Say It In Chabon
Or: Der yidisher polislayt-unyon.

The newest, baroquest Jewish novel is one I won't be reading -- not because I am opposed to it on principle but because my complexes will get in the way of any purely literary experience. To explain we have to turn the clock back to 1997 (or sometime before), when Michael Chabon happened upon the sublime little volume Say it In Yiddish, a book that provides practical phrases for the traveler to Yiddish-land. The notion of a country whose inhabitants might use Yiddish in daily life captivated Chabon with its otherwordliness, and -- so inspired -- he wrote a whimsical essay for the Library of Congress magazine Civilization about such a land (with, it bears mentioning, the requisite Ben Katchor illustrations for a Yiddish reverie).

Thus ensued a kerfluffle in the tiny on-line Yiddish world, or, more precisely, a flame war (which I took part in) on the Yiddish e-mail list Mendele, most neatly summarized by Chabon's response to his critics (thanks to Leizer Burko of yiddishland.googlegroups.com for digging this up):

Date: Sun, 29 Jun 1997 10:05:37 -0700 (PDT)
From: Michael Chabon <mchabon@earthlink.com>
Subject: Weinreich's phrasebook

I am hesitant to wade into this fray, but the recent assertion by Mr. Mordkhe Shaechter [7.025] that "the author of that article has already apologized to B. Weinreich" compels me to step in. I have been following the recent exchanges over my article in Civilization ever since an interested party began forwarding them to me last week. They can, as far as I can tell, be divided among those who got it, those who most decidedly did not, and those, like Mr. Turkel [7.024], who feel qualified to comment without having read the article at all. Since I can neither speak nor read Yiddish in any but the most rudimentary fashion, I don't know what Mr. Adam Whiteman had to say.

People who get the piece recognize, first of all, that a book which explicitly advertises itself, on the cover, in capital letters, as a PHRASEBOOK FOR TRAVELLERS, naturally, logically, and commercially implies the existence of a country to be travelled to. A country. An entire nation. Not a neighborhood like Crown Heights. Not the annual meeting of a Yiddish language society or a Folksbeine. No one takes a Chinese phrasebook for travellers to Chinatown or a Chinese New Year's Parade. Even if someone might, such certainly would not be the imagined market for a series of traveller's phrasebooks.

This inherent implication is the central pillar of my ruminative essay (not a book review, not an analysis of the current state of Yiddish). There is a phrase given in the book, with Yiddish translation: Where can I get the boat/ferry to --------? My essay simply tries to imagine different ways to fill in that blank (that is, to imagine a place where one takes a ferry either to or from a country whose principal language is Yiddish). _Now._ Post 1958, when the book was published. Not in the twenties during some shortlived Soviet republic. Not in Israel shortly after its founding. But now, when the book, with its series of useful phrases for visits to auto mechanics and airline ticket offices, is still apparently very much in print. Where, in 1997, could you go that it would behoove you to know how to say, in Yiddish, "Which way to the casino?"

The second thing people who get the piece recognize, I think, is that however many people are still reading, speaking, and enjoying Yiddish, and however many young people are taking up the study of the language--however vital is the spirit of Yiddish revival--something has been lost. Something immense and profound. I don't know anything about Mendele and its ways. Perhaps this statement will bring the wrath of the entire subscribership down upon me. But I believe it. If this causes some of you to pity me, or shake your heads, or even wish, with Mr. Turkel, to excoriate me, so be it. There is no nation to take the Weinreichs' little phrasebook to; for every other language in the series, such a country exists. That difference saddens me.

In the course of a recent, and personally frustrating correspondence with Ms. Beatrice Weinreich, I did express my apologies to her--but not, as Mr. Schaechter seems to imply, for what I wrote. I stand foursquare behind every single word of that essay, without apology. What I regret is the hurt feelings and grief that my words evidently brought to a woman whose work I respect. It was a harsh blow to her to discover that someone thought her phrasebook was, among many other things, and in the saddest way, funny. (I gather from this list that I am not entirely alone in thinking so.) I have tried to explain to Ms. Weinreich that she, like some members of this list, had misinterpreted both the spirit and the letter of my essay. I love Yiddish. I love being Jewish. I love language and humor. All of these inspired my writing. The desire to hurt, offend, or insult Yiddish scholars and lovers of Yiddish did not make up even one atom of my motivation. My only desire was to report faithfully how the book made me feel, and the fancies it conjured in my imagination.

In her initial letter, and in her subsequent, generally unmollified reply to my reply, Ms. Weinreich argued, as have some members of this list, first of all, that the book could be useful for trips to Crown Heights or Williamsburg, for example; and second, that it might come in handy in Israel, or perhaps would have come in handy in Israel at an earlier time in the book's life. My principal rejoinder to these arguments has already been made: a phrasebook for travellers implies a country whose principal language is that of the phrasebook. Sure, there are, or could be, exceptions to this. There could be a phrasebook for travellers in Romany, say, that might be useful under certain conditions, or one in Latin that might at some time have come in handy in the Vatican. With regard to Israel, and the argument that there were or are many Yiddish speakers there who, as Ms. Weinreich attempted to convince me, felt or feel at sea in a land of Hebrew, I fail to understand how they would have benefited from an English-Yiddish phrasebook. Yiddish-Hebrew, perhaps. As for the English speaking traveller, if I had been going to Israel in 1959, say, I doubt I would have chosen an English-Yiddish phrasebook to be my companion.

AIl this is, however, completely beside my point. I wasn't interested in writing about whether this book was, or could be, useful; it is evident to anyone not blinded by sentiment or passion that such a book is, in a practical sense, all but useless. What interested me was imagining another world in which a Yiddish phrasebook for travellers would have an obvious referent, one with the official passports, customs agents, airlines, and ferry companies that play such a prominent (and, to me, poignant) role in the phrase book. The more I thought about, and imagined this country, the sadder I felt at its absence, a sadness which --for me, the only person I ever claimed to be speaking for--no amount of extinct Soviet republics, Chasidic neighborhoods, and Yiddish preservation and renewal societies will ever completely abate.

I'm sorry if this angers, hurts or irritates some people, or everyone who reads this post. I'm sorrier still for anyone who can't see the humor--the heartbreaking, wistful, uproarious humor--in the book. But I don't regret a word of what I wrote. On the contrary, Mr. Schaechter.

Michael Chabon

And from such an exchange, it turns out, came the impetus for The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Ten years after the mini-dispute, I, like Bina Weinreich, remain unmollified. I see the humor of the book (which has acquired near-classic camp status in some circles), and I appreciate the whimsy of Chabon's take, but ("blinded by passion or sentiment," perhaps) can't overlook his mistake: the assumption (so American-Jewish! so confidently ignorant!) that only languages with a country have a useful function, that only official state languages have any business arrogating to themselves any practicality (except for the two non-state languages of Romany and Church Latin [!]). That's an ignorance that even a brilliant prose style can't wash away, and whimsy can't cover up.

Here I am, still blinded in Yiddishland.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, thanks for reproducing Chabon's letter.

    I'm reading the book now, and I think it's pretty good (better I think than Kavalier and Clay). As someone so interested in jewish culture I think you will enjoy it.

    Also, don't be too hard on Chabon. I read an article where he said that after the feedback he got about his "Say It In Yiddish" he felt like he had been chastised by his elders and proven wrong. If anything this book is proof that his heart is in the right place.