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Rede über die jiddische Sprache

An essay ("A speech on the Yiddish language") by this author. You can read the original here.

Before we come to the first verses of the Eastern Jewish poets I would like to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that you understand a great deal more of our idiom than you think.  

I don't have any real worries about the effect it will have on each one of you tonight, yet I want the effect to be liberated if it is supposed to be so. This cannot occur, however, if many among you remain so afraid of our idiom as to summon this fear to your features and gestures. I do not speak of those who arrogantly oppose it. But fear of our idiom, fear coupled with a certain resistance on this basis is, in the end, quite understandable.

Were we to take a cautiously fleeting glance at our circumstances in Western Europe, this would be our position. Everything, so to speak, in its turn. We live in rather harmonious contentment; we get along when necessary; we do without one another when we see fit, and even in such conditions we still get along. From such order then who could understand the confusion our idiom presents and who would have any desire to do so?

Our idiom is the newest European language, only about four hundred years old and, in many ways, much newer. It still has not formed locutions with the clarity that we need. Its expression is short and fast. It has no grammar texts. Enthusiasts try to write grammars but our idiom is continuously being spoken and modified; it cannot rest. People cannot let it sit and pose for grammarians to depict. It is composed solely of foreign words. Yet these words also do not lie inert within the language, they display the haste and liveliness with which they were introduced. The migrations of peoples have filtered our idiom from one end to another. All this German, Hebrew, French, English, Slavic, Dutch, Rumanian, and even Latin is accepted into our idiom with unheedful curiosity; there is already enough power behind it to hold the languages together in this state. Thus no reasonable person would think of making this idiom into a world language, as close as it might actually come to being one. Only the cant of thieves enjoys extracting individual words because it has more use for them than for locutions and phrases. And because our idiom has long since been a language held in contempt.      

Amidst this linguistic back-and-forth one does find some elements of known language rules. For example, our idiom originates from that time in which Middle High German passed into New High German. There were choices in the forms to employ, with Middle High German taking one form and our idiom the other. Or perhaps we could say that our idiom developed Middle High German forms with more logical consistence than did Modern German. One example is our idiom's rendition of "we are," mir seien (New High German: wir sind), a more natural development from Middle High German's sîn. Or we could say that our idiom stuck to Middle High German forms despite the rise of Modern German. Once a word entered the ghetto, it did not hasten to leave. For that reason we are left with forms such as Kerzlach, Blümlach, and Liedlach (New High German: Kerzchen, Blümchen, Liedchen, diminutives of candles, flowers, and songs, respectively).

And now into this language structure of rule and randomness flow dialects of our idiom. True enough, all our idiom can be said to be composed of dialect, even the written language, if one actually has mastered the idiom in its written form. With all this evidence I feel that I have, at least provisionally, convinced most of you, ladies and gentleman, that you would not understand a word of our idiom.

Expect no help from the explanation of the compositions. If you cannot understand our idiom at this point no cursory explanation would be of aid. At best you would understand the explanation and note that it dealt with a difficult matter. Everything will run in this vein. For example, I can say to you: 

Mr. Löwy will now, as he actually will, read to you three poems. First, "Die Grine" by Rosenfeld. These Grine are the German Greens, the Greenhorns, the new settlers in America. These Jewish emigrants proceed with their sullied luggage in a small group through a New York street. A crowd gathers, of course, stares at them in amazement, follows them, and then laughs. From this perspective our agitated poet then extrapolates these street scenes to include Jewry and mankind. One has the impression that as our poet speaks this same group of emigrants stumbles, although they remain quite far and out of earshot. 

The second poem is by Frug and called "Sand and stars" (Sand und Sterne). In a bitter interpretation of a Biblical promise, we are likened to the sand beside the sea and the stars in the sky. And while we are certainly stepped on like the sand, when will the part about the stars come true?  

The third poem is by Frischmann and called "The night is still" (Die Nacht ist still). One night a young couple chances upon a prudish scholar who is going to temple. Startled and fearing that have been betrayed, they then calm and comfort one another.  

Now you see that such explanations have done no good.

On the basis of these clarifications you would look in the readings for what you already know – and what really is present you would not see. Fortunately, everyone who knows German can also understand our idiom since, quite broadly speaking, the external comprehensibility of our idiom is formed from German. This is an advantage over all other languages on earth, but there is quite rightly also a disadvantage: it appears to be almost impossible to translate our idiom into German. The connections between the two are so tender and meaningful that they do not need to be torn apart right away. Whenever our idiom is translated into German, only something insubstantial remains. Now, translate our idiom into French and some of it can be conveyed to the French, but in German this would be destroyed. Toit for example is not tot, nor does Blüt mean Blut.

But it is not only through German that you, ladies and gentleman, can understand our idiom – you may come a step closer. Not too long ago, at least, arose the reliable business language of German Jews. You can find this language whether you live in town or in the country; you can find it more in the East or the West as a closer or more distant precursor of our idiom, and many gradations have remained. For that reason the historical development of our idiom could have been traced as much in the depths of history as in the surface of the present time.     

And you will come very close to our idiom when you consider that within you lies not only knowledge but power – power which allows you to understand our idiom in a sensitive manner. Only here can an explanation help; only here can information calm you so that you no longer feel excluded; only here would you be able to realize you cannot complain that you do not understand our idiom. This is paramount since with every complaint, our understanding and sympathy weaken. If you were not to move at all you would suddenly find yourself amidst our idiom. Once you have understood it – and our idiom is everything: words, Hasidic melodies, and the very essence of this Eastern Jewish actor – you will no longer be able to recall your previous peace of mind. And once you have sensed the true unity within our idiom, so strong that you become afraid – no longer of the idiom, but of yourself – you will not be able to bear these fears alone. You will not be able to bear them alone unless you also gain confidence from this idiom, confidence that can withstand this fear because it is stronger. Enjoy it as best you can! And if you lose this confidence tomorrow or later – and how could it remain in your memory from one single evening of readings! – then I hope that you will also have lost your fears. Because, after all, we do not wish to punish you.      

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