The Yiddish language

This is the translation of the speech which Itskhok Niborski delivered at the presentation of the Purim Shpil Unesco project at the City Hall of Paris, on December 12, 2013.

The proposal to inscribe the Purim Shpil on the Unesco list for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage is justified only if we consider that age-old theatrical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews in the context of its manifold relations to the Yiddish language and literature. I won’t dwell on the self-evident fact that any project which aims at valorizing the Purim ShpilnYiddish plural of “Purim Shpil”. should involve a serious effort to develop and spread the knowledge and practice of Yiddish. I will address now certain characteristics of the Purim Shpil which can illustrate what Yiddish itself stands for.

Because it is Yiddish that is the real masterpiece of the Ashkenazi civilization. Not necessarily due to the great diversity of its origins: medieval German, Hebrew and Aramaic, Romance and Slavic languages. This is very interesting, but still a quite common linguistic phenomenon. Nor due to the way, however remarkable, that all these ingredients are recomposed so as to form a distinct and coherent language. This justly fascinates the experts, but in fact all languages are the product of fusions of other languages, all borrow and assimilate foreign elements. No, if we are interested in Yiddish, it is for having been at the same time the product, the vector, the balance factor as well as the transformative power of the civilization that has spoken it.

If I say “Yiddish as a product of the Jewish tradition”, this is because it is the traditional Jewish way of life which has shaped the language. The intellectual activity par excellence was the study of biblical and Talmudic texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, which were orally explained and commented in Yiddish. Through generations, this activity has widened the vocabulary of the language, diversified its forms, changed his music. At the same time, thousands of expressions were coined in order to name the infinitely many ritual and customary observances punctuating the daily life as well as the many rules and regulations of the rabbinical system. Such a complex and specific life could not be lived without an equally singular language.

If I say “Yiddish as a vector of Jewish tradition”, this is because that while an elite of educated men directly studied the sacred texts, larger classes of men and the vast majority of women received their religious and moral training in Yiddish. This took place not only through the sermons of preachers and rabbis, but also by means of written Yiddish, which most men and women had access to. It is for them that edifying books and vulgarization of rabbinical laws were published in Yiddish.

If I say “Yiddish as helping to maintain a balance in the Jewish tradition”, this is because by its very being as a fusion of thousands of borrowed words, this language created a contact surface with the lives of others. Since its emergence six hundred years ago, the Yiddish literature has also brought to the Jewish masses bits of the secular culture of their neighbors. Jewish men and women enjoyed the same literary genres as people of other nations and were all the more fond of those since most of them could read. Thus tales, short stories and chivalry novels, chronicles of adventurous trips and many other texts in Yiddish brought to the common people entertainment which provided also a glimpse of the world outside of the Jewish group. The rabbis were wary of this type of quite popular literature, but had to deal with it. It might be puzzling that a language shaped by traditional studies and observations and so imbued with their spirt, could at the same time serve as a vehicle for contents, or even values from outside. But behind this apparent paradox lies the subtlest of balances. Similarly to the skin which protects the body while providing it with breathing capacities, Yiddish and its literature until the 19th century have preserved the specificity of Jewish life while offsetting its tendency to confinement.

If I say, “Yiddish as a transformative power of the Jewish tradition”, this is because from the the 19th century on it breaks out of its frozen role of a secondary language, at times subserviant to the religious disciplines, at times a smuggler of tidbits of outside culture. This is when, under the influence of the Enlightenment, intellectuals trained in the traditional mold emerge out of it in order to undertake the reform of the Jewish society. They want to convince the Jewish working classes of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires of the interest of opening up education to European languages, science, literature and the arts. They want to modernize the structures of the family and the community. By using Yiddish to disseminate their ideas, they found a modern literature. By conveying progressive ideas and later both social and national political notions, they thoroughly alter the sensitivity and the reality of all the Jews, far beyond their Ashkenazi branch.

The Purim Shpil embodies these chief features of Yiddish. As a product of tradition, it helped to perpetuate it, at the same time compensating for its excessive rigor and rigid hierarchies by this free breathing which irreverence provides. It brought into the Jewish space many elements from the European folk theater. As the birthplace of modern theater, it is at the origin of a major factor of openness and cultural transformation. Even after the genocide, it still inspires some works like those of Khayim Sloves where the Purim farce and the spirit of the theater of Bertolt Brecht converge.

Our appeal to Unesco will make sense if, regardless of the outcome, we affirm for ourselves, inspired by the symbol of the Purim Shpil, the values of fruitful protest, of openness and of sharing, which are those of the modern Yiddish culture. Without that, we might end up playing a really bad purim shpil.

Yitskhok Niborski.