Field Update: Yiddish Studies


At the annual Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) meeting this December, there was a notable refrain: “Yiddish is everywhere!” Over three days, more than forty panels, roundtables, and seminars featured at least one—and often more than one—presentation that substantially engaged with Yiddish-language materials. The topics ranged across fields, including history, literature, musicology, Holocaust studies, linguistics, second language acquisition, American poetry, Queer studies, Hasidism, anthropology, and science and technology studies. As a scholar of modern Jewish literature, it was invigorating to see how the interdisciplinary field of Yiddish studies has become unmistakably central to the broader discussions, spaces, and intellectual concerns of global Jewish studies.

One through-line of many presentations was an interest in examining Yiddish cultural production through its material conditions. In the panel “Yiddish Print Culture Beyond Words,” Rachelle Grossman examined the physical conditions of printing—from typography to linotype usage—in post-war Yiddish publishing in Poland; Magdalena Kozłowska directed attention to the dietary horizons laid out by Di yidishe kukh (Warsaw, 1930), a Yiddish adaptation of 1929’s Gastronomie juive, that introduced North African Jewish cuisine to east European palates; and Sarah Ellen Zarrow analyzed the physical ephemera—from postcards to bilingual publications—of the Yidisher gezelshaft far landkentenish (Jewish Society for Engaged Tourism) movement across interwar Poland.

Indeed, recent years have seen a notable interest in the aesthetics of Yiddish culture and the materiality of its history and forms. In 2022, two notable monographs told the story of Yiddish texts by examining the physical circumstances of their creation, presentation, and dissemination.

The first is Barry Trachtenberg’s fascinating work of cultural and intellectual history, The Holocaust and the Exile of Yiddish: A History of the Algemeyne Entsiklopedye (Rutgers University Press, 2022). Trachtenberg’s subject is the nearly three-decades-long publication history of the Yiddish General Encyclopedia. Trachtenberg painstakingly traces the development of the project from its ideological beginnings among Yiddish activists in Berlin, to 1930s Paris, when Yiddish cultural production in Germany became untenable, to the project’s final stages in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. The study opens with a color photograph of seventeen volumes comprising the encyclopedia, including one Yiddish sample volume, twelve complete Yiddish volumes, and four English volumes. The volumes range in size, condition, and color, reflecting the project’s peregrinations: black-bound European volumes, published in Paris between 1934 and 1940, look tattered and faded; maroon volumes, published in English in New York in the 1950s, appear crisp and thick; and the final blue Yiddish volumes, from the 1960s, look like they were never opened. With marvelous skill, Trachtenberg shows how Yiddish was used to explain entries ranging from “dinosaur” to “antisemitism” and how the presence of these Yiddish texts on a bookshelf projected a certain form of cultural knowledge and performed the work of cultural memorialization both before and after the Holocaust.

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The second monograph, Barbara Mann’s groundbreaking study, The Object of Jewish Literature: A Material History (Yale University Press, 2022), covers a lot of territory. Mann masterfully examines the material “affordances” of Jewish literature written in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Her wide-ranging, incisive work also explores the representation of statues and bookshelves in ekphrastic Hebrew poetry, the development of “Jewish imagism” as a modernist practice, and the physical distribution of the Yiddish modernist magazines. It covers the representation of objects in Jewish fiction, the dialogue of text and image in Jewish graphic novels, and the creation of artists’ books as works to be both seen and read. And it investigates how Jewish writers and visual artists have translated theological and religious concerns of Jewish texts into the ostensibly secular form of the post-Enlightenment book. In so doing, Mann joins a robust group of religious studies scholars who are challenging notions of secularism and secularization. What distinguishes Mann, however, is that she anchors her analysis in deft and energizing close readings of Jewish text/image relations. Mann’s remarkable work will surely enhance interest in the multimedial category of Jewish art. The monograph also heralds what appears to be an expanding institutional interest in Jewish art. In 2023–2024, the Frankel Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, plans to welcome scholars for an interdisciplinary interrogation of “Jewish Visual Cultures.”

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Mann concludes by considering the shift in the haptic experiences of reading as three-dimensional paper books are being replaced by digital platforms and touch screens. To be sure, interest in the history of Yiddish material objects continues to grow. At the same time, Yiddish studies has been invigorated by the expansion—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—of online options for Yiddish intellectual life, from hybrid course offerings in Paris and Berlin to Yiddish-focused lectures based in New York and my own city of Madison, WI. Energizing these digital conversations are also the many graduate students whose first essays, articles, translations, and pedagogical writings can be found on In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. Founded in 2014 by Eitan Kensky and Saul Noam Zaritt, the English-language journal has become a prime destination for an international audience of academic and general interest readers (note: I currently serve on the editorial board).

An eclectic, open-access journal, In geveb publishes a variety of Yiddish-invested works. Peer-reviewed articles (complete with multi-media components), for example, appear, as do reviews of recent academic monographs. The journal’s Briv funem arkhiv (Letters from the Archive) series features short archival texts, manuscripts, and photographs, with introductions by new and established scholars. Alongside these rare works are reviews of contemporary Yiddish music, art, and theater, and long form essays. In 2022, in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the journal published a list of Yiddish “ Resources for Teaching About Ukraine” and a thought-provoking “ Conversation on Yiddish Studies, Jewish Studies, and Ukraine” conducted with literature scholar Amelia Glaser and historian Jeffrey Veidlinger. Most innovative are In geveb’s many translations, which might otherwise lack a venue. The texts are painstakingly rendered in bilingual presentations. They further appear with succinct introductions, making them invaluable for teachers expanding their syllabi and for students looking to enhance their Yiddish reading skills. By bringing this array of materials into public discussion, In geveb continues to push Yiddish studies in new directions.

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In conclusion, I would note that alongside new trends in the academic study of Yiddish (material culture) and new publishing formats (digital journals), Yiddish studies