entire culture as a kind of fetish. Whoever has the fire in his or her spirit to become a Yiddish master has to learn a lot of classical Hebrew in its Ashkenazic incarnation and some Aramaic; he or she must be well acquainted with various ancient texts that are as alive as today's date to the Yiddish ear, as well as a religious life that he or she may not be a part of. Is it worth it? Of course, but only if the fire is there. It cannot be demanded or proclaimed. The beneficiary is not Yiddish but the people fortunate enough to master a profound yet fun language that brings so many treasures and delights, of language and literature both, to the user."
—Dovid Katz "Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish"

Not having much love for, or belief in, cultural organicism, I wouldn't put it quite this way. I'd put the proportion of "100 percent" a bit lower. But not much. Maybe 90 percent. After all Dovid Katz himself, son of the great leftist writer Menke Katz, is hardly the product of traditional religious education, and he has himself written some mightily fine short stories in Yiddish. But the point stands. Even many of the great atheistic writers like Joseph Greenspan, Berish Weinstein, Isaac Rontsh grew up with religious life that they later reacted against. This is a lot of what makes Yiddish literature a rich experience. In order to get the most out of a lot of (avowedly secular and often even atheistic) Yiddish literature, I have found myself reading and absorbing religious texts that I would otherwise have had no use for.  It's like what happened in my childhood with the Christian prayers I said in Church Slavonic vis-a-vis the secular Russian literature I read. Only without the childhood resonance. I will never say El Mole Raḥamim walking up to somebody's grave, or intone the Kol Nidre. But they're worth knowing as background for the same reason the King James Bible is worth knowing as background for 18th and 19th century English literature, only ten times so. When Mani Leyb references the Kol Nidre to implicate white barbarism in the act of lynching a black man, for example. 

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