writing, giving, yiddish

by tobybee

A couple of weeks ago I was at a seminar entitled ‘Literary Recovery in Native American, Aboriginal, and Jewish Cultures: Writing after Decimation’. The speakers were Leah Garrett, Tony Birch, and Christopher Teuton. They were an interesting threesome: while Leah studies Yiddish literature, Tony and Christopher both study and write Indigenous literatures. And their different approaches seemed to show. In particular, it was in the very different ideas of language that they brought to the conversation. For Leah it was important that Yiddish writing be writing that is, literally, in Yiddish; whereas for both Tony and Christopher the writing that comes after the decimation of colonisation is less about the precise language being used (in fact, it seemed to not really be about that at all), and more about the ideas or the themes that are written.

So Leah suggested that we can currently see the only meaningful continuation of Yiddish literature happening in ultra-Orthodox communities in New York and Israel, where the people are fluent in Yiddish. But she also said that the beauty of pre-Holocaust Yiddish literature was to be found in its cosmopolitanism: in its ability to be various, to move, to weave together different ideas, cultures, languages and people. But while there may be pockets of cosmopolitanism in these ultra-Orthodox communities, it seemed strange to me that there was no acknowledgement that maybe the spirit of Yiddish literature is to be found more in other areas of the jewish world: that Yiddish literature lives on not just in the Yiddish words that are spoken, but in the rhythms of jewish writings and songs that proliferate in more secular jewish communities throughout the world.

Indeed, it seemed a strange approach to take – to suggest that, after decimation, there has been no eastern European jewish literary recovery if we have lost the words of Yiddish. After all, surely that’s a part of being a post-genocidal community: that we have lost some language. Some of that isn’t recoverable. But maybe that’s ok.

Which I guess was what was interesting about hearing Tony and Christopher: that they live with a decimation which is ongoing. It’s not in the past, in the same way that the Holocaust is (which is not to suggest that the Holocaust is totally in the past – in many ways its traumas are never over), and so maybe there’s a more immediate reckoning of language which needs to be done. That is, there’s a demand made that colonised people who have had particular aspects of their cultures stolen not be considered to be less a part of their indigenous cultures. And in some ways, it sometimes feels, there’s a judgment of those of us whose families lost Yiddish – that we are somehow to blame for a community’s loss of language. But, surely, that’s the nature of writing after decimation.

In any case – it’s important, I think, that we do recognise the yiddishist spirit that continues in writers, poets, musicians, and all the others, and that we do support it wherever it can be found. And, y’know, sometimes cash is a big thing that is greatly needed. So a shoutout for some people needing out support… A wonderful Brooklyn klezmer musician, Michael Winograd, is working on recording a new album. But to do it he needs some money. He’s over halfway to his target, but needs to raise a few thousand more (by July 29th). So if you can, give a bit. Every dollar helps. Go here to donate, (and watch his rather hilarious video).

And while you’re in the giving spirit, you should also give some money to +972. They’re an amazing website, filled with all sorts of fantastic writers. And they need money to help them continue their work. So, go here to help them out.

For that’s the jewish community at work…