Audiences loved Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, but Yiddish gets no love – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on January 11, 2020

NEW YORK Fidler afn Dakh, the Yiddish adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, closed on Jan. 5 after a wildly successful 11-month run off-Broadway and an equally successful seven-month stint at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Shraga Friedmans Yiddish translation of Fiddler is a miracle (of miracles) and it was a joy to see it and Yiddish celebrated not just in my little shtetl, but in the mainstream, too.

And yet, when I recently stepped onto a stage and spoke Yiddish, I was less appreciated and more iconicized. Let me explain.

I didnt even know it happened until I read about it in the newspaper afterwards. I had done something quite out of the ordinary for my life: I took a gig as a performer at a Cocktails and Klezmer evening in Philadelphia. My job was to lead the audience through some Yiddish questions and unpack a few elements of Yiddish grammar. I was the educational content in between the booze and schmooze.

If one had to locate Yiddish within the popular imagination, it would be found in the primeval Jewish throat.

The success of Yiddish Fiddler shows that Yiddish, from afar, can attain a certain symbolic stature in the public eye of the theatre class. But the intimate experience of Yiddish, up close and personal, still speaks to nothing so much as lingering discomfort, and an estrangement between observer and object.

Linguistic anthropologists Judith Irvine and Susan Gal describe those linguistic features which were believed to depict or display a social groups inherent nature or essence as iconic, hence the process of iconicization. When European anthropologists began describing the languages of southern Africa in the mid-19th century, they focused on the phonetically unfamiliar click sounds, describing them as similar to the sounds of animals, or rocks striking each other.

Clicks were a linguistic feature which indexed the peoples who used them. Drawing on the prevailing racial-scientific logic of their day, European linguists concluded that the more clicks a language contained, the more degraded or subhuman was the speaker.

I dont think Billy Crystal, or Jesse Bernstein for that matter, are expressing a personal hatred or contempt when they index Yiddish speakers by the depth of their gutturals or the volume of their phlegm. In fact, Im pretty confident theyre expressing their feelings of affection and intimacy, using the ordinary vocabulary of Jewish life, terms for which any of us might reach.

The problem is that those feelings of personal affection and intimacy are in tension with a whole bunch of received ideas about the relative worth of the language. Without even knowing it, weve all absorbed a set of intensely negative beliefs about Yiddish. The origin of those beliefs are so distant, and have become so tangled up with recent history, as to be mystified.

But, if we were to unravel those negative beliefs to their origins, I believe we would find that they lie in the very foundations of Western academia, in which Europes Jews were depicted as a deformed, corrupted Other. The first scholars to study Yiddish were German Humanists, who believed that the language was a degenerate ancestor of the evolved German they spoke. The beliefs of these scholars were clothed in the new language of science and scholarship, which made their truth all the more undeniable, even to the Yiddish-speaking Jews they diminished.

I think theres quite a bit of truth within those explanations. I would suggest that theres another, even more powerful process at work. Fiddler is one of the most beloved and well known texts in American Jewish culture, not to mention American pop culture overall. It is so well known that by attending the show in Yiddish, even non-Yiddish speakers can have the experience of direct access to a language that would otherwise be closed off to them. Yiddler bestows the feeling of bilingualism, without the risks of investing in formal language study. It is deeply, uniquely, accessible to everyone, not just a small circle of Yiddish lovers.

As much as I want to see more Yiddish language shows land off-Broadway, its unlikely that the smashing success of Yiddler will translate to similar levels of success for other Yiddish theater, or that there will be a sudden increase in American Jews signing up to learn Yiddish. For one thing, though were living in a golden age of Yiddish education, the resources and infrastructure just arent there for large numbers of people to begin learning the language. Moreover, American Jews are still Americans, and monolingualism is a powerful American value, one much stronger than the unsexy time and effort it takes to learn a second language especially a low prestige language like Yiddish. Its exhausting to have to justify to everyone why you are spending your precious time learning what is supposedly a dead (and useless) language.

The search for roots and longing to connect still has to compete with our internalized distrust of the very things we are seeking. I was only half-surprised recently to see a just for fun social media posting addressed to fellow Jews, asking us to share the old country names we thought sounded the most awful or embarrassing. My heart broke at the thought of Tevye ending up on this persons list.

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Audiences loved Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, but Yiddish gets no love - The Jerusalem Post

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