Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Chabon invades Yiddishland!

Rutgers Professor Jeffrey Shandler wrote an interesting article about how the Yiddish language invokes the existence of an imaginary homeland ("Imagining Yiddishland: Language, Place and Memory" in History and Memory (2003)). Even though it belongs to no nation-state, Yiddish constitutes a community that longs for a nation and that overlays its own interpretations over everyday life and locality. Shandler argues that the act of speaking in Yiddish creates an artifice that a real country of soverign Yiddish speakers exists. This has become a more pronounced tendency after the Holocaust: the memories of a lost Yiddish society and culture do not correspond to a real territory of Jews.

Shandler starts off his essay with a bizarre episode in contemporary literature. Author Michael Chabon set off a firestorm when he wrote an article that mocked the idea of a "Yiddishland":
[The book] Say It in Yiddish became the subject of some controversy, when author Michael Chabon discussed it in an essay that appeared in 1997 ... . In his essay, originally titled "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts," Chabon both mocks and mourns Say It in Yiddish, which he introduces as "the saddest book that I own" and characterizes as a "tragic joke," an "absurd, poignant artifact of a country that never was." Unaware of a potential audience for this volume, whether in the 1950s or today, he tries in vain to conjure imaginary environments in which a traveler might talk to an auto mechanic, dentist or hair dresser in Yiddish. Similar fantasies are presented in accompanying illustrations by cartoonist Ben Katchor, showing invented urban scenes with a telephone booth, cinema, bus, ferry and factory, all sporting signs in Yiddish. "This country of the Weinreichs [the authors] is in the nature of a wistful fantasyland," Chabon argues, a contrafactual Europe where "the millions of Jews who were never killed produced grandchildren, and great grandchildren." Finding this vision "heartbreakingly implausible," he wonders, "Just what am I supposed to do with this book?

Chabon did not research the history of Say It in Yiddish; had he done so, he would have learned that it was created not at the Weinreichs' own initiative but at the request of Dover Publications' founder and president, Hayward Cirker. Cirker envisioned the phrase book, in part, as being of practical value—Yiddish was widely spoken in Israel in the late 1950s, and there were substantial Yiddish-speaking communities in Paris, Montreal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other places where someone who knew only English might find the volume useful. Moreover, Beatrice Weinreich recalls, Cirker regarded Say It in Yiddish as a symbolic gesture of his devotion to a language that he had learned as a child at home and in secular Yiddishist schools run by the Workmen's Circle.

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