Tsvishn toyt un lebn: Metaphors of Death and Life in Yiddish Nationalist Discourse
Barry Trachtenberg (University at Albany, New York)
In the present day, discussions of Yiddish language and culture are characterized by simultaneous pronouncements of its imminent “death” and efforts by cultural organizations and university programs to keep it “alive.” One regularly reads headlines in the popular press and on the internet claiming “Yiddish is Alive and Well,” discussing “Yiddish Theatre’s Revival,” or lamenting “The Death of Yiddish.” Indeed, it is nearly impossible to speak of Yiddish without reference to the state of its health and well-being. Such depictions are far from new, however, but extend back to the very first conversations held on behalf of the development of Yiddish in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
This paper is an examination of the tension between the tropes of death and rebirth that was present at the beginning of the movement of linguistic nationalism known as Yiddishism. It begins by pointing to the works of contemporary scholars such as Patrick Geary, Maurice Oleander, and Benedict Anderson to describe how the concept of the “death and renaissance of language” central to all Eastern European Romantic nationalist movements. Then, this talk examines the seminal works of the “founders” of Yiddish nationalism including Nathan Birnbaum, I. L. Peretz, and Chaim Zhitlowski to demonstrate how the ideological pillars of this movement were defined, organized, debated, and promoted in terms of the health of the Yiddish language, culture, and its speakers. It then draws from the key texts of several of the first generation of their “descendants”, including Shmuel Niger, Ber Borochov, Jacob Lestschinsky, and Max Weinreich. In doing so, it demonstrates how many of the first the institutional structures (journals, language conferences, publishing houses, cultural institutions, etc.) erected on behalf of Yiddish were established as a means to come to the “rescue” of the “endangered” Yiddish language.