All Languages, None Correctly

“He spoke not one, but all languages, none correctly…”

Early in the magnificent novel The Name of the Rose, Brother William the detective, along with his assistant Adso, are called to a monastery to solve a murder. Among the first people they encounter is a man whose character is portrayed through his unique way of talking. Here are Salvatore’s first words:

“Penitenziagite! Watch out for the draco who cometh in futurm to gnaw your anima! Death is super nos! Pray the Saint Peter come to liberar nos a malo and all our sin! Ha ha, you like this negromanzia de Domini Nostri Jesu Christi! Et anco jois m’es dols e plazer m’es dolors.. Cave el diabolo! Semper lying in wait for me in some angulum to snap at my heels. But Salvatore is not stupidus! Bonum monasterium, and aqui refectorium and pray to dominum nostrum. And the resto is not worth merda. Amen. No?”

I was reminded of Salvatore and that magnificent monologue last fall as I tried to trudge my way through an article in a 1911 labor newspaper. The article was a glowing bio of Louis D. Brandies who is geven di nayer Tcherman fun Unzer KHoard ov Arbitreyshon.

The Tsherman

OK, the khaf [Kh] is a typo. Put a beys [B] there. He has become ‘The Chairman of Our Board of Arbitration’. Reading this article had a strange effect on me. Apart from the glowing and extended praise of the man that does not strike one as altogether journalistic, the piece was a tsimmes [hodgepodge] of Yiddish, German and English words.

Instead of ‘several’ or ‘many’ being ‘a sakh’, for example, we get the German ‘manche’. There are also a sakh German spellings—gelt as geld געלד, for example. In German the final ‘d’ is pronounced ‘t’, but in Yiddish gelt is gelt געלט. And there are extra ayins and heys throughout: נעהמען, וויעדער, and so on. Rendered in English letters, the equivalent of spelling ‘vieder’ for ‘vider’, ‘nehmen’ for ‘nemen’. The pronunciation is the same, and once you get used to it, it does not cause particular problems, but it retains an odd feel throughout, and dates the piece as being 100 years old.

The English intrusions are even more frequent and jarring. Obviously some names in English, such as the Trimont Strit Subvey probably should be transliterated as is into Yiddish spelling. Many words refer to American institutions, such as the Trusts, the State of Oregon, and, as above, the Board of Arbitration. But at some point, a ‘strayk’ iz geven ‘gesetlt’ (the strike was ‘settled’), a lawyer is asked to derlangen zayn ‘bil’ (to present his ‘bill’). These seem gratuitous.

My first reaction to all this was confusion. Did the writer even speak Yiddish? Was it street Yiddish? No, actually, the reverse, my teacher D told me. The German, and even the English, are in there to show off. I have spent a lot of time with my grandfather’s Yiddish, and perhaps too little with other people’s. I really haven’t read enough different kinds of material yet. But what interests me about that article is how one needs some kind of context to understand what the different kinds of language use meant.

My mother’s first reaction was distaste. English sprinkled into Yiddish is a corruption. What Second Avenue did to Yiddish, by her father’s lights and by hers, was a coarsening. [Let’s just say she’s not particularly a fan of the language in the “Joe & Paul” parodies of advertising Yinglish]. And, from her point of view all those German words don’t belong there at all.

As an aside, the narrator does not take kindly to Salvatore’s language stew either. “…he had invented for himself a language which used the sinews of the languages to which he had been exposed—and once I thought that his was, not the Ademic language that a happy mankind had spoken, all united by a single tongue from the origin of the world to the Tower of Babel, or one of the languages that arose after the dire event of their division, but precisely the Bablish language of the first day after the divine chastisement, the language of primeval confusion.” I can’t help but think of how Yiddish was demeaned as ‘jargon’ because it borrowed from multiple surrounding languages. I also wonder whether the date matters. The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, a year after the first European Union elections were held.

As for the labor newspaper, I think the date matters tremendously in understanding how the various languages are used, and why. The 1911 article is long after the huge wave of immigration began, and well after the Forverts began publishing, but still before the founding of YIVO in Europe. Jews in America were almost universally eager to learn English. Abe Cahan welcomed some Anglicisms into his newspaper’s Yiddish, first, because he did not want the language to be artificially separated from that of his readers, and second, because he was avidly pro-assimilation.

