Yiddish and Ukrainian at the beginning of the 20th Century

Оleksandra Uralov. Copyright: Hromadske Radio

You are listening to Hromadske Radio. Today on the program Encounters we are discussing Gennady Estraikh’s book Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century. It is presented by Oleksandra Uralova, scholarly associate of the Judaica Center, who also works as a translator and a guide.

Іryna Slavinska:  Let’s begin with the formulation. The book is called Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Dukh i Litera Publishers). Is it about Ukrainian culture?

Oleksandra Uralova:  That’s a great question. What do we mean by Ukrainian culture? A culture created by citizens? Yes, of course. A culture created by the people who were living on these territories? Yes, without a doubt. A culture in the Ukrainian language? Let’s put it this way: that’s a bit complicated. But one has to consider that culture, history, literature, [and] the language of Eastern European Jewry are absolutely a full-fledged part of Ukrainian history and culture.

And the fact is that one of the purely historical and political reasons for this is the so-called Pale of Settlement, which is being studied in schools right now. The Pale of Settlement was comprised of the current territories of Ukraine and Belarus, where Jewish families were permitted to live, but—and this must be explained—not in large cities and they could not engage in, say, agriculture. It was in fact a kind of a [sic] ‘Ukrainian’ ghetto. And, as a rule, it was [home to] the crafts stratum of society and, partly, urbanites. And it was precisely this stratum that gave rise to an absolutely unique culture, with its own theatre, its own literature, and its own newspapers. And, in addition, this culture was political, with its own political movements, and its own means of communication. And all of this will prove interesting.

One should not wonder where this language originated. It existed here for quite a long time, and we must remember that during the period of the Universals, if you recall, on the 100-karbovantsi banknote of the Central Rada, the words “100 karbovantsi” were written in four languages, including Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska:  By the way, there are other artefacts from the same period, for example, marriage certificates that also appear in several languages, at the very least in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. There are also Polish inscriptions. In short, this language appears in various combinations, and these examples are frequently cited to illustrate the multicultural character of large cities, like Kyiv or Lviv, in various periods of their development. If we speak about the tradition of the culture that was being created in the Yiddish language, that was being created in Ukraine, when does it begin? How deep does this horizon reach?

Oleksandra Uralova:  I am not a culturologist, so I can’t offer a direct answer to this question. But the author of this book, Gennady Estraikh, can provide the answer. He is a linguist, literary specialist, a wonderful translator, incidentally, including from the Yiddish, and the author of one of the best textbooks on this language. He is actually a native of Zaporizhzhia. Right now he is teaching in the U.S. and the UK, and conducting intensive research on Yiddish.

In his book he talks about the twentieth century because the twentieth century is the age marked by the significant emergence of so-called small languages onto a certain stage. But before this period, of course, both literature and theatre had been developing for a very, very long time. In principle, we can speak of medieval Yiddish. We can speak of inscriptions on certain documents, some commentaries on spiritual literature in Hebrew, signed in Yiddish, probably just in order to explain some words, later to be interpreted and sung for the population.

Gennady Estraikh. ”Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, (Dukh i Litera), Center for Research on the History and Culture of East European Jewry.

For a very long time this language did not have a name. In our lands at least, in the European languages, it was called “jargon.” There are many Jewish languages. Yiddish and Hebrew are not the only two. There are considerably more of them. But the term “jargon” was popular almost until the First World War. And, according to the Soviet legacy, the most famous writer who wrote in Yiddish was Sholom Aleichem. He also called this language a type of “jargon.” He said that he was a jargonist.

Iryna Slavinska:  Even those listeners who have never had a deep interest in Judaica or Yiddish culture, can, by analogy to the word “jargon,” recall the fact that quite a few slang words come from Yiddish. At least, they often love citing them in this capacity.

Oleksandra Uralova:  I think that to a certain degree this kind of quotation—this also is a legacy—is not very sympathetic. This is a legacy of the consciousness of incarceration that we received thanks to the Soviet Union.

Iryna Slavinska:  Together with Radio Chanson and all this culture in general.

Oleksandra Uralova:  And there is a reason for this. Of course, this is the extraordinarily huge system of dispatching first criminal elements and then cultural figures to the camps, where people became acquainted with one another and formed multilingual families there and where, toward the end of the 1950s, a multilingual Volapuk [an artificial language devised in 1879 and proposed for international use by a German cleric named Johann M. Schleyer, which was based on extremely modified forms of words from English and Romance languages—Trans.] returned to the native lands. I think that there were quite a few antisemites in power in the Soviet Union, and they also introduced Yiddish as jargon, as a language of the lower class, as a language of unpleasant people, and they used it in this very vein. But, of course, this is my opinion.

