In three weeks, I’ll sit the exam Yiddish Level 1 at Universiteit Antwerpen. It feels a bit strange taking an exam again, after so many years of giving them. But apart from that, am I expressing my Jewishness through the studying of Yiddish language? I don’t think so.
The Pew Research Center recently released its report Jewish Americans in 2020 (well, actually it deals merely with Jewish U.S. Americans). Pew’s former study on the subject was published 2013, so the weekly Forward – Forverts (‘Jewish. Fearless. Since 1897.’) gave the new one quite a lot of attention from different angles. Rukhl Schaechter, the editor of the magazine, pointed in her comment straightforwardly to ‘What the new Pew study missed by not asking about Yiddish’ (or in the Yiddish version: ‘Too bad the new Pew study has not enquired about Yiddish’).
Schaechter is surprised that in the new study, just as in the former one, more than half of the questions concerning Jewish identity focus on religious aspects, even though only one in five Jews report religion is very important in their life. (Among US adults overall, 41% seems to esteem religion as particularly important.) I quote Schaechter:
In fact, 32% of Jewish adults do not consider themselves members of any religious Jewish branch or denomination of American Judaism, and 27% categorized themselves as “Jews of no religion.” This includes those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and say that they consider themselves Jewish in some way – such as ethnically, culturally or because of their family background.
By focussing on the religious aspects of Jewishness, the Pew study “fails to take into consideration the many American Jews who may not believe in God, but who identify strongly with the Jewish people and express it through non-religious means”, such as for instance “sprinkling their speech with Yiddish words and inflections” or “actually taking Yiddish classes”. She also points to the increasing number of people studying Yiddish (not just in the US, I would add, but as a worldwide phenomenon) and to the success of the Yiddish Word of the Day video clips or a Yiddish language-learning app with hundreds of thousands of visitors. So, it’s too bad, says Schaechter, Pew didn’t include learning Yiddish or engaging in Yiddish culture as “measures of expressing Jewishness”.
Schaechter may be right that for a significant proportion of US American Jews Yiddish language, food, music, or culture in general might be crucial in the construction of their Jewish identity – the relation between Jewish and Yiddish however does not necessarily spread in both directions. It’s obvious Yiddish culture has its roots in the traditional Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi communities, but one can study and like Yiddish (culture) and still stay far from any ‘Jewishness’ – be it ethnic, cultural or because of family background and history.
One of my favourite cookbooks is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food; I’m fond of traditional and modern klezmer, and even more so of John Zorn’s Masada recordings – but these are not expressions of any Jewishness of mine. Similarly, I can study Sranan tongo without in the least claiming to be Surinamese. In that sense, Yiddish is a global language, and Yiddish cooking and music are as universal as Italian cuisine or jazz. And as for Elijah, I guess I’ll just wait and see.