There was not yet a coherent counter movement. As for the German, a lot of German vocabulary and German spelling had crept into the language following the enlightenment [see my post on ‘Daytshmerish’] when many European Jews were educated in the gymnasium (secular high school). They brought these over with them. It’s true that literary writers in Europe had been working for at least twenty years to remove all that extra German. But YIVO standards that removed the Germanized spellings had not been published yet, let alone disseminated.

Another detail I observed was that while many of the English words in my article have no equivalent, and some are clearly gratuitous, there are also many English words specifically related to labor and labor issues [סטרייק (strike), קאָמפּאַני (company), פעקטאָריס (factories), טראָסטס (‘trusts’), and so on]. This vocabulary was important to a workers union that was actively trying to create solidarity among workers of different linguistic backgrounds. Taking these issues together, it seems to me the language of this article is probably not a street Yiddish, or a bottom-up mixing of languages, but the language of a leader educating the less erudite workers.

So, those are some impressions about what I think this language tsimmes might have meant in its original social context. But there’s one additional twist. The labor newspaper in question was published trilingually, in Italian, Yiddish and English. It would therefore be extremely useful to know whether the original was written in Yiddish, or whether it was written first in English and then adapted for the Yiddish-language edition.

I also had two other personal reactions. First, to me as an English speaker who knows some German words, I am in the opposite position of the original reader. The words that would have popped out at them because they were new, pop out at me because they are familiar. English words meant to arouse in the reader an eagerness to assimilate and an ambition to master the lingo of socialist activism are amusing to me, but the new thing to be mastered is the Yiddish. The German, sprinkled in to command respect, is merely a nuisance. Sometimes, I can’t tell the pompous German words from the natural German-origin Yiddish words. When I can, the writer loses my respect by trying too hard to impress.

My other reaction was, HOW COULD ANYONE POSSIBLY TRANSLATE SOMETHING LIKE THIS?? Of course it’s not that hard to translate the words, and the sense that the writer was trying to convey. A labor historian would probably only care about what the Jewish press had to say about Brandeis, or about the subway fare structure, or about the struggle between the locals and the larger union. But there is a unique feel that one gets from reading this material in its own idiom.

The thickness of the spelling [טהון, for טון] slows the reader down and immediately pegs the writing as 100 years old. Here, I think about reviews of the recent British novel The Wake. To tell this story, the writer invented a language, because he believed it was the only way to make the reader feel as though they were in a time and place (pre-Norman England) with a completely different pace of life and a different world view. Not all of this effect was due to spelling. There are vocabulary and vowel shifts, too. But, though I have not read The Wake, I can easily see how the spelling in “When i woc in the mergen all was blaec” puts you in a very specific imaginary landscape. In the case of the labor newspaper, even though it would clearly be ridiculous to write about the ‘brenthches of a yoonyin,’ or the ‘werkers at theyr shoppes,’ either of those would actually feel more similar to the experience of reading this Yiddish than a normal translation would.

So, while this unique scrambling of languages can’t, by definition, be rendered in English, I continue to wonder whether there might be some way to communicate what it feels like to read. After all, the excerpt from The Name of the Rose, with which I started this piece, is a convincing translation from ‘Italian-based, pan-European garble’ into ‘English-based, pan-European garble’. Kudos to the translator, William Weaver.

I should have said at the outset that I offer tonight’s blog post as my tribute to Umberto Eco who, I just learned, died today at age 84, I recommend his novel to you. It’s possible that I might love it out of proportion because it takes place in a scriptorium, and I was a calligrapher when I first read it. But there is much more to it than that.

And, so, though I have already run overlong, I can’t resist sharing one more tidbit from that vignette in The Name of the Rose, about how language is bound to social context. It provides a distant parallel to the labor-union lingo being all in English, as I described above. Adso, the narrator, tries to tell whether Salvatore’s is no language or every language. After thinking about it, he decides that he is not using words systematically or as independent entities, but in chunks tied to concrete experience. “…not so much his own sentences as the disiecta membra of other sentences, heard some time in the past, according to the present situation and what he wanted to say, as if he could speak of a food, for instance, only in the words of the people among whom he had eaten that food, and express his joy only with sentences that he had heard uttered by joyful people the day when he had similarly experienced joy.”

