Refrigerator Yiddish is just one example of what Jeffrey Shandler calls “postvernacular Yiddish” in his look at the language’s changing role in postwar American life. After the Holocaust erased the vast majority of Europe’s Yiddish speakers, and the founding of Israel instituted Hebrew as the language of the Jewish state, Yiddish entered into a new era in which its currency as a spoken language (vernacular) was exchanged for its currency as a cultural symbol (postvernacular). Shandler, a professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers, explores Yiddish as a language that American Jews are no longer born speaking, but are choosing to speak. “In postvernacular Yiddish,” he writes, “the very fact that something is said (or written or sung) in Yiddish is at least as meaningful as the meaning of the words being uttered — if not more so.”
For Shandler, the move from vernacular to postvernacular begs a bigger question about the nature of language itself: when a language is not used in daily life or business yet is still spoken, is studied at Yiddish summer camps, is used in bilingual poems by American-born writers, is embraced by gay and lesbian performance artists, and is the language of choice of new-school klezmer bands, what, then, is its function? Shandler reminds us that Yiddish scholar Uriel Weinreich posed a similar question back in 1963 when a massive Yiddish research project was denied funding under the National Defense Education Act: “But merely because an exclusive Yiddish area does not appear on any administrative map, is the humanistic relevance of this culture to be denied?”
Weinreich, Shandler argues, was on to something. Since World War II, Yiddish has had no official place, no territory to call its own — no territory, that is, other than the language itself, an imagined, migratory, and multinational republic he calls Yiddishland, “a sense of place defined by speech.” Within Yiddishland, Shandler says, Jewishness is re-imagined and transformed through a language no longer tied to its vernacular roots. The result is “a cosmopolitan utopia” that Shandler suggests might function as an alternative to Zionism because it does not “rejoice in the amassing of turf” and instead celebrates “the great distances among its many outposts.”
Shandler surveys a deep catalog of contemporary Yiddishland residents and artifacts — from Yiddish board games and Yiddish theater festivals to Yiddish translators — in order to show how it has become a language of collective re-invention. Speak Yiddish not because you already live where it’s spoken, but to create the place itself — to live in Yiddishland.
And yet for all of Shandler’s vibrant Yiddishland touring, the most popular book about Yiddish in decades, Michael Wex’s Born To Kvetch, isn’t postvernacular at all: it’s a celebration of Yiddish as a spoken language, and it’s written by a Yiddish speaker. Where Shandler maps the worlds spun out from Yiddish, Wex is entrenched in the etymological and grammatical cosmos of the language itself, and he delivers embedded riffs and rants straight from the moaning belly of the Germanic beast. Although Wex’s theme-by-theme flights through Yiddish as an endlessly playful, endlessly complaining language game can get exhausting by book’s end, Yiddish in his hands is brimming with life — a Yiddishland from within the vernacular itself.