Israel and Yiddish

Robert Rosenberg's review in the Forward of Aharon Megged's Foiglman, a novel about a Yiddish poet in Israel, is not bad. The last paragraph, though, cries out for a bit of the old context sauce.

"A poet's homeland is his language," laments Foiglman toward the end of this brief, complex book. But this is too pat. A poet has no homeland: Language is but a small, wooden boat carrying one across the water. Yiddish was shattered beneath the perfect storm of Hitler, Nazism and hatred of the Jews — not by the resurgence of Hebrew, though that rebirth was accompanied by all the contradictory love and hatred of two siblings vying for their parents' love. The poignancy of "Foiglman" lies in its portrait of a castaway hanging onto the bow of that shattered vessel by the skin of his teeth, and the remorse it evokes in us, the onlookers, as we peer helplessly from the safety of shore.

Poignancy? Sure, I can go for that. Unfortunately, though, the truth about the shattering of Yiddish is even more depressing. Though Hitler's blow was determinative ("perfect storm," connoting an act of God, is certainly a strange description of the Final Solution), the post-war decline of Yiddish was aided by Yiddish-hating Jews themselves. None other than the government of Israel participated in the elimination of Yiddish culture. I'm not talking about the assimilation common to all transcultural ("melting pot") nationalisms, but about shuttering of publishing houses, laws designed to discourage Yiddish publishing, and silent acquiescence in gangs' destruction of Yiddish newspaper kiosks.

So the real story is not poignant, but tragic. Poignant is leaving your lover at the train station in Paris. Tragic is the mistakes made by your own people. Tragic is Jewish.

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