Photo by D.C. Goings

In 1918, the Jewish literary critic Isidor Elyashev, better known by his pseudonym Bal-Makhshoves, interceded in the language wars of his time with an influential piece on Jewish multilingual cultural traditions. “We have two languages and a dozen spirits from other foreign languages, but only a single literature,” he asserted. The reader, he continued, “who seeks to become acquainted with the currents of Jewish life, to comprehend the spirit of the Jewish masses and the individual, how it is expressed in Jewish literature, that reader does not separate Hebrew writers from Yiddish ones.…All are representatives of our literature, all embody a piece of Jewish life in their writings; all of them are Jewish artists.” In an echo of Heinrich Heine’s 1840 declaration that the Bible is a portable homeland for the Jews, Bal Makhshoves declared that the Jewish territorial homeland is its literature.

Bal-Makhshoves was responding in part to remarks made by the Yiddish writer Yitskhok Leybush Peretz in his 1908 speech to the Czernowitz Conference, a gathering in the Austrian (now Ukrainian) city convened to declare Yiddish a national tongue of the Jewish people: “We stroll in the evening in the streets and from various windows stream out the sounds of different languages, all kinds of folk music. We want to have our own window: our own distinct motif in the folk symphony.” One hundred years later, in his 2008 book Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity, our own Frankel faculty member Jonathan Freedman looked toward klezmer music rather than the symphony to write about Jewish culture. Klezmer, he suggested, with its “relentless and even definitional hybridity” and “ceaseless and even foundational revisionism” can be seen as a metaphor for the modern American Jewish experience.

At the Frankel Center, we too recognize that Jewish cultures—now generally spoken of in the plural—are expressed in a variety of languages. They include not only Yiddish and Hebrew but also Arabic, Aramaic, Czech, English, German, Ladino, Polish, and Russian, to name only a few of the languages our faculty teach. This diversity is one of the factors that gives Jewish literatures and cultures such universal resonance.

Shachar Pinsker, for instance, just published Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, a book that reminds us of the many locales in which Hebrew poetry is written. Pinsker’s forthcoming book will similarly challenge our associations between language and space by exploring the writers who penned their works in Yiddish in Berlin, in Hebrew in Odessa, as well as in German, English, Russian, and Polish. Mikhail Krutikov looks at how the Ukrainian and Lithuanian capitals of Kiev and Vilna were depicted in the Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian-language writings of Jewish authors, while Jindrich Toman is exploring how Jews expressed imperial and national identities in Czech poetry in the 1830s and 1840s. Maya Barzilai works at the intersection of Hebrew, German, and Yiddish writings, and Julian Levinson is writing on Jewish self definitions and bibliophilism in the contest of American Protestantism. Issues of space, place, and language are also explored in Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Joshua Miller and Anita Norich, a volume that emerged out of the 2011 Frankel Institute for Advanced Studies theme year on Jewish Languages. 

Whether our students are learning Hebrew, participating in our Yiddish or Ladino reading groups, or studying one of the other languages offered at U-M, the Frankel Center helps them access a variety of Jewish literatures and situates them within the aural soundscape of Jewish cultures. 

(Frankely Speaking, April 2016)