I leave it to you to decide whether we all learn language that way at first. And, in our multicultural world, maybe not only at first. I remember Leslie once had a friend who had spent nearly a decade of her young adult life in Germany. “Is there anything,” she wondered, “that you only know how to talk about, or only know how to do, in German?” Her friend thought for a moment. “I only know how to give birth in German.”

Name of the Rose cover

My beat up copy. RIP, Umberto Eco

Dray Matones

In Peretz’s story Dray Matones, a particularly Jewish moment, it seems to me, comes at the end of the Heavenly Tribunal, after a soul’s good deeds have been weighed against his sins. For the first time since the creation of the world, the scale balances exactly. The defending attorney says there is no basis for sending the soul to Gehenna. The prosecuting attorney argues that the soul has not earned admission to heaven. So, he is sentenced to float in between, until such time as God notices him, has mercy, and admits him to heaven.

The soul does not take it well. “Better the worst torture than nothing at all,” he complains. “Nothing is more horrible than nothing.”

It strikes me that, for a Jew, being out of the fray is an unnatural condition. We don’t have a tradition of monasticism. I don’t think we normally have anything in our mainstream metaphysics similar to the Dante’s Purgatory, and certainly nothing like the permanent state of Limbo. And, for all our history of wandering and our feeling of in-betweenness, there is always a sense that life counts, that it is for keeps.

In Di Goyrl fun Undzere Yiddishistishe Shuln (in the 1950s), my grandfather wrote about Zionist Jews in the United States. He felt that anyone who believed that the eventual goal was for all Jews to be gathered to Israel should go there. Otherwise, their lives in the diaspora would have the feel of “temporary housing”. The alternative was a commitment to the idea of Doyikayt. When Jews in the United States believed that Judaism could flourish anywhere, when they felt that the condition of being a people simultaneously distinct from and contributing to the surrounding gentile culture was our legitimate, authentic condition, with an important role to play in the world, then this feeling of “temporary housing” would disappear. What he and the Zionists of his day would certainly have had in common was that your choices should point to something, that life should not just be a matter of floating around and waiting.

Similarly, on an emotional plane, I don’t know a lot of Jews whose goal is the Buddhist goal of non-attachment. Nor even serenity. We want joy, and are willing to take crushing disappointment along with it if that is part of the package. Better keen sadness or pain than depression. To feel something is to be alive.


Jesus in Limbo, by Domenico Beccafumi. In Catholic theology, because they died in God’s favor but did not know Jesus, the Jewish Patriarchs are consigned to Limbo to wait until Jesus returns to redeem them. Neutral? It looks like the waiting room at Penn Station.



Second Thoughts

After publishing my first reactions to the news of the day in “After the Caucus, A Different Race,” this post did not feel fully cooked to me. But there may be a good reason. I, like most people from my tribe of secular Jews, have ideological commitments designed to give short shrift to tribal thinking and tribal allegiances. There’s an irony to this. Our specific group has flourished in the U.S. compared to everywhere else we’ve ever lived, precisely because [edit. once the black-white line was breached] civil rights were not doled out by specific group. So we have a tribal stake in not thinking tribally.

But tribal behavior is a reality.

Then, too, it’s obviously a disadvantage for a candidate who plays on group loyalties to hail from such a tiny tribe. Jews are less than 2% of the U.S. population, and secular Jews are a smaller group than that. If groups are mutually supportive of one another’s aspirations, then that’s not a problem, but if every group competes for prerogatives, we automatically lose.

As a writer, I would prefer to have command of these tensions. A better literary critic or historian might be able to place my grandfather’s stories in context. In fact, within the same book, there are other stories I did not write about that are overtly tribal; warning, for example, against intermarriage.

