Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Zaretski, Ayzik

(1891–1956), Yiddish linguist, lexicologist, and educator. Born in Pinsk into the family of a Jewish schoolteacher and compiler of a Russian mathematics textbook, Ayzik Zaretski received a Talmudic education and graduated from a Russian secondary school. He then studied mathematics at Dorpat (mod. Tartu, Estonia) University from 1913 to 1917. Active in the student historical and literary society, he was enthusiastic about Yiddish philology and Esperanto.

A member of the Bund, Zaretski founded Yiddish classes for workers in Samara, Russia, in 1917. From 1919 to 1921, he was a card-carrying Communist, later a nonparty man. In 1919, Zaretski moved to Moscow, where he briefly headed the Jewish Department of the Commissariat for Education (JDCE) and then served as an educator in the army for more than a year. In May 1920, he founded the Yiddish Philological Commission at the JDCE and was its secretary, with Avrom Vevyorke serving as chair. The commission stopped functioning after July 1921, when Zaretski moved to Kharkov (where his younger brother Mordkhe was a Yiddish educator) and organized another philological commission there.

Zaretski edited the first Soviet-period Yiddish philological collection, Yidish, published in Kharkov in 1923. His Praktishe yidishe gramatik (Practical Yiddish Grammar; first published in 1926) was criticized for its formalist approach. In the third volume of YIVO’s Filologishe shriftn (Studies in Philology; 1929), Zaretski explained his ideas about a system of Yiddish grammar built upon a mathematical principle. In 1927, he argued that a Yiddish Russian jargon appeared to be supplanting the old Germanic Yiddish language during the transitional period of Soviet Jewish assimilation. In 1928, he returned to Moscow, where he lectured on Yiddish linguistics at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute and wrote articles, textbooks, methodological materials, and dictionaries. In 1938, after the Yiddish Department had been closed down as part of the phasing out of the Soviet Yiddish educational system, he became a university lecturer in the areas of general and Russian linguistics. From time to time he wrote for Yiddish newspapers, and he prepared a number of works for publication, but the whereabouts of his archives are unknown. After World War II and until his death, he lived in Kursk.

From 1919, Zaretski was the major architect of Soviet Yiddish reform involving the spelling of Hebrew words according to the general phonetic rules of Yiddish. He was guided by Ber Borokhov’s interdialectal approach, which canonized norms associated with the pronunciation of Vilna Yiddish-speaking intellectuals. (Moreover, Zaretski believed that the two-gender system of Lithuanian Yiddish was more acceptable as a literary standard.) In 1920, he formulated rules for the respelling; ironically, however, in order to apply Zaretski’s algorithm, the user had to be proficient in Hebrew spelling.

Although he was a radical language planner, in the 1920s Zaretski opposed introducing a Latin alphabet for Yiddish. Around 1930, he revised his stand and became one of the most active “Latinizers.” His 1930 article “Latinizacje fun der jidišer šrift” (Latinization of Yiddish Writing; the heading was written in the “new” orthography) listed such reasons for the reform as “the Roman alphabet is ideologically closer to communism” and “Yiddish letters are full of harmful associations with religion, Hebrew, and national isolation.” He found little support among Yiddish-language planners, who kept postponing a final decision until Latinization was condemned by Soviet authorities in 1934.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, Soviet Yiddish: Language Planning and Linguistic Development (Oxford, 1999); Dov-Ber Kerler, “Ayzik Zaretski shraybt fun Stalinabad,” in Oksforder yidish, ed. Dovid Katz et al., vol. 3, pp. 681–700 (Oxford, 1995).