ABSTRACT

A century ago, close to 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population spoke Yiddish. Today, less than 15 percent speak Yiddish, and those who do are, primarily, over the age of seventy, Hasidim, or students of the language. Although Yiddish speakers are still among us, for the mainstream Jewish population of North America, the language has all but ceased to function as a mode of communication, that is, as a signifier, and has instead become a subject unto itself – a signified. Although Yiddish remains the vibrant language of the streets in many religious communities, the idea of Yiddish has remained an important cultural symbol within a secular, English-speaking, North American Jewish mainstream, and it is worth exploring the reasons for this more deeply. Awareness of, if not fluency in, the Yiddish language has helped North American Jews to address key concerns about their cultural identity in the twenty-first century. For the purposes of this chapter, we shall focus on three of these concerns: the role of a nationstate in contemporary Jewish identity, how Jewish historical memory informs contemporary group identity, and whether the Jewish experience can be compared to other immigrant and minority experiences in North America. I shall begin with the ways in which Yiddish has been viewed as a language without borders.

The lack of a clearly defined state where Yiddish is spoken has occasionally prompted Jewish scholars and writers to imagine a collective Yiddish-speaking homeland resembling what Pierre Nora has called a lieu de mémoire (Nora 2006).1 Yiddish, unlike Hebrew, has remained a stateless language, thereby offering many Jews a diasporic identity, which some come to view as an alternative to the politics and geography of the State of Israel. Second, I shall discuss the role of memory in Jewish identity formation, something that has been addressed through the device of temporal bifurcation in Jewish American fiction and film. Yiddish has long marked itself in English-language literature either through accented characters, the motif of translation, or the insertion of Yiddish-style folk stories (Wirth-Nesher 1998; Wirth-Nesher 2006). Whether these Yiddish motifs reinforce the idea of an idyllic historical community or evoke past horrors, they offer a counterpoint to mainstream American and Canadian culture, fostering a sense of group identity, and suggesting a collective mourning for an absent place (Shandler 2006; Margolis 2009). Finally, I shall discuss multicultural performances that make Yiddish relevant to contemporary North American culture by fusing it with other subcultures. These three devices use the idea of Yiddish to strengthen a North American Jewish cultural identity in ways that complicate religious practice, Zionism, and even race.