In Tablet magazine, Cherie Woodworth reviews the fascinating debate on the origin of the Yiddish language.
That history revolves around two theories, that proposed by Max Weinrich:
If you want to know not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreichâ€™s History of the Yiddish Languageâ€”but be sure to read the footnotes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.
Weinreichâ€™s original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death. A partial translation into Englishâ€”without the notesâ€”was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yaleâ€™s new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreichâ€™s workâ€”the notes are longer than the textâ€”thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreichâ€™s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America. …
Weinreichâ€™s basic story of the beginnings of Yiddish in the Rhine valley and its centrality in creating a European Jewish culture are repeated everywhere, and without question. But the pillars of Weinreichâ€™s argument are too broad, their foundations in a millennial-old history too unstable, to be as unshakable as his subsequent readers have made them seemâ€”a fact that Weinreich knew very well. He was too careful a scholar to buy into a simplistic view, as the publication of the notes now clearly reveals.
Weinreichâ€™s first innovation in the History was to argue, against apparent common sense and abundant personal experience, that Yiddish was formed not through isolation but through constant interaction combined with a chosen separateness. The walled-off ghettos of 18th-century European cities, although they preserved Yiddish, were not the environment that gave it life. Weinreichâ€™s innovation was to argue that â€œJewish othernessâ€â€”and the language that goes with itâ€”â€œcannot be the result of â€˜exclusionâ€™; it is not even the result of exile.â€
Where others had persistently told the story of confinement, prejudice, and persecution, Weinreich spoke of independence, self-government, selfassertion, and community building. It was undeniable that â€œwithout communal separateness there is no separate language,â€ and so the separateness of the Ashkenazi community was necessary for Yiddish to arise. But the modern explanation for that separateness, according to Weinreich, got the story exactly backward. Nineteenth-century Jewish activists, demanding rights of citizenship, created the story that the Jews had been locked in ghettos since the Middle Ages, â€œand thus excluded from society at large and its intellectual development; in this forced isolationâ€â€”an influential Jewish assimilationist arguedâ€”â€œboth their mode of life in general and their language in particular became corrupted.â€ …
For Weinreich, based on both the linguistic and historical evidence, there could be no doubt that up until the 18th century â€œthe Jews wanted to be by themselves. â€¦ Separate residence (strange as this may appear in the light of present Jewish and general conceptions of rights) was part of the privileges granted the Jews at their own requestâ€ so they could worship together; provide for their own slaughterhouse, bathhouse, cemetery, and social halls; study together; run their own rabbinic courts; supervise tax collection; and when necessary, protect themselves from attacks.
Archeology supports this part of Weinreichâ€™s argument. Befuddled tour guides in Prague struggle to explain why, given the expectation of exclusion of Jews, the cityâ€™s famous Jewish quarter, Josefov, is so central to the old town. (One misguided explanation is that the Jews were given land near the river that was too marshy for the other city inhabitants, prone to flooding and disease-bearing miasmas.) But Pragueâ€™s Josefov is not an isolated caseâ€”it is typical. Weinreichâ€™s point is that exclusion could also be exclusivity; restrictions also came with designated privileges. In Trier, Mainz, Aachen, Cologne, Worms, and more than 100 medieval towns in Central Europe, the Jewish district was both a central and a prime location, close to the economic heart of the city. The German Bishop RÃ¼diger, granting a charter of the city of Speyer in 1084 wrote, â€œI thought that I would increase the glory of our city a thousandfold if I were to include Jews.â€ …
Once he demonstrated that Yiddish is an independent language, Weinreich explained how it came to be, first as an altered language formed among medieval Jewish trading settlements in the Frenchâ€“German borderland along the Rhine valley. Weinreich deduced from traces left in early Yiddish that these first Jewish immigrants to the heart of Europe spoke a Romance language, having left Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek behind when they left the eastern Mediterranean, although Hebrew and Aramaic were still languages of study. But early on (in the 10th or 11th century) these Jews from Rhineland France, presumably through contact with Jewish settlements in southern Germany, converted from old Judeo-French to western Yiddish, which was more purely German with some elements of Latin or early French. In subsequent centuriesâ€”when, exactly, is a source of considerable debateâ€”this language moved east with Jewish emigrants, settlers, and refugees, either in the 12th century (after the Crusades and persecutions) or in the 14th or 15th. There it picked up a significant cargo of Slavic vocabulary and expressions and became the Yiddish more familiar today: eastern Yiddish.