On the larger scale, there have been characteristically Jewish forms of cosmopolitan universalism. All are laced with ambivalence. Going back to Peretz’s generation, Jews who bought into the enlightenment idea that they could trade being less Jewish and more Polish (or German, or Russian, or French) for equal citizenship rights were still discriminated against. So, national loyalty did not grant the privilege of being accepted in the larger group. But Jews were also continually accused of having dual loyalties. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Keeping an eye open to the past is a way of honoring both poles of this ambivalence. There are all kinds of ways of thinking about this election. I have not yet heard any of my secular Jewish friends talk about what a Sanders presidency would mean for the Jews. Again, it’s the politically and religiously more conservative Jews that usually think in this way. But seeing the racism that came out of the woodwork following Obama’s win, can you even imagine?

After the Caucus, a Different Race


In Amolike Yidn, in a story titled, The Messiah and Shooting, Jewish Eastern Europe is in political ferment. More locally, the shtetl Kalinkovitch is abuzz because a young leader named Shimshon “…was done with the Social Democrats and had become a Revolutionary Socialist. It was said that he carried a revolver with him.” Then, in his exuberance after a political meeting he fires the gun into the air, startling a nearby pregnant woman who falls, eventually leading her to miscarry. The boy’s father implores Rabbi Getzl, the town melamed (teacher), to talk to him.


Meanwhile, back in Iowa, it looks as though Trump has finally started washing out, and the Republican contest may soon turn to a struggle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It seems increasingly likely the Republicans will be nominating a Latino candidate, a possibility which represented the biggest challenge to the Democrats all along.

More and more, politics in the US is tribal, as is much of our cultural life, with identity politics in the ascendancy. I personally see this up close in the poetry world. The aspects of identity that have the spark are mostly the tribal ones. It’s not exciting or interesting to be an American, a 30-year-old, a suburbanite (it has never been exciting to be a suburbanite); nor for example is identity crystallized as a calling, such as a doctor participating in the shared community of healers; nor is it au courant to talk about a mother, without any other qualifying adjective, balancing her numerous and insane time demands. Nature poems are not just seen as irrelevant, but as regressive. The exciting thing is to be an African American, a Mexican American, a gender-queer person, a woman who has been negatively singled out. It’s also, from a literary perspective, energizing to have been oppressed or to have suffered, because writing can be an act of transformation, of personal redemption, of sharing with those who thought they were alone.

This atmosphere might marginally lower my own personal opportunities. I also strongly regret the misguided devaluing of nature, including our own common human nature. Nevertheless, when it comes to literature, I think the increased importance of social identities is important and good. Many voices have been systematically excluded until very recently, and many stories went untold. In the face of prejudice and discrimination, a positive group identity can be the basis of survival. Colorblindness, for example, has not worked out well at all for Black Americans. Mostly, so-called “race blindness” turns out to be racism-blindness. It takes the form of resisting help for people who are discriminated against, all the while discrimination continues, outside of language and even out of awareness. A lousy deal.

I saw the pride my Latina friend took in her friend Richard Blanco when he was chosen to be the inaugural poet. I don’t see why many Latino voters won’t also be proud to support a presidential candidate who is one of them. And I think that other Republicans, who are sick of being called racist, are going to be eager to prove they aren’t, just as all of America was eight years ago when we had a chance to vote for Obama. So move Florida and Colorado into the Republican column, and see how tough the electoral vote-gathering challenge becomes for the Democrats.


Meanwhile, a man from my own tribe is running for the Democratic nomination. A secular Jew. But the American strain of left-wing secular Jews are an explicitly non-tribal tribe. Their (our) version of enlightenment liberalism and democratic socialism is focused more on universal individual rights and on equality, not on taking sides when resources or power dynamics bring one national or cultural group into conflict with another. And those secular Jews with tribal inclinations have gone for Israel as the locus of their sense of belonging, rather than saying, for example, “All educated humanists are my family, no matter what their origins may be.”

A community of ideas or of ideals is different than a tribe. It doesn’t touch that deep part of our animal nature that prefers our own child to someone else’s child, treats our own sister differently than anyone else’s sister. I’ve heard people say, “I only read novels written by women now.” I’ve seen others count writers of color included in literary magazines. Can you imagine someone saying, “I only read books by those who write about people from groups other than their own?”, or, “I only read poems by people who talk about what all people have in common, everywhere?” In short, universalists are lousy at group cohesion.