I think that Estraikh will be talking about this in considerably more depth and even in a different way. Nevertheless, for us, for the average citizen, citizens, Yiddish is above all the language of songs, is it not? Perhaps it is truly a kind of argot and the language of small southwestern towns in the Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, and Odesa regions.

Iryna Slavinska:  And some quarters in Kyiv, where many traces have been preserved… 

Oleksandra Uralova:  And the opposite. In Yiddish, words like “zhurav” instead of “zhuravel’ [crane—Trans.] is used quite easily, at least by natives of these Eastern European territories.

Yiddish was very much plundered and maimed, just like the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages during, say, the internationalization of languages during the Soviet period. If there was a Latin-based word used in the Russian language, then it would be implanted in other languages [in the USSR]. This was an Orwellian-style, artificial pauperization of language, that is, the elimination from Yiddish, in which great hopes were placed as the language of the proletariat, of some words and their replacement by other words, as well as the creation of bizarre loan translations. For example, we have the word “shabesnyk,” which means doing volunteer unpaid work on the holy day of Saturday. Such calques were plentiful. And, of course, Yiddish words have been retained in the Ukrainian language. Definitely, the first that comes to mind is when it’s really hot, people yell “gvalt,” both in Yiddish and in Ukrainian.

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes, both these borrowings and these contiguous germinations are leading us confidently once again to Yiddish-language culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Clearly, at issue here is the experience prior to the Holocaust, before Yiddish becomes, to a great extent, a dead language in Europe, not the language per se that died but whose carriers were killed.

Oleksandra Uralova:  One has to consider that the annihilation of the Yiddish-speaking population did not end with the Holocaust. We should recall that, at the very least, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and its members were executed in 1948, not by the Nazi regime, but by the Soviet one. And the case of the Doctors' Plot begins. And one of the most idiotic accusations made was accusing the members of the Anti-Fascist Committee of assisting the Fascists. These types of accusations were made, and this shows how brutal and cynical were the authorities at that time.

It is not correct to say that Yiddish perished together with a large number of its carriers. Many people remained. There were people who survived, who managed to save themselves in the eastern part of the Soviet Union, who simply survived. And in our country there were even Righteous Ukrainians who helped them.

Iryna Slavinska:  Not “even.” They simply were. There are a great many of them in Ukraine.

Oleksandra Uralova:  And one must consider that the last Yiddish theatre in Ukraine ceased to exist in 1950. It was in Chernivtsi. Chernivtsi is generally a very important city for Yiddish. For example, this is the place where a conference took place in the early twentieth century, during which the question of whether Yiddish is a main language or a language at all or a type of jargon was discussed. [The conference] concluded that it is indeed a language, and since that time more attention is being paid to this language. People try to write in [Yiddish] more, even those writers who earlier tried to write in Russian or Hebrew. We need to consider the following. At the beginning of the twentieth century both the Yiddish and the Ukrainian languages find themselves in approximately the same situation. They cannot be compared, but nonetheless the status of jargon is enshrined in both languages.

Iryna Slavinska:  Could we briefly name the types and genres of art in which we can see the Yiddish language in Ukraine in the first half of the twentieth century. This is what is discussed in Gennady Estraikh’s book, the subject of our conversation.

Oleksandra Uralova:  Yes, of course. Above all, this is theatre, literature, great prose and essays, journals, poetry, graphic art. Stroll through the streets of Lviv and you will see ancient Yiddish inscriptions on walls—shops had been there. For example, milk or bread or other kinds of foods were sold there, gas lamps, what have you.

Iryna Slavinska:  Now let’s take a closer look at Yiddish in Ukraine before and after the arrival of Soviet power. Can this type of watershed moment be established?

Oleksandra Uralova:  Not before and after, but before and during.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s talk about this in greater detail. We devoted a previous programme to the history of Jewish left-wing movements in Ukraine during the revolutionary period.

Oleksandra Uralova: And, to a certain extent, all this took place in Yiddish, of course.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, and that’s why I brought this up. Because our listeners may remember that a part of this pre-revolutionary leftist literature was in Yiddish.

Oleksandra Uralova:  This is true, to a very great extent. In Europe during the nineteenth century the abandonment of Yiddish had a certain vogue, one might say, among supporters of Jewish enlightenment, who viewed it simply as a dialect of German, a distorted jargon, insisting that German or Russian had to be spoken, that Hebrew be retained, but [urging Jews] to become more secular. But toward the end of the nineteenth century a great need arises to convey ideas to people in their own languages. This sparked the need to return to school traditions, the Jewish school, in which the language of instruction is Yiddish. For a long time Yiddish was regarded as the language of women…

Iryna Slavinska:  Why?

