In 2021, Debra Brunner launched Jewish Tapestry Project (JTP) – The Together Plan’s partner non-profit in the USA. As a result, Debra now spends some of her time in the USA to grow JTP’s presence and build the American network. Last October on a visit to New York she met with the author Michael Skakun, whose father had escaped from Novogroduk (Poland pre-1939 and Soviet Belarus post-1939). Michael is an incredible fountain of knowledge and his writing is sublime. The conversation led to the movement of Jews across Europe over the centuries, constantly on the move fleeing oppression and persecution, and of course as they migrated their language went with them. Where did the Jews who settled in Russian lands come from? Yiddish is a vehicle to better understand the borders that were crossed, how far people travelled and the influences on the language. Debra invited Michael to pen an article on the subject and here is his wonderful offering:
Yiddish: the roadmap to European Jewry
by Michael Skakun
The history of European Jewry during the last millennium–its heritage, identity and solid sense of community–is inexplicable without Yiddish in one form or another. Indeed, this narrative of the last thousand years of Jews on the European mainland is inextricably bound up with the earliest origins of Yiddish–the arrival of refugees from southern France, who spoke “Tzarphatic” (Judeo-French) and other Judeo-Romance languages, to the Rhine valley. These bold migrants, in effect, linguistic pioneers launched the incipient development of what is now regarded as Yiddish.
If we follow the map of Jewish travel, exile and settlement on the continent–its expansion over the centuries to the Danube and then further eastward to the Vistula in Warsaw, the Neris and Vilniya in Vilna and then to the furthest reaches of the Dnieper in Belarus and Ukraine, we are, in effect, tracing the progress of Yiddish over time and space. It would be folly to attempt to comprehend the commercial life of the Jews, late medieval and early modern rabbinics and the rise of eighteenth century Hasidism, as well as the popular Jewish press and literary arts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without Yiddish, the rich and enchanting folk language of the Jewish masses.
Of the principal three literary languages of the Jews, Yiddish is the youngest and arguably the most colorful, intimate and zaftig (juiciest). Linguists now often agree that for sheer subtlety in the characterisation of human types and emotions Yiddish is unequalled. The realms of Jewish pathos and suffering find proper expression precisely in the intense affective humor and cutting irony of Yiddish, the biting tongue that served as a great binding force for a nation in search of a homeland.
Following in the wake of classical Hebrew and Aramaic (the vernacular of the ancient Roman world), Yiddish is the Benjamin of Jewish languages, the most adored by its speakers, if not historically the most revered. Alas, the story of contumely heaped on Yiddish by its self-appointed “betters” is long and bitter. For much of its existence, Yiddish was regarded as “the servant maid to Lady Hebrew” and treated as such, even at times by its own users. Later on it was characterised as a “barbaric jargon,” an execrable gutter language dismissed by Jewish cosmopolites and lesser provincials in the German-speaking world. Even Hebraists in Palestine at the height of the linguistic kulturkampf of the interwar period wished it away as an unwelcome intruder in its midst.
But Yiddish, the youngest of the Jewish languages, is as old as most European languages, and much like English perhaps the most absorptive. English is commonly acknowledged the standard example of a hybrid language–its Germanic base infinitely enriched by an infusion of old French and Italian with their imposing polysyllabic constructions and then further encrusted with the spangles and sparkles of yet other tongues. Yiddish, comparably, has its own Germanic roots, enshrined by Hebraic and Aramaic and then enriched by old French and Italian borrowings, with a vernacular stream of rich-voweled Slavicisms, giving Yiddish the visceral tonalities of patois. Thus, today, numbered among the endangered languages of the world, Yiddish shares an essential feature with the most widely spoken tongue on earth.
As Yiddish traveled east, it came fully into its own. In the streets of Warsaw, Vilna, Minsk and Grodno and other centres of Jewish life, it assumed its widest expressive reach and lexical richness. It became a veritable linguistic hothouse in which the varying strands of both rabbinic and secular scholarship, social activism and literature intermixed. Yet Yiddish, much like the region of Belarus, where it reached a very broad efflorescence, was largely dismissed in the West as an afterthought, something to be cast aside. Belarus, historically regarded as a peripheral region, was itself giften short shrift by hostile (read Western) historians, at best regarded as a mere geographical expression, an appendage to other nations, be it the Czarist empire, the former Soviet Union, or the current Russian Federation. Yiddish suffered a similar contumely, a language be-twixt and between, unfixed to a master narrative.
