Dr. Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, grew up as “a native listener” of Yiddish, “among grandparents who were native speakers of the language and parents who were sometimes speakers.”
It wasn’t until after finishing college at Swarthmore (he graduated in 1978, with a degree in comparative literature) that he decided to study the language seriously. It was an outgrowth of his post-college interests. “I was reading works of Yiddish literature in translation,” he said. “I thought it had to be better to read them in the original.”
He started taking Yiddish classes at the YIVO Institute, and then went on to earn a doctorate in Yiddish studies at Columbia University.
“The more I studied the more I realized this was a vastly interesting field in terms of its literature, in terms of the nature of the language itself, and how it developed and varied over different times and places and communities,” he said.
Last year, Oxford University Press published Dr. Shandler’s book “Yiddish: Biography of a Language”; next week, Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Jewish Life will host an online discussion about the book between him and Dr. Josh Lambert of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. (See below.)
The idea for the book came from the publisher, which previously had published “biographies” of Dutch and German.
“It’s interesting to think of a language as if it were a person,” Dr. Shandler said. “Certainly there’s quite a wide range of conceptualizing Yiddish as if it were some kind of person.”
As he writes in the book’s introduction, “It is remarkable how often people have spoken about Yiddish as if it were a kind of person. They variously characterize the language as a mother, an orphan, a maidservant, a seductress, a deviant, a muse, a laborer, an invalid, a foreigner, a magician, even a ghost.”
This led him to ask: “What are the implications of this wide range of portrayals? How do they inspire—and complicate—relating the story of Yiddish as the narrative of a human being, as a biography?”
Where the Dutch and German volumes are organized as conventional histories, more or less in chronological order, “I decided to take a different approach,” Dr. Shandler said. Instead, he organized the book thematically, according to topics that might fit a standard biographical profile.
Accordingly, the table of contents begins with chapters on “Date and Place of Birth,” “Family Background,” “Residence,” “Name,” and “Gender,” and concludes with “Occupation,” “Political Affiliation,” “Personality,” and “Life Expectancy.”
Dr. Shandler offers no clear answer to the question of the origins of Yiddish.
“The further you go back in time, the less documentation there is of origins,” he said. “In every language it’s a matter for speculation by scholars, but they are speculations. To me what was really interesting about this question was that nobody really asks that question of where and when does Yiddish start until the early 19th century. That’s when Western European scholars are beginning to ask where does language come from. This is a modern question. The different theories tell us as much about who does the theorizing as it does about the language.
“Wherever you decide its story begins, it has a remarkable history. At its peak at the eve of World War II, you have more Jews speaking Yiddish than have ever spoken a single language. It was the most widely spoken Jewish language at any point in time.”
But also: “It is a language that has never stood alone. Its speakers have known different languages. It’s been shaped more by its contact and boundaries with other languages than by what people think of as its essence.”
Dr. Shandler described the present-day life of Yiddish in his 2008 book, “Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture.”
“I wrote that book in response to the way that I heard people talking about what happened to Yiddish after World War II,” he said. “As a graduate student at Columbia and somebody who worked at the YIVO Institute, I kept hearing the discussion of Yiddish in terms of what was no more. I said, ‘Let’s talk about what actually is.’ The language has entered a new phase, a post-vernacular phase. What I mean by that term is that fact that if you’re using Yiddish to speak, to write, to perform, it has a value in addition to what you’re actually saying or writing. The choice of language, the commitment to the language, becomes very salient. That was key to understanding all the practices of people using Yiddish in the period after the war.
“The vernacular use was automatic. That’s the language we speak and we just open our mouths and talk,” Dr. Shandler continued. “Now, however, there’s a deliberateness to say I’m going to speak in Yiddish. I have other options.
“The range of uses of Yiddish by a wide variety of people and toward a wide variety of ends is a remarkable phenomenon in its own right, and especially against expectations that the language will disappear. Not only hasn’t it, I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future.
“If you went back to me or my fellow classmates and teachers when I started studying Yiddish in the early 1980s, and say this is where Yiddish is going to be in the year 2020, they would be surprised.”
One big surprise was “the transformation of Yiddish among chasidim. That has really developed, including developing all kinds of material for children so they will engage with the language that is very similar to mainstream publications and stickers and toys and games that you have for children, but in Yiddish and with the values of their communities.
“At the same time, Yiddish is used either by people who have broken from chasidic communities, or people who stay in the community but secretly are apikorsim, heretical, and rebelling against the community,” Dr.Shandler said. “They question beliefs, they think the authority figures are corrupt, and they use Yiddish a great deal to voice their dissent anonymously on the internet.
“And then there’s the phenomenon of queer yiddishkeit, people who are LGBT who see Yiddish as a language that has some kind of affinity with a queer identity. That was just starting to take shape in the ’80s and has really expanded.”
Last fall, Dr. Shandler taught a course on Holocaust literature “where we only looked at works that were written in Yiddish.” This included memoirs, poetry, memorial books, songs that were composed during or after the war, and interviews with survivors.
“I thought this was an important way to demonstrate what the language could do, to give a sense of how important the language is as a vehicle for understanding what was going on in the war, as well as its role in Holocaust remembrance,” he said.
He taught the class using translations, but he had two advanced students who met with him once a week to read some of the texts in the original Yiddish.
“It was a special pleasure. It was especially gratifying to see students doing what I did, reading things in translation and saying they want to learn what it’s like in the original.”
As a student himself 40 years ago, he had the opportunity to speak Yiddish with his grandparents.
“It was quite interesting,” he said. “I could carry on a conversation with my grandmother that was hard for my parents to follow because their Yiddish had gotten rusty. It kind of unnerved them. The language enabled me to connect back two generations and form a bond through the language.”
Who: Dr. Jeffrey Shandler
What: A conversation with Dr. Josh Lambert about Dr. Shandler’s new book, “Yiddish: Biography of a Language”
When: Monday, April 12, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Online on Zoom, courtesy of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University.
Registration: Required in advance at BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu.