Yiddish Theater: A Love Story

Sunday morning, I catch a screening at the Laemmle theater in Santa Monica.

In it, a professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University in Lithuania, an absolute bear of a man, talks about immigrant Jews wanting their children to speak English without a yiddish accent. “They wanted their children to be doctors or lawyers, or if they were complete morons, accountants.”

Afterwards, director Dan Katzir, producer Ravit Markus and friend (TV writer) Roger Wolfson fielded questions from the audience. Video

I saw the film as another funeral for secular Jewish culture. Sixty years ago, secular yiddish culture was the dominant form of Jewish expression. Now it’s all but dead.

Today’s trendy expressions of secular Jewish identity — such as radical politics — will similarly go down the toilet of Jewish history while those who observe the Torah will be part of an eternal tradition.

I could give ten cents about the death of secular Yiddish culture. The movie is a sweet look at the dying gasps of a civilization.

Air Supply was a big band in the early 1980s. Today they’re a punchline. Such is life.

I’m more interested in Katzir’s next film about women who want to chant the Torah at the Western Wall (Jewish law has traditionally reserved this privilege for men).

Joe emails: “Yiddish was the mark of “Europeanness” for Jews in Slavic and other countries, one might even say the mark of “German-ness”. Its an interesting phenomenon; the Ladino Jews continued to speak Spanish in Turkey for much of the same reason. Prof. Rudoff, a wonderful young professor at Bar-Ilan who died very young, wrote an essay that English has replaced Yiddish as the lingua franca for world Jewry, much more so than even Hebrew (hence the only truly “orthodox” imprimatur is through ArtScroll, rather than any traditional text).”

Here’s a related essay I found on the Tikkun website:

Given its new place as the major Jewish holiday in the United States, the standard version of the story of Chanukka is now well known. The “Greeks” conquer the Jews, a small gang of freedom fighters repulse them, cleanse the Temple, find a flask of oil which burns for eight days, and now everyone gets presents, and plays a dreidle made of clay. This holiday has taken on a major role, of course, not because of its message, but because of its proximity to Christmas, allowing marketers to broaden their audience as Jewish parents try to create a substitute for the majority holiday, inescapable in particular for children who watch any TV at all. So in a sense, Chanukka, now morphing into Chrismukka, as per the popular TV program, has become a holiday through which the Jewish community can now feel part of the larger community; it has become a feel good festival of assimilation.

Of course, the obvious pious response to this phenomenon would not sound too dissimilar from the response of much of the Christian right to the commercialization of Christmas, and would be received by most people in just the same way. If I had a nickel for every synagogue sermon over the years referring to the Jewish Hellenists of today, I’d be able to give up compulsive high stakes dreidle playing. However, this ambiguity of intention has actually marked Chanukka right from the beginning. The Talmud allots only a very short passage to this holiday, beginning with the odd question, Mai Hanukkah- what is this, this Hanukkah? As the historians like to tell us, the early texts don’t speak of the miracle of oil, in Josephus and the Talmud Yerushalmi there is mention of spears found in the Temple. It seems the centrality of a miracle regarding oil took root somewhat later; we will explore what underlying tensions might have prompted a move away from the gray-zone issues of the military and theological struggle to the safer miracle of the flask of oil that burned for eight days.

One reason, which directly relates to the American “Chrismukka” phenomenon and will provide the motivation of this essay, is that the “military victory” as a source of celebration is not as resounding as it appears if one only looks at the short range effects of the story. The Rabbis, however, were much closer to the full picture (as I note in the Purim essay, somehow Chanukka seems like a biblical story, older than Purim, which is a biblical story; Chanukka actually takes place roughly in 150 BCE, and the Hashmonean dynasty reaches its bloody end with Herod, so the early Rabbis of the Mishna were living the repercussions of this period), and as such did not have the rose colored view of what transpired subsequent to the initial victory of Judah and the Maccabees.

