In honor of Passover, I’m pleased to pass on an essay from Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s a sad meditation on an absurd book, the phrase book Say It In Yiddish, for visitors to a country that never existed.
I dream of two possible destinations. The first might be a modern independent state very closely analogous to the State of Israel—call it the State of Yisroel—a postwar Jewish homeland created during a time of moral emergency, located presumably, but not necessarily, in Palestine; it could be in Alaska, or on Madagascar. Here, perhaps, that minority faction of the Zionist movement who favored the establishment of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews were able to prevail over their more numerous Hebraist opponents. There is Yiddish on the money, of which the basic unit is the herzl, or the dollar, or even the zloty. There are Yiddish color commentators for soccer games, Yiddish-speaking cash machines, Yiddish tags on the collars of dogs. Public debate, private discourse, joking and lamentation, all are conducted not in a new-old, partly artificial language like Hebrew, a prefabricated skyscraper still under construction, with only the lowermost of its stories as yet inhabited by the generations, but in a tumbledown old palace capable in the smallest of its stones (the word nu) of expressing slyness, tenderness, derision, romance, disputation, hopefulness, skepticism, sorrow, a lascivious impulse, or the confirmation of one’s worst fears.