Di platshkis (Professional Mourners). Professional mourners accompany a funeral bier to the cemetery. Mayer Kirshenblatt. Acrylic on canvas, ca. 1996. Memory painting by a native of Opatów, Poland. (Courtesy Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)

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An Overview

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Since the events at Sinai at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the visual component of which carried no ideational content at all, words have been central to Judaism. Torah reading, prayer, and even solitary study are all primarily oral activities: rabbinic tradition asserts that the oral Torah was given to Moses at Sinai at the same time that God was dictating the written Torah (and is contained with it). The Torah is read aloud in public from a scroll, and its meaning, as refracted through rabbinical commentary, is debated in the besmedresh (bet ha-midrash) and yeshiva, where erudition, intricate reasoning, and eloquence—mastery of several languages, quick repartee, speech metaphor and speech play, wit and parable—are highly valued.

East European Jews could draw on extraordinary linguistic resources thanks to their bilingualism (in Hebrew [loshn koydesh] and Yiddish) and multilingualism: they were to varying degrees conversant with coterritorial languages (for example, Polish and Russian) and with the Kultursprache of their region (for example, German or French). Yiddish is a fusion language and, to the extent that Yiddish speakers also spoke the major languages in that fusion (German, loshn koydesh, and Slavic languages), they developed what has been called component awareness; that is, a perception of which words in Yiddish derive (or seemed to them to derive) from which of the component languages.

Thus, a person learned in Jewish religious texts who wished to speak Yiddish in an elevated style could choose from the Hebrew component of the language: saying seyfer rather than bukh (book), milkhome rather than krig (war); lekhem rather than broyt (bread). While learned discourse—redn in lernen—remained the province of a relatively small number of male speakers, expressions in Yiddish derived from loshn koydesh were deftly deployed not only by the clergy, kloyznikes (scholars in the kloyz), and pious women, but also in the argot of thieves, musicians, and other marginal groups, either to elucidate the topic of discussion for insiders or to prevent outsiders from understanding what was being said. In contrast, an elevated style that marked European cultivation might select consistently from the German or Slavic component of the language, depending on the region. Those who wanted Yiddish to become the Jewish national language tried to create standard Yiddish (and to purify it of daytshmerizmen, or Germanisms) and to raise a generation of standard Yiddish speakers by teaching the language in modern Yiddish schools.

East European Jews could draw not only upon their distinctive multilingual resources, but also upon a rich repertoire of conversational narrative, idioms and proverbs, and humor. While erudite speech was a marker of status for religiously learned men, women might show their eloquence in other ways, for example, in the deft use of proverb and parable (as well as other forms of indirect speech) to ease conflict in everyday social situations.

During the twentieth century, with the rise of social movements and political parties, a strong value was placed on the ability to speak in public, to debate and negotiate in meetings, to conduct oneself according to parliamentary rules, and to speak in new idioms and languages (for example, modern Hebrew). At early meetings of the Zionist Association in Kielce, which was founded in 1900, the audience, lacking competence in the kind of talk required, were too embarrassed to raise their hands. Gradually, however, they

learned to listen patiently to the views of their opponent, not to stop a rival and not to interrupt his words. In the beginning it was hard for many of the members to unlearn their habit of speaking when others were talking. In the study hall, when a gaba’i [synagogue manager] was being chosen, those who spoke in public would gather; no one could stop his spirit and not speak while his friend was expressing himself. The words would cross, get confused. In the mixture of voices it was impossible to understand the opinion of everyone. However here, in the Zionist Association, the members adopted polite manners. (from the Kielce yizker-bukh [Tsitron, ed., 1956/57])

Suggested Reading

Pinḥas Tsitron, ed., Sefer Kilts: Toldot kehilat Kilts (Tel Aviv, 1956/57), in Hebrew and Yiddish, English translations of sections available at jewishgen.org/yizkor/kielce/kielce.html; Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, trans. Shlomo Noble and Joshua A. Fishman, vol. 1, pp. 20–34 (Chicago, 1980).