Without needing to resort to too much history, R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin, one of the later Hassidic masters, asks the question quite directly:

The matter of the miracle of Chanukka in its difference from Purim and other redemptions (geulot), where in Purim Haman tried to kill all the Jews and the miracle was that this plan not only didn’t come to pass- au contraire, Haman was killed, whereas in the days of the Greeks (Chanukka) the plan was to have the Jews abandon Torah, and it appears that they were successful, with many Jews leaving the faith, etc…

In fact, the Greeks didn’t invade Judea on their own, they were invited in from Syria by the Jewish upper classes who wanted to participate in the fashionable Hellenistic culture of which they had become enamored. And in fact, while losing the immediate battle, over all Hellenistic culture soon predominated, only to be supplanted by the Roman culture which also entered Judea by invitation, during the Hashmonean civil war between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. This Greek influence left a profound influence upon future Jewish development. The diaspora Jewish communities, such as the influential one in Alexandria, were profoundly Greek, as we know from the example of Philo (and of course, the literature that appeared a little later, known originally as Evangelion). Medieval Jewish philosophy was very deeply influenced by Plato and especially Aristotle, both its “rationalist” side, as in Maimonides, and in the mystical side, through Kabbalah (many ideas of Greek science, such as the four elements, down to syncretistic borrowings of magical terms in the early works). Even today, common elements of Jewish practice retain traces of the Hellenist culture, such as the set up of the Passover seder, down to the last part of the seder meal, still known by the Greek term, Afikoman.Thus, it is clear why the holiday of Chanukka needed a message other than one of victory over Hellenism, for ultimately, the two parties, Jewish and Hellenistic, fused, and if anything, let us say, the initial victory of the Hashmoneans was, well, Pyrrhic. While the Maccabees won the battle, aspects of Hellenism eventually was incorporated within Jewish history and tradition.

Interestingly, this recognition of the deep interrelationship between the two sides is stated most clearly in several of the late Hassidic commentators in their writing on Chanukka. This theme is found repeatedly in the writings of the Sefat Emet, R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin, and R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch. The Sefat Emet explains that the reason for the war of Hanukka was not that the Greeks were some foreign invaders, but rather, because they were the closest to the Jews, the most similar in some ways, with the evidence being the Midrashic and Talmudic statements allowing the translation of the Torah into Greek. The one language into which the Torah was allowed to be translated was Greek, and as the “other” culture with access to the Torah, at least in translation, an eruption of this sort was inevitable. We have seen earlier that R. Zadok Hacohen was aware of the precarious definition of “victory” with regards to Chanukka. In fact, he posits, over and over in his writings, an evolutionary parallelism between the two cultures, in that the growth of Hellenistic thought, in particular that of philosophy, was a necessary “cosmic” parallel to the emergence at that moment in Jewish history of a movement of great import, that of Torah Sh’be’al Peh, Jewish Oral Law. The early stirrings of the Midrashic and Talmudic process begin at about this time, and in R. Zadok’s mystical historiography there can be no process on “one side” without the emergence of a contrary position on the “other side”.

R. Menachem Mendel Scheneerson of Lubavitch, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a similar approach, points out that the liturgy of Chanukka is very clear that the goal of the Hellenists was not the physical destruction of the Jews, but rather a spiritual one. Hence, the emphasis on the oil; oil frequently being a metaphor for wisdom. The prayers do not state that the Greeks destroyed the oil and thus there was none to be found, rather, that they defiled, made the oil impure, which is a different thing altogether.

The thread running through all these positions is that it was not the distance between Hellenism and Judaism that led to strife, rather their proximity. Other than this turbulent patch of Chanukka (which one can blame upon the extremism of a Hellenistic governor of Syria, Antiochus, who is recalled in Greek history as a madman), one can chart a mutual productive development between the two cultures over a period of a thousand years that is unmatched by any other- except one. And it is that one which probably motivated the Lubavitcher Rebbe, having himself been intimately exposed to it. If the Judeo-Hellenist relationship was of great import to the development of Judaism, and to world culture in the first millenium, there was one other relationship which took precedence in the following one, one which through twists and turns is still critical today, a relationship one hesitates to discuss, given the events of the twentieth century. This relationship would be the German-Jewish symbiosis, as it used to be called before World War II and the Shoah. It is fitting to contemplate this history at Chanukka, a holiday commemorating conflict born out of similarity rather than distance, as this “symbiosis” did not end with the Shoah, as we shall see.