With his 1,000-year history, Weinreich thus removed the East European Jews from both the poor shtetls (the clichÃ© associated with Jewish immigrants to America of the 19th and early 20th century) and their tragic end. Distancing them from their Slavic neighbors, who had little cultural cachet in America, and bypassing the association with Germany, which had become toxic after 1945, he placed their roots instead in France, where Jews still like to go on vacation.
And the alternative argued by Paul Wexlar:
[H]ow to account, demographically, for the millions of Jews who appear on the records in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, and elsewhere by the 19th century. Immigration following the medieval Crusades and expulsions from Western Europe, followed by 400 to 500 years of natural biological growth, are not enough to account for the size of the East European Jewish population. The numbers simply donâ€™t add up. Two scholars from disparate fields of inquiry have recently tried anew to solve this puzzle, first noted at least a century ago: Paul Wexler from comparative linguistics and David Goldstein from genetics.
The title of Paul Wexlerâ€™s detailed study, The Ashkenazic Jews: A SlavoTurkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, is not shy about his claim: Yiddish has Slavic grammar, syntax, morphemes, phonemes, and lexicon, with a smaller input from Turkic. Wexler made the case that Yiddish is a â€œrelexificationâ€â€”a massive borrowing of Germanic words onto a basically Slavic structure, as opposed to Weinreichâ€™s view that Slavic words were added to a Germanic structure. Wexlerâ€™s claim applies not only to the language: â€œThe bulk of their [Ashkenazi Jewish] religious practices and folkways also prove to be of Slavic originâ€ and thus â€œthe Ashkenazic [sic] Jews may be in the main ethnic Slavsâ€â€”Wexler added his own italics, in case readers should not get the point. Wexlerâ€™s preferred term for modern Judaism was â€œJudaized pagano-Christianity,â€ though he used the term rarely on the grounds that it was too cumbersome. …
Genetics might provide us with an exit to this uncomfortable, and vexingly arcane, linguistic argument. Recent studies of markers on the Y chromosome of Ashkenazi men hold out the possibility of determining, with apparent mathematical precision, how many Ashekenazi men share markers distinctive to the European, Middle Eastern, or other (for example, Central Asian Turkic) gene pool. The results are inconclusive, puzzling, and unexpected. David Goldstein, a molecular geneticist at Duke, undertook to trace Y markers among two Ashekenazi subgroups: the Cohanim (the class of priests narrowly defined) and the Levites (liturgical officiants from the tribe of Levi). He found that the Cohanim from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations shared an unusual marker on the Y chromosome that set them apart both from the surrounding non-Jewish populationsâ€”and from their own communities. He traced the marker to a mutation originating about 3,000 years ago and suggested in conclusion that this showed both groups had a real and unbroken genetic link with the original priestly Jews of Israel. (He received tremendous media coverage as a result.)
The Ashkenazi Levites, on the other hand, showed a puzzling genetic signature: they did not match particularly well with the Cohanim, nor with the broader population of Ashkenazi Jews. Comparing this group with the most common Y-chromosome micro-mutations in European and West Eurasian populations (i.e., Turkic and Caucasian tribes), Goldstein concluded that though he had at first been very skeptical of the â€œKhazar hypothesisâ€ that Ashkenazi Jews came to Eastern Europe from the Eurasian steppe, rather than from Germany, he now found it â€œplausible, if not likelyâ€ and â€œworth investigating further.â€
In his latest workâ€”more linguistic studies, as well as an etymological dictionary of Yiddishâ€”Wexler argues that the core of what became the Ashkenazi Jews originated not in post-exilic Judea, later dispersed through the Mediterranean Roman Empire, but in Persia: the Azhkenazi(c) Jews were â€œan outgrowth of Jewish Iranians who brought Judaism to the Khazars, and subsequently migrated westwards with Turkic-origin Jews and non-Jewish Khazars.â€
Read the whole thing, and look forward to part two.