Chabon Says it in Yiddish

As part of the current Chabon-mania in the media this week, the New York Times’ Patricia Cohen went with him to visit the real city of Sitka, Alaska, which served as the model for the fictional Sitka setting for THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION. The piece is interesting enough on its own but Cohen highlights what to date has been discussed only in brief, if that: the origins of Chabon’s novel:

[Chabon]  said he took the first, unwitting step down this road-not-taken a decade ago. That’s when Mr. Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” wrote a

controversial essay about “Say It in Yiddish,” a 1958 phrase book for

travelers that he found both poignant and funny. “Where would be the

most fabulous kingdom you could have taken this phrase book to, if the

Holocaust hadn’t happened?” he wondered. To him, the phrase book was

predicated on the ultimate “Yiddishland,” a place “where you might need

to say ‘Help, I need a tourniquet’ ” (which the phrase book

thoughtfully provides).

After Mr. Chabon’s essay appeared, he was

attacked for mocking the language and prematurely announcing its

demise. He had not realized that its revered authors, Uriel and

Beatrice Weinreich, wrote the book at the request of the publisher

because Yiddish was spoken widely in Israel in the 1950s and in other

Yiddish communities around the world. “I had a double reaction,” Mr.

Chabon said. “I don’t like having my ignorance pointed out to me. I was

embarrassed and shamed. I had the nice Jewish boy impulse that I

disrespected my elders and caused pain and embarrassment. But I also

felt a total sense of irritation and spite.”

In Yiddish the word

is “tsalooches,” he explained. “Oh yeah? That offended you? Well, I’m

going to write a goddamn novel, and you think that was offensive? Just


The essay in question first appeared in its original format in Civilizations in the July/August 1997 issue, and a shorter version then followed suit

in Harper’s that fall. And attacked is, shall we say, putting it mildly – but not without some very good reasons.

Cohen sums up the gist of Chabon’s essay pretty well but it’s

worth pointing out exactly what he envisioned as a result of

reading this tiny guidebook (a copy, I might add, currently takes up

space in a bookshelf in my apartment):

I can imagine another Yisroel, the youngest
nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska
Territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of
Europe. (For a brief while, I once read, Franklin Roosevelt was nearly
sold on such a plan.) Perhaps after the war, in this Yisroel, the
millions of immigrant Polish, Rumanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian,
Austrian, Czech and German Jews held a referendum, and chose
independence over proferred statehood in the U.S. The resulting country
is obviously a far different place than Israel. It is a cold, northern
land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer.
The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin,
Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us,
whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world. It
would be absurd to speak Hebrew, that tongue of spikenard and almonds,
in such a place. This Yisroel–or maybe it would be called Alyeska–is
a kind of Jewish Sweden, social-democratic, resource rich, prosperous,
organizationally and temperamentally far more akin to its immediate
neighbor, Canada, then to its more freewheeling benefactor far to the
south. Perhaps, indeed, there has been some conflict, in the years
since independence, between the United States and Alyeska. Perhaps
oilfields have been seized, fishing vessels boarded. Perhaps not all of
the native peoples were happy with the outcome of Roosevelt’s
humanitarian policies and the treaty of 1948.” Lately there may have
been a few problems assimilating the Jews of Quebec, in flight from the
ongoing separatist battles there.

Context in hand, the essay’s assertion that SAY IT IN YIDDISH is “the saddest book [Chabon] has ever read” and “an absurd, poignant artifact of a country that never was” met with a great deal from controversy – especially among those who still speak Yiddish. A number of vociferous letters to the editor were mailed in both to Civilizations and Harpers that the Yiddish language was hardly dead but still thriving in various pockets. And on Mendele, a mailing list devoted to Yiddish speakers, scholars and enthusiasts, heated discussion ensued for weeks.

It began when Al Grand (better known as the librettist for Die Yam Gazlonim, the Yiddish version of the Pirates of Penzance) sought to alert Mendele readers to “a delightfully humorous essay”, referring to Chabon’s piece. Mordkhe Schaechter was one of many who disagreed with Grand’s assertion, calling Chabon’s essay “an ignorant insult to the World of Yiddish” and to SAY IT IN YIDDISH’s authors, Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich.