Heine, Mendelssohn, Kafka, Freud, Einstein- this aspect of German-Jewish history is well known (it is important to point out that “German” here refers to a language and culture more than it does to a specific locale). For our purposes, the critical argument will be that of Hermann Cohen, the German-Jewish Neo-Kantian who formulated the most outrageous presentation of this long and complex history in his “Deutschtum und Judentum”, written in 1915. This book is the subject of a lecture given by Jacques Derrida in 1987 in Jerusalem, now published in the collection entitled Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar. In Cohen’s essay, which was itself initially included in the edition of his works Judische Schriften, with an introduction by Franz Rosenzwieg, Cohen argues that the German soul and the Jewish soul are deeply intertwined, more so than other groups in Europe. His argument is philosophical, and relevant to our Chanukka theme- the spirit of Greek philosophy made its greatest impact on two peoples- on the Jews, and then through Philo and the Judeo-Alexandrian tradition, via a certain approach to Christianity, on to the Germans. The type of Christianity adopted by the Germans is one, argues Cohen, similar in spirit to that of Maimonides, and emerges most characteristically as Protestantism. In Cohen’s words (translation Moshe Ron):

“Maimonides is, within Medieval Judaism, the symptom (wahrzeichen) of Protestantism”

What distinguishes the Jew and the German, argues Cohen, is the spirit of rational discourse, the refusal to follow an organized church (i.e., not Catholic), the preference for hypotheses and research over blind acceptance of dogma, coupled with the intrinsic respect for duty natural to the German and normative to the Jew bound by duty to the commandments. German Protestantism celebrated a return to the text, a free reading of the Bible unencumbered by church and dogma, much like the Jewish tradition. Early in his career, Luther was in fact accused of “Judaizing” Christianity. There is, then, this parallel development of Jewish thought from Hellenistic antiquity through to Maimonides, and from Hellenistic thought through to Luther and Kant. Thus, according to Cohen, all Jews should recognize that their culture and soul have a deep interrelationship with the German, that das Mutterland siener Seele, the Motherland of their Soul, is truly Germany. Even if Jews pretend to be loyal patrons of other countries such as France or the United States, ultimately their deepest kinship is with Germany. His example, cited by Derrida, is that of Henri Bergson, who while appears to be a French speaking philosopher, in reality:

…Er ist der Sohn eines polinisches Juden, der den Jargon sprach. Was mag in der Seele dieses Herrn Bergson vorgehen, wenn er seines Vaters gedenkt und Deutschland die “Ideen” abspricht! …He is the son of a Polish Jew who spoke the Jargon (we now call this language Yiddish, but for centuries it was referred to as Jargon, as a patois or dialect of German). What must be transpiring in the soul of Mr. Bergson when he thinks of his father and repudiates Germany with his “ideen”…

It is easy to look back and see how off Cohen’s analysis appears, given the Shoah. Yet, on the other hand, do we not celebrate Yiddish as being a medieval form of High German? How often do we hear representatives of the Jewish community responding to the popularity of American Kabbalah by claiming the true “rational spirit” of Judaism? Is not one of the frequent ad hominem arguments brought in defense of thinkers such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson of Lubavitch, and even Nechama (and Yeshaya) Leibovitch that they all studied at the University in Berlin? What names do we recall when we think of great Modern Jews (other than Sandy Koufax)? Are they not all German, specifically because this provides a form of Continental posturing? Do we not all garb ourselves in the proverbial Jacke (German Jews are referred to by Eastern European Jews as “yekkes” because they always dressed formally in jackets and ties as opposed to the Eastern European dress of the more impoverished Polish and Hungarian Jews) in our own communal self-idealization? Do not most American Jews still refer to themselves as “Ashkenazic”, from the accepted Biblical term for Germany? Were it not for the Shoah, would we be considering this problematic?

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag received the Freedom Prize of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in her speech, reprinted in the LA Times Book Review section, captured well the sentiment described by Cohen, although she herself was born and raised in the USA, and not even in New York City:

On the occasion of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me tell you something of my own trajectory.

I was born, a third-generation American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California), far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense…

Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than The Magic Mountain — whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came real experiences. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received in the 1930s and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties — so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.

