Next year in Yisroel

by Ted on April 6, 2004

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.



Barry 04.06.04 at 5:33 am

Thank you very much for finding this lovely essay.


Mr Ripley 04.06.04 at 7:07 am

What Barry said. I once saw the phrasebook in question myself, and never gave it a third thought. Chabon turns it into a meditation worthy of Avram Davidson.


Theophylact 04.06.04 at 4:37 pm

He’s working on a novel, Hotzeplotz, inspired by this phrasebook.


Scott Martens 04.06.04 at 4:38 pm

“Lately there may have been a few problems assimilating the Jews of Quebec […]”

I snorted Diet Coke out of my nose on reading that. Dammit, that’s my second QWERTY keyboard in a year.


Joshua W. Burton 04.08.04 at 7:51 am

_Just what am I supposed to do with this book?_

Take it to Bnei Brak and Kfar Habad, and to the northern belt of Jerusalem from Ramot all the way to Mea She’arim; to Lakewood, NJ and Kiryas Joel, NY; to Crown Heights and Boro Park; to Golders Green and Stamford Hill; to Hollywood, FL and Skokie, IL and mile after mile of Bathurst in Toronto….

It’s amazing what a doubling time of 11 years (more like 9.5 years in Israel) will do for a small remnant population over the course of half a century. By naive extrapolation, Yiddish will be the majority language in New Jersey by about 2050, and in North America around 2130.

Comments on this entry are closed.