Contemporary Yiddish Literature: a personal view

The original of an article of mine published in Polish.

What people used to call "Yiddish literature" without qualification is fading away, and what we are not used to calling "Yiddish literature" is thick on the ground.

We'll start with the first. This includes everyone who writes in Yiddish who is not Chasidic. For lack of a better word, we'll call them secular Yiddish writers, though their ideological, religious, and cultural sympathies run the gamut from the settler poetry of Velvl Chernin to the loud radicalism of songwriter Daniel Kahn. They are the heirs to the literary tradition of Eastern Europe and America, what was Yiddish literature with a capital L: a social phenomenon complete with newspapers, journals, books, printers, publics, writers, controversies, scandals, sex, and violence.

For secular Yiddish writers, nearly all of that has fallen away. Traditional venues, things still published on paper, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There's the newspaper: the Yiddish Forward. There are the two or three literary journals. There is about a book, maybe two or three books at most, published a year. There is the Internet, certainly providing community - or the illusion of community - and a way for writers and readers to interact. But this cannot substitute for a community of people who spend their lives and make their living writing and reading. At this point, the number of people who make their living writing Yiddish in the secular community is about a minyan: the number of people on staff at the Yiddish Forward.

This does not mean that individual writers are not still producing individual works worth reading, or that the few literary institutions that still exist in the Yiddish secular world are not valuable. The Yiddish Forward, polished to a high literary sheen by Boris Sandler, has few parallels among Jewish publications anywhere - except perhaps the cultural pages of Israel's Haaretz in Hebrew. I suspect that some readers find it difficult to understand its mix of politics, culture, and academic analysis, but won't admit it. Gilgulim, a literary journal in Paris, is lovely (and I hope will come out for many more issues). Afn Shvel, the journal of the League for Yiddish, has been transformed into a modern publication, beautifully laid out and with a variegated content. It looks like the 21st century's last gesture towards the relevance of print in Yiddish.

There are a number of writers still working in Yiddish, though it's hard to know exactly how many - probably a hundred or so. Which to mention is an interesting question. In a healthy, king-size literature, like English, critics try to predict things: which writers will turn the great ship of written language in some unlooked for direction? out of all the abundance, what is worth reading? The first question is irrelevant to contemporary secular Yiddish literature, since the greatest ship of all is the daily language use of the ultra-Orthodox. We are gnats on it. The second question is irrelevant for other reasons. If you wanted to, you could easily afford to buy every single new book published this year by secular Yiddish writers. But let me name-check some loves of mine: anything published in Gilgulim; the strict, erudite, and tightly edited reviews of Mikhail Krutikov in the Forverts; the prolific post-Holocaust yearning of Alexander Shpigelblat; the monumentum aere perennius of Avrom Sutzkever, may his poetry be for a blessing.

The editors asked me to address some particular questions of contemporary secular Yiddish literature. They want to know what the challenges are. The challenges of writing in Yiddish! I don't know if writing in a language without readers is harder than writing in a language almost without fellow writers. But then they gave me an excuse to answer another question: is there communication between Chasidim and secular writers?

Chasidim: our brothers and sisters who create a literature merely by virtue of speaking a language daily and expressing themselves in writing. An enviable writing, as natural as breathing. But most would never call what they write literature, since they don't believe in aesthetics and know that secular literature is viewed by most in their community with suspicion.

So much of what is worth reading in Chasidic literature is written by anonymous hundreds who post at great length on a number of message boards. They write in a variety of genres and though I don't think much of what's written there is worth reading, it has the virtue of life, slippery and unmediated. There are a very few writers who write literature with a capital L - the blogger Katle Kanye is the most widely known of them, though there are others (such as Pinchas Glauber) who are on a similar level.

Do the secular and the ultra-Orthodox have something to say to each other? I read them, but they (with some exceptions) don't read me, and have never heard of me. There is no incentive for a Chasidic writer to read a secular writer, unless they want to benefit from a secular esthetic and the variety of topics available to it. That would be strange indeed - but stranger things have happened to Jews and Yiddish. Why shouldn't some of the strange things be blessings?

If I could imagine a work of literature in Yiddish, what would it be? An epic poem about today's Chasidim, written in Chasidic Yiddish, perhaps. Or a sprawling novel of contemporary Jewish life (about either sector, ultra-Orthodox or secular) written by an observer "on the other side." More than likely, though, the coming Yiddish classic will be written in a genre not even on my radar, outside my dyadic model of contemporary Yiddish culture. I look forward to it.


  1. Anonymous5:14 PM

    Thank you Zack, for this fascinating musing about the necessary relationship between the literary and the living language. I know that another PhD thesis may not be in the immediate offing, but look forward to (having no doubt you will continue this observation in greater depth) being kept updated on future developments.