However, it is not as a statement about the illusoriness of assimilation, which prompts this discussion of Hermann Cohen in a Chanukka essay. Hindsight is a very easy tool to use in discrediting thinkers of the past, and certainly the history of German Jewry is hard to study on its own terms without constantly considering the dark end looming over its accomplishments. The reason for encountering Hermann Cohen’s Deutschtum und Judentum has much more contemporary resonance. What one must consider here is not the theme of the book so much as its intent. Cohen wrote this book not as a theological insight into his views on German nationalism and Judaism, but toward a much more specific goal- this book was directed at American Jewry, with the aim of having American Jews intercede against the entry of the US into World War I against Germany! Cohen felt that a German victory, without the entry of the US into the war, would lead to a consolidation of the two great Protestant countries, with a universal acceptance of the German Protestant “Vormacht”, translated by Derrida as “hegemony”. This, naturally, would bring about world wide acceptance of the Jewish contribution to this great thought, and to the German victory, and lead to universal emancipation of oppressed Jews everywhere.

This way of thinking was not so mad in the run up to World War I as it might seem today. WWI was the first time the Jewish communities were able to participate in the German military as equals, and as such the Jewish communities of Germany were filled with an ultra patriotic spirit, or “war fever”, as Amos Elon entitles the chapter on WWI in his text on German Jewish history, “The Pity of It All”. Jewish newspapers ran pro-war poems and essays. The most popular and belligerent war song, “Hymn of Hate against England”, was written by Ernst Lissauer, who was, in Elon’s phrase, “an avowed, if secular, Jew”. There were objectors to the war in the Jewish community, including prominent thinkers such as Einstein, but they were urged to keep silent, as the community felt that finally they could prove their patriotism to the Motherland. Thousands of Jewish soldiers died on the German side, and thousands more were decorated. As we can see from the work of Hermann Cohen, the patriotic fervor of German Jewry was quite sincere, it is so obvious from all the literature, etc, that these people loved their country and loved their culture. However, when the war effort began to sour, and it was clear that Germany was heading towards a humiliating defeat, suddenly to many, it was the Jew’s fault that Germany was dragged into WWI; international Jewry was bent on profiteering from the war, all the usual anti-semitic canards emerged. Initially, the Jews were accused of not being patriotic enough, and were falsely accused of being draft dodgers, and then after the war, were accused of leading the German people into an unnecessary war. German leaders of Jewish descent, who had been involved in attempting the rebuilding of Germany through the Weimar republic were frequently targeted for assassination, and a fringe ultra-rightist party, the National Socialists, soon rose in popularity. With the rise of the Nazis, the epoch of German-Jewish symbiosis, which began in Roman times (the first documents related to Jewish settlement in Germany are from Cologne dating to the fourth century) came to an end.

Now I should state that I am not a believer in the idea that history repeats itself, however, it is also foolish to ignore historical parallels, at least in terms of lessons that can be learned. I will only briefly state that much of the above was prompted by the debates surrounding the current Iraq war. After hearing countless pro-Bush sermons from the pulpit of our local Orthodox synagogue (and although I have been strongly against the war from the outset, I also strongly believe it is as legitimate for Orthodox Jews in the US to support Bush as it is for any other American), did it surprise me to hear David Duke and Cindy Sheehan accuse “the Jews” of manipulating America to bring about war? Was I in any way comforted to find that after meeting Rabbi Michael Lerner, and speaking at his Yom Kippur services (and I believe it was brave of Rabbi Lerner to offer that invitation), that Cindy Sheehan now believes that “the Jews” were predominantly against the war? Most importantly, the message of all this is that what “they” say must never enter into our decisions as individuals or as a community or influence what we believe. (Rabbi Lerner has suggested to me that I better define who the “they” is that I refer to here. His words are sweet, so I will quote them: “…that in every culture (Jewish, German, American, etc.) there are people who are moved by the spirit of goodness and generosity, expansive intelligence and wisdom, beauty and kindness, and that we Jews should see them as allies and make them our allies and learn from them and care very much what “they” say and let their wisdom enter into our decisions, whereas there are also people in every culture who are moved by fear and hence believe that their trust is in power and domination as t he only way to achieve security, people who think that intelligence should be mobilized for the sake of control and not for the sake of awe and wonder at the universe, people who accept oppression in all its various forms as fixed and inevitable except where it applies directly to them personally, people who are willing to turn their eyes from the suffering of others and focus only on their own immediate survival needs, and this is the “they” from whom we should not learn…” I suppose I have this deeply rooted belief in the general goodness of mankind, so that anyone who doesn’t actively identify themselves as a “hater” is a good person in my eyes, hence I didn’t feel the need to identify the “they”. So here’s my simple definition: Anyone who views “the other” as some kind of mysterious lurking threat to be vilified is the “they”. From a Jewish historical viewpoint, I suppose the “they” are those who assume that “the Jews” operate as a swarm bent on world domination, behind every occurence in history, whether “they” are on the right or the left. Clearly, the reason that most German Jews so loved Germany, particularly from 1848 to 1933, was that for the most part the “they” referred to earlier was a fringe. Coming back to Chanukka, while “the Greeks” of Antiochus are hated, Alexander Macedon is admired throughout the Midrash and Talmud, and the relationship with Rome and Romans is also very nuanced, despite “Rome” having destroyed the Temple).

