The Element of Yiddishness – A Treatise
Author: Stephanie Keen
Two weeks ago, if you were to ask me what Yiddish was, I would have stated that it was the language used by Jews before the Holocaust. As a history student, I know that this is correct, yet there is much more to it.
This programme over the past few weeks has taught me a lot, more about the context and etymology of the Yiddish language and culture, as well as the influence and impact Yiddish language and culture are having today. In addition, I have strengthened my skills and gained new ones, such as learning Yiddish vocabulary to have a basic conversation, as well as increasing my historical knowledge without having to go to the History library and pick up a textbook. Not only this but I have acquired more knowledge in the meaning and significance of language and how the variations of such have changed my way of thinking, allowing me to understand how the use of a creole, pigeon, dialect, language or vernacular can change our meaning of language, stemming further into psycho-linguistics, merging disciplines in a holistic manner of communication.
Despite this, not everyone in the world is a student of History. In fact, not every History student elects to study anything to do with Yiddish culture. I have never, ever, ever studied Jewish/Yiddish culture and neither the Holocaust or the World Wars; only events before or after, which is a reason why I am so passionate to engage and learn – enriching my reservoir of historical knowledge without having to be confined to an exam (I really like exams mind), an essay or engaging in a seminar based on previously set texts from that classic structure of a ‘prescribed’ reading list I can find on the Moodle pages of my modules. What I find exciting about this programme is that I can explore such a phenomena in a free manner, researching.
And yet, this is my biggest fear – that unless we introduce programmes and courses that the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture could become extinct. Unlike me and a minority, Yiddish culture is not something that many choose to investigate or dare I say it, care about. I guarantee you, without curators, academics, historians or students, if you were to ask the average person on the Euston Road, Oxford Street, Westminster or Covent Garden about Yiddish culture they would give you an answer that could and would in fact be wrong. Ask them something about a TV series or the title of a catchy song in the charts based on the lyrics however, and you will obtain a far different answer.
This is fast becoming a genuine issue. Not just in relation to the contents of the Yiddish aspect of the Global Citizenship programme but within much of the curriculum offered and in the meaning of history as a subject of academic demand today.
It shows that in a society as globalised and modernised as today that even a monolithic way of thinking is still present – challenges being made by UCLU’s officers this year with the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign, where now it is being brought into attention that the ideologies of a monolithic culture still permeates through our atmosphere, our society and our education system, and has done so for years. Some action needs to be taken, as without doing so, much of the history that forms other societies will be forgotten, creating not only a crisis of modernity and postmodernity, but a crisis of diminishing memory and culture. This is not an attack on curriculum directly, but it definitely reveals that diversity and an enriched curriculum needs to become reality.
I take this opportunity to reflect this way because of how Global Citizenship has affected me personally. As a history student, my discipline is under harsh attacks from the hard science disciplines, such as biology, and chemistry, faced with further blows from the social sciences, stating that history and its company of historians are in fact none of the two and are in fact floating somewhere in the middle, “sitting on the fence”. Like Yiddish culture, I feel that in a postmodern society, it has become far too easy for such to be attacked and forgotten. Reform and change is needed, so we do not forget crucial aspects of life, education or culture which underpin the values, norms and culture that exist in society and around the world, making us the people that we are today.
What I propose is the Element of Yiddishness, where we should revive the culture that existed before 1945. Publicise the Yiddish events occurring around cities, such as London, the East End in particular. As a person from East London myself, I was surprised within my research to discover the number of synagogues that are still present. What it reveals is that not only does Yiddish culture still exist, but it does in an untapped form, which needs to be expanded and popularised. Yiddish culture; Danubian knowledge should and needs to be circulated within the curriculum instead of a monolithic narrative. A majority may study German, but Yiddish is a language with Germanic tendencies also.
Throughout this project, myself and my peers have actively engaged in Yiddish culture, by attending music workshops, learning about the cuisine and also learning the language. Doing so promotes the value of interconnected openness, helping advance our communication skills, broadening our social groups and making new friends along the way. I do agree that these Grand Challenges in the programme are intense and live up to their name, grasping a new language, reams of history or even actively engaging are not skills that you develop overnight. These past two weeks have not been entirely easy; nothing that is worth fighting for in life ever is.
What I have learnt throughout so far is more about myself as a person, a student and as a global citizen. I found that I have the ability to attempt to learn another language, a complex one at that. I can with some forms of assistance, read some words in Yiddish, and even have a bit of skill in reading ‘loshen koyden’ words. As a student I have advanced my research skills and networked with students from an array of disciplines. As a second year student on this course I was welcomed very warmly by the other students and hope that they, like me have learnt something from me with regards to the journey they embark on through the later years of their degree.
Being a socio-cultural historian with anthropological tendencies, I prefer to myself and encourage others to see phenomena through an expanded array of perspectives, which I find invigorating and more similar to reality.
Life is not a science, many things happen everyday and the whole ‘a+b=c’ approach used in hard science such as chemistry cannot explain all things in the world. After being a student, my development of myself has influenced the global citizen I am. It has given me great skills to network with others around me as well as interact more amongst people in other societies too.
It brings up the questions that you have probably been asking yourself whilst reading this: What is Yiddish? Who is Yiddish? Where is Yiddish?
Whilst it would be nice to obtain an ideal answer, I can say so far that there isn’t one. There are no answers to any of these questions. Yiddish culture and language exists in a non-paradigmatic form. Travelling along the Danube throughout these two weeks has shown that this a phenomena that has influences everywhere, and is not confined to a nation. There is no need for a flag, a capital city, nor a set culture. Varying throughout Hungary, Slovakia and even Serbia, the great divergence and distribution of the Yiddish show them as not only an astounding, underrated and under discussed group of people, but as true Global Citizens. They are neither isolated nor fixed, they integrate and interconnect with others, actively engaging and adapting in various societies, in order to create a culture of holistic wholeness and diversity.