At its widest expanse during the interwar years of the twentieth century, Yiddish numbered some twelve of the world’s 18 million Jews. Driven out of Europe by poverty and repression at the close of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, quite a few of these speakers resided in the New World, especially in the United States. Some have insisted that in many ways New York had become by then the de facto capital of Yiddish culture, though Warsaw retained the symbolic crown for literature and Vilna for scholarship. In any case, one could in those years still criss-cross the world with only a command of Yiddish and still get by fairly comfortably. Be it in South Africa, Argentina, Canada, the easternmost reaches of Russia, especially the region of Birobidzhan, and even in far distant Harbin in China, Yiddish abounded. But the clouds of war were gathering fast in those years, the prologue to disaster. The Holocaust savagely reduced these numbers: 85 percent of the six million Jewish dead were Yiddish speakers. This unspeakable calamity was compounded by the terrors of Stalinist repression, contempt for Yiddish in the Yishuv (British Mandatory Palestine) and in the strictly monolingual newly independent State of Israel (where until 1951 it was illegal for local theatre groups to stage productions in Yiddish), as well by the assimilatory zeal of mid-century American Jewry.
Despite the horrors of history, the demise of Yiddish has been too hastily predicted. Today, numbering at least a million worldwide speakers–actually an estimated two million according to the Council of Europe’s 1996 report—Yiddish is again on the move. It can be heard among the growing communities of Hasidim and haredim (fervently Orthodox) in Israel and the United States, as well as in islands of scholarship on college campuses on both sides of the Atlantic, and pockets of Yiddish vinkln/shmues-kreizn (conversation clubs), a small but growing universe of secular Jews who regard it as a handy vehicle for creative renewal and experimentation. As it has been often said, what the child sought to forget the grandchild wishes to remember.
From its earliest origins among the Romance-speaking Jews of southern Europe who discovered German in the Rhine valley and began the long and unpredictable journey of Yiddish more than a millenium ago to its most recent avatars, be they 21st century Talmudists translating a difficult dialectical point into Yiddish in London, Paris, and Jerusalem or Yiddish-speaking farmers in upstate New York using the handle of a scythe to harvest root vegetables, mameloshn, the mother-tongue of the Jews, has not said its last and may yet long outlive its nay-sayers.
About Michael Skakun
Michael Skakun, author of ‘On Burning Ground’ is a writer, journalist, translator and memoirist, as well as a public affairs consultant. Born in Jaffa, the oldest port in the world, he has lived nearly his entire life in the United States and studied with Alfred Kazin, the late literary critic and author of the acclaimed “A Walker in the City.” He served as editor and columnist for various metropolitan weeklies. As a special consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, he prepared literary and educational materials for National Remembrance Week, observed in all fifty states. Active as an events coordinator in New York, he has helped organise a commemoration in honour of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher, Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, as well as a celebration of the Marshall Plan and a host of lectures by noted civil and cultural figures.
Michael has written for a number of publications and entities including the Jewish Press and the Center for Jewish History, New York. Articles especially of note include a review of the highly acclaimed work: Masquerade, Dancing Around Death in Nazi-Occupied Hungary, which chronicles entrepreneur and philanthropist George Soros’s father’s success outwitting the Nazis. Read more.
On Burning Ground by Michael Skakun
“On Burning Ground” traces how at the height of World War II, Joseph Skakun, a devout blond-haired European rabbinical student steeped in a legendary form of ethical piety, as well as trained in the analytic rigours of talmudism, adopted multiple religious and ethnic identities, including those of a Christian and a Muslim, to survive. The story culminates with his desperate gambit at life – his entry as a volunteer recruit into Hitler’s Waffen-SS, the most feared and fearsome of Hitler’s fighting divisions.
The Washington Post went on to say: “To assume a fake identity is not so strange; spies and lesser impostors do it all the time. But for a devout yeshiva student to invent a combination of false selves through which he not only escapes the Nazi death camps but actually ends up as a recruit for the Waffen-SS – now there’s a definition of chutzpah (nerve).” After the war, the wheel comes full circle as Joseph Skakun, in a post-traumatic fog of anguish and doubt, manages to return to his ancestral faith first in Paris and then in New York.