We began with the observation by several late Hassidic thinkers that the battles which sparked the Hashmonean revolution and crystallized into the holiday of Chanukka came about because of a similarity and interdependance of the two cultures involved. Furthermore, we noted that over time, the cultures became even closer rather than distant, despite the bloodshed, so that Hellenistic Judaism is viewed as the precursor for the best of medieval Jewish thought, Jewish rationalism. So how does one choose, how does one know what elements of the surrounding culture are to be incorporated or rejected?

There is obviously no single answer to this question, a question that each and every individual in every culture deals with at all times, regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation, particularly in the present, when so many choices are available to anyone through the mass media and the internet. R. Zadok HaCohen’s suggestion is worthy of note, however, and perhaps allows us to bring a more contemporary understanding of a universal message of Chanukka. R. Zadok states that the cultural choices can be weighed by their effect upon the spirit- There are choices that bring hearts together, and there are those that naturally lead to arrogance and aggression. The same great modes of thinking that bring about the greatest steps forward in human development can sometimes also lead to the greatest suffering. Chanukka is meant to be about choosing the former, and rejecting the latter. Perhaps the emphasis on the lights was to teach us how to differentiate between light and darkness, which tend to occupy the same room…

(Addendum-Personal Note: My parents are both from Eastern Europe, from Poland and Slovakia. I remember when I first arrived in Seattle as a fellow at the Fred Hutchinson, I spent my first Shabbat meal with a German Jewish patriarch, who, after receiving the above answer to their inquiry as to where my parents were from, told me how his father “was different than the other Jews in Frankfurt, and would allow Ostjuden (a derogatory term for Polish Jews, meaning literally “Eastern Jews”) into his home on Shabbat”. The bilateral historical antipathy between these communities was not foreign to me, and in some ways there is a “transference” of these stereotypes onto the relations with the Sepharadic communities, in both directions (the relative hierarchy of Ladino songs versus Klezmer versus the so called Oriental music of Israel is a fair example). So while there has been a resurgence of interest in Yiddish and Ladino, there is still an understandable opposition to German language and culture in Jewish circles, which explains the defensive position taken by Susan Sontag in the lecture cited above. To my mind, this is a problematic. For example, it was a given to me that a Jew should not listen to Wagner because of his anti-semitic essays, and Strauss waltzes, as echt-Austrian as could be imagined, were played at the concentration camps. However, Herzl used music from Tannhauser to open the Zionist conference, the Strauss family was partly Jewish and belonged to an anti-antisemitic organization, and many of the great prewar Wagnerian performers were Jewish or non-Jewish but anti-Nazi (Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehman are good examples of the latter). The most popular singing group of prewar Germany was the Comedian Harmonists, also banned as several of the members of the group were Jews. These artists and performers were banned for performing and many subsequently killed by the Nazis. It seems to me that a double suppression has befallen much of this work, on the one hand from the Nazis who saw it as “Jewish” and on the other from Jews who viewed it as too “German”. Is it not worth celebrating Bruno Walter’s “Die Walkuere”, recorded as an act of defiance against the Nazis, with many noted Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Nazi performers? How many readers are unnerved by the fact that a German poem opens this essay, even thought it is by Heine? Is it helpful or problematic that Wagner set works by Heine to music? This is a long and loaded subject, for which I have no answers, only tortured questions.)

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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