Oleksandra Uralova:  This will not be very feminist. Because it is a vernacular, jargon. For example, from the age of three and a half little boys started attending school, where they began studying various scholarly and theological tracts, where they immerse[d] themselves in Jewish law. Meanwhile, women, if a family permits this to its daughters, study at home with private teachers. If they don’t allow this, then they don’t study. That is why there were separate books and spiritual histories written for women and unwise men.

Iryna Slavinska:  Was it written like that on the cover?

Oleksandra Uralova:  Well, it wasn’t written like that, but everyone said that. In other words, if a person doesn’t know Hebrew and that person is a man, then he, like a woman…. Let’s put it this way. I am convinced that absolutely all societies in nineteenth-century Europe, with rare and extraordinary exceptions, were absolutely patriarchal.

Iryna Slavinska:  It would appear that Yiddish was more of an oral, people’s language, while Hebrew was a literary language?

Oleksandra Uralova:  Hebrew wasn’t a literary language either. Russian, Polish, German were.

Iryna Slavinska:  What was it then? A sacred language?

Oleksandra Uralova:  Sacred, yes, of course. There is a term, “Lashon ha-Kodesh,” meaning holy language; and “mame-loshn” [the term referring to Yiddish] was the mother tongue, the language spoken at home. A soft and pleasant term, the language of your native mother. And all of a sudden, around the end of the nineteenth century, the language of one’s mother becomes a language in which dime novels are being written. And at this moment enlightened, highly-educated Jewish writers and poets with a high level of intellect, who had been writing in Russian in the Russian Empire and in German in Austro-Hungary, realize that they are losing the electorate because the electorate is reading some kind of nonsense written in jargon. That is why they begin writing novels in Yiddish. Novels about rural life appear, written about the local population in the language of the local population. And suddenly, amidst the Jewish population of various states there appears the very language in which they can truly find common ground with each other. In the second half of the nineteenth century increasingly more theatre appears. Of course, translating the works of Shakespeare into Yiddish—now that’s interesting…

And it gets more interesting. It turns out that this population has its own voice. This is the beginning of the twentieth century, when Kyiv and Vilnius become, to a certain degree, territories marked by a great upsurge of revolutionary spirit. Increasingly more and diverse associations appear, which yearn not for migration to Palestine, not for the discovery of Zion, not for the revival of Hebrew, but for the creation of some sort of autonomy in the territories in which they reside, in the states in which they reside, with decent conditions for the working and crafts population. And, of course, the language of these circles becomes Yiddish.

Estraikh has written quite a lot about this, because he is an eminent specialist in the Yiddish language and its problems, on the one hand, and on the other, in problems concerning its treatment. In other words, this book raises not just questions about who wrote and how they wrote, but also who did not write and why they did not write. What was Yiddish like?

The Soviet leadership decided to Sovietize Yiddish. There were some Hebrew words in Yiddish, carried over from sacred texts and calendars. The Soviets removed them, and changed the spelling of all the Hebrew-isms. It became impossible to understand what you were reading. You open a dictionary from the Soviet era and close it, as you can’t understand anything. This was supposed to be a simplification, but it comes out otherwise.

The book also addresses attitudes to historical figures. For example, Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

First, the Order of Khmelnytsky. Secondly, the renaming of the city of Pereyaslav to Peryaslav-Khmelnytsky. Thirdly, the reaction of the state and the Jewish population to these events. Prior to the twentieth century, Khmelnytsky was not well known to most of the population of Europe, even the Ukrainian population. He was known by the Jewish population.

Iryna Slavinska:  He is a controversial figure. In all these wars of liberation, as they are called, like in all wars, there was hatred against domestic minority populations in Ukraine, tied to ethnic-religious factors.

Oleksandra Urlova:  Exactly. This is a major issue. A major question is how to view the statue to Khmelnytsky on Sophia Square in Kyiv. Estraikh addresses this issue very delicately, very correctly, in his book and this is very interesting. He explores, for example, why Khmelnytsky? Why not [Ivan] Mazepa? Why not [Petro Konashevych-] Sahaidachny? Why did Khmelnytsky become such a historical idol? Read about it, it’s very interesting to pay attention to this.

On the other hand, not everything is black and white. It’s more complex. Various cultural, political, literary, and artistic figures at different times and different places expressed antisemitic, philo-Semitic, or neutral views.

In reading this book, you understand, first of all, how closely and indissolubly the Ukrainian and Ashkenazi cultures are connected in the twentieth century, at least during the first half; and secondly, the degree to which everything was truly complex. Everything was complicated, and this must be studied.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have been discussing Gennady Estraikh’s book Culture in the Yiddish Language: Ukraine, the First Half of the Twentieth Century with Oleksandra Uralova. The program Encounters is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You have been listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.


Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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