Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2356:
COLLEGE YIDDISH vs. LIVING HEBREW

John Lienhard presents guest Richard Armstrong

Today, scholar Richard Armstrong considers the world of language textbooks. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Every foreign language textbook is the gateway to a new world. It invites you to imagine yourself in new situations. It orients you to different ways of thinking, and makes you aware of traditions you've never encountered. These simple truths came home to me recently when I discovered two old textbooks in a used bookstore, both published in the nineteen forties. Put side by side, they tell a story of tragedy, conflict, and a dire need to rebuild an ancient culture through basic language learning.

One book was Weinreich's College Yiddish. The other was Lewittes and Blumberg's Ivrit hayyah, literally "Living Hebrew." The dates of publication struck me immediately. Both books were first published in New York in the wake of the Holocaust and close to the declaration of the state of Israel. Both books seek to instill the rudiments of a Jewish language for use in the continuation -- and reinvention -- of Jewish life in the face of near annihilation. And both assert the expressive vitality and validity of the language they teach.

Living Hebrew wants to impress the reader with the practical utility of this ancient tongue. Unlike Biblical Hebrew textbooks, it avoids using readings from scripture. Instead, it tells us "Airplanes as well as angels now fly through Hebrew literature," and includes very modern situations. There's a story about a man trying to cross a busy street in Tel Aviv, bustling with the traffic of automobiles ... and of camels.

But the lessons also reveal the early Zionist vision of a new Palestine, documented in its photographic illustrations. We see a medical researcher working at Hebrew University, a sturdy pioneer woman atop a field mower, and Jews working contentedly to build a bright future through collective effort and physical labor. Lessons include settlers' songs, stories of the brave Maccabees -- hallmarks of a fundamentally secular Jewish nation, all expressed in the revived sacred language of Jewish tradition.

College Yiddish, on the other hand, is a text without geographical boundaries. The very first reading, Yidn in alle lender, "Jews in all countries," proudly tallies the millions of Yiddish-speakers that live throughout the world. In place of the earthy nationalism of Living Hebrew, College Yiddish insists, "Yiddish is an international language" with excellent translations of Shakespeare.

And here the internal conflict of the late forties comes into focus: The new state of Israel, with its commitment to a "living" Hebrew, actually threatened the survival of Yiddish, particularly after the destruction of Yiddish-speaking communities throughout Europe. Yiddish was the vibrant idiom of European Jews in their daily lives for a millennium. It also produced a Nobel Laureate in Literature. More people spoke Yiddish in the 1930s than speak Norwegian and Danish combined today. Since the forties, Yiddish lost considerable ground to Modern Hebrew as the idiom of a distinctly Jewish culture. But both visions still live in these basic grammars, when to learn the language was itself an act of defiant cultural survival. In their respective ways, both show us one trait that Yiddish has truly internationalized, and that is: chutzpah.

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Richard H. Armstrong studied Romance and Classical Philology at the Univ. of Chicago (BA 1986), and Classical and Medieval literature at Yale Univ. (M. Phil. 1990, PhD. 1993). He is currently Assc. Prof. of Classical Studies at the UH, and a Fellow in the Honors College. His latest book is A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell Univ. Press, 2006).

Yiddish is derived from medieval German dialects, since it was originally the language spoken by Jews who settled in German lands beginning in the 9th century AD. However, the eastward migration of Jewish communities led to the marked importation of Slavic and other loanwords, such that Yiddish vocabulary contains many Hebrew, archaic German, and Slavic elements incomprehensible to a speaker of Modern German. It is also written in a modified form of the Hebrew alphabet.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. He composed all his works originally in Yiddish, and later edited them into a "second original" for American editions.

Harry Blumberg and Mordecai Lewittes, Ivrit Hayyah, Modern Hebrew. First edition, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1946. Third edition, 1982. [Note in the text I refer to the book by the more emphatic Hebrew adjective living [hayyah] used in the Hebrew title.] The image below is the property of the Hebrew Publishing Co.

Uriel Weinreich, College Yiddish: An Introduction to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture. First edition, New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1949. 50th Anniversary Edition, 1999. [The long shelf-life of this book is due to the fact that its author, Uriel Weinreich, was a respected linguist at Columbia University, and that it was published by YIVO, The Institute for Jewish Research. Weinreich was himself a refugee from Nazi Europe and wrote the textbook at the age of 23, while he was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. Lesson 8 includes a reading "Jews in the Ghetto," which is illustrated with two photographs from the Stroop Report on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. As Jeffrey Shandler remarks in his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition, "this may well be the first publication of such images in a college textbook of any kind" (1999 edition, p. 5).]

Jewish woman on a field mower

This photo of a woman on a field mower, from Ivrit Hayyah, dramatizes the cultural shift underlying these two books.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.