With controversy raging, the best surprise was yet to come: Chabon’s rather contrite appearance on Mendele, having been alerted “by an interested party who began forwarding [the exchanges]“. Though Chabon expressed regret to have offended anyone, he stood by his essay:

I wasn’t interested in writing about whether this book was, or could be, useful; it is evident to anyone not blinded by sentiment or passion that such a book is, in a practical  sense, all but useless. What interested me was imagining another world in  which a Yiddish phrasebook for travellers would have an obvious referent, one  with the official passports, customs agents, airlines, and ferry companies  that play such a prominent (and, to me, poignant) role in the phrase book.   The more I thought about, and imagined this country, the sadder I felt at its absence, a sadness which — for me, the only person I eve  claimed to be  speaking for–no amount of extinct Soviet republics, Chasidic neighborhoods,  and Yiddish preservation and renewal societies will ever completely abate.

But if Chabon thought Mendele would be mollified, he was mistaken. Zachary Baker pointed out that at the time, the most popular selling book at the National Yiddish Book Center was, even almost forty years later, SAY IT IN YIDDISH. Mindy Fliegler best sums up the prevailing sentiment:

Listen up friend Chabon. A number of us have gotten together and created a dictionary of chemistry, in Yiddish!! (I hope it will come out in a short time)….And who needs it ….? WE need it because it is our Yiddish CULTURE…..for the same reason the Guide for Travellers is needed….throughout the world… This is Yiddish Culture we are talking about, that is having its new uprising….Even though khaver Chabon doesn’t see the forest for the trees, there is a whole forest growing out there, without a country…(Lomir vayter geyn, mit di fis oyf di pleytzes.)

Eventually, as do all heated discussions, this one died down and Mendele moved onto other topics. But a few years later, in his book ADVENTURES IN YIDDISHLAND: POSTVERNACULAR LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, Jeffrey Shandler added his say to the Chabon fray:

Chabon does not appear to have researched the history of Say It in Yiddish; had he done so, he would have learned that it was

created not at the Weinreichs’ own initiative but at the request of Dover

Publications’ founder and president, Hayward Cirker. Cirker envisioned the

phrase book as being, in part, of practical value; Yiddish was widely spoken in

Israel in the late 1950s, and there were substantial Yiddish-speaking

communities in Paris, Montréal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and other places

where someone who knew only English and had limited or no knowledge of Yiddish

might find the volume useful. Moreover, Beatrice Weinreich recalls, Cirker

regarded Say It in Yiddish as a

symbolic gesture of his devotion to a language that he had learned as a child

at home and in schools run by the Workmen’s Circle.

Say It in Yiddish is, arguably, an

exercise in artifice—but then, the same can be said for any such phrase book

which offers travelers the false promise that it provides sufficient skills for

conversing in a language that they don’t know.Even

so, this book stands out as an example of the powerful and contentious role of

the imaginary in Jewish culture, for _Say

It in Yiddish_ and its reception constitute an implicit exercise in

imagining Yiddishland.

So with all this preamble comes a point: it was and always will be Chabon’s right to write the book he envisioned in the way he saw fit, and the end result is that THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION is, on balance, a page-turner with extra philosophical weight. But I am probably the only person among litbloggers, book reviewers and other literary types whose first language is Yiddish – or certainly, the only person of my generation who is a native Yiddish speaker (even though, I admit, I understand the language better than I speak it these days.) Which meant that even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t quite shake the inborn expectations I had in hoping somehow that there would be a more living, breathing personification of a Yiddish-speaking homeland instead of the more ersatz, mainstream-friendly result that is winning Chabon a lot of praise from my critical peers. There’s no trace of anti-Semitism (a very silly argument put forward by a gossip section, anyway) but there is, to my mind, a rather cavalier attitude about Yiddish as a closed-in, precious culture that falls away upon closer examination of the culture in question.

It’s not that I think the Mendele listmembers and other like-minded critics are absolutely correct – occasionally the consensus defense borders on knee-jerk – but Chabon’s original essay did prove to be a harbinger of the fiction to come; one need only go back to that tsalooches-like comment he made in the New York Times piece. And had there been just a bit more respect and understanding instead of irritation and spite, I suspect THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION could well have been the magnificent opus as declared by so many to date.