Untying the Holy Tongue: the Transformation of Sacred Language in American Yiddish Literature
Manseau, Peter Leo
Throughout Eastern European Jewish history, the Yiddish language served to demarcate which subjects, people, and ideas were specific to the Jewish sphere, and which belonged to the larger world. Within this context, the use of the Hebrew and Aramaic components of the language, referred to as loshn koydesh ("the holy tongue"), played a part in maintaining the cohesion of a minority community at frequent risk from a hostile majority culture. Yet the meaning of loshn koydesh underwent a transformation with the flowering of Yiddish literature in North America. From the 1910s to the 1940s, immigrant Jewish writers began to question the place of loshn koydesh within their language. While some hoped to de-Hebraicize Yiddish to make the point that they were not bound by explicitly Jewish subjects, others chose to make ironic use of the language's biblically derived elements. The former came to view loshn koydesh as an unwelcome foreign influence, and the latter attempted to subvert the implications of loshn koydesh by finding for it a variety of novel uses. Thus while Hebrew and Aramaic vocabularies were taken for granted in the European Jewish milieu, both the presence and absence of loshn koydesh in American Yiddish became conspicuous.Because loshn koydesh traditionally served as a hedge between Jewish and non-Jewish spheres, the American transformation of this part of the language can be seen most plainly in Yiddish writers' attempts to express religious ideas drawn from outside the boundaries of Jewish experience. The poetry, fiction, and translations composed by Eastern European Jewish immigrants display a surprising eclecticism within a population often thought to be religiously uniform. In works ranging from modernist poetry to renderings of Christian scriptures, creative uses of loshn koydesh reflect diverse cultural, political, and theological positions on the meaning of Jewishness and the boundaries of communal identity.This dissertation argues that the transformation of loshn koydesh in America provides a view of evolving Jewish self-understandings early in the twentieth century. Moreover, the dissertation explores the role of language in a tension that exists in all diaspora communities: the ongoing negotiation between continuity and innovation.
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