What Sanders does in terms of identification is to talk about class. He tries to use class resentment to unite everyone against the extremely rich people who have distorted our political system. Of course his opponents characterize this as dangerously divisive, but as far as I’m concerned, class is directly analogous to the issue with racism and identity I already talked about. The division is there in fact. Refusing to see or to talk about class conflict only prevents helping the poor, while continuing to covertly buttress the forces that make equal opportunity impossible.

Overall, in our country’s political and cultural life today, we’ve swung extremely far in the direction of tribalism, away from ideas, and away from appreciation of what unites us. An idea is not treated as separate from the person who has it, nor a poem from the person who wrote it [If you’re curious about the latter, Google “Yi-Fen Chou”].

In this atmosphere, it’s worth considering the candidates purely from a perspective of group memberships. Bernie is a member of “the non-rich”, which forms the biggest single group of American voters. But do they see themselves as a group? Will they vote as a group? Poor and working class Americans have resisted this appeal time and time again, in favor of someone who had been poor, is now rich, and promises to help everyone rise.

Then, too, he will arouse tribal suspicion among some Americans, to a small degree because he is a Jew, but even more because he is an atheist, or will be labeled as such. That is a group which average white Americans fear even more than they fear people of color or Muslims.

From this ground-level group membership perspective, Hillary is a stronger candidate than Bernie, because she is a woman. Simply put, she is a member of a bigger tribe, with more clout, and with more inroads into other tribes (Latinas, for example). The way to be simultaneously tribal and nearly universal is to be the champion of everyone except white men like me. Hey, we had our 232-year turn.

But  who can begin to nudge us, without denying the racial and class imbalances that prevent us from being a true democracy yet, in the direction of also seeing our commonality? Where is the movement that can promote universal dignity, rights, and opportunity? Who can speak to Americans as a general class, while still acknowledging the roles that group memberships, both born and chosen, play in our society and in our individual lives? This really should not be too complex an idea for voters to grasp. When my children were three I used to read them a book called, “We are Different, We are the Same.” Sadly, from all the campaigns, what I mostly expect is lip service to universality even as the levers of difference and resentment are being pulled for all they’re worth.


In the story with which I started this post, the old Rabbi and the young revolutionary have a fascinating conversation. The rabbi asks the young man what he hopes to accomplish by shooting. Here’s his reply:

“Put simply and in your language, Rabbi, we want to bring the Messiah to everyone, to the whole world.” Shimshon’s voice quieted: “Kohelet [in Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4] says, And I have further considered all the robbery that is committed under the sun. And here are the tears of all who have been robbed, and there is no one there to comfort them. And the power is in the hands of their oppressors, and they have no one there to comfort them. Rabbi, we will comfort them. No, we will put down the oppressors, and there will be no more oppressors. We will clean out all the robbers and there will be no more tears on anyone’s cheeks.”

“A fine reason, Shimshon, but tell me how you will carry it out?

“Simple, Rabbi. We will put guns in the hands of the unfortunate, teach them to shoot, and they will clean out all the evildoers. No trace of them will remain.”

The rabbi counters with an argument that bloodshed must and will only lead to bloodshed. Told that this anti-revolutionary stance means he is denying there is any hope, Getzl disagrees:

“What do you mean no hope? Each person has an image of God in them. It is written, “And God created Adam in his own image and likeness.” Not, “And God created the Jews…” but human beings. Of course, in the end, evil will disappear from the earth. But you will not hurry it with the rifle.”

The nonbelieving Jew quotes Torah. The Rabbi implies that the Messianic age will depend also on non-Jews and will see Jews and non-Jews on an equal moral footing. I’m still making my way into Yiddish literature, but I hope and expect that these tribal loyalists who think globally, and these universalists who are proud of their tribal origins, are both abundant. The capacity to acknowledge both difference and sameness. Through a narrow entrance into a big tent.



It should not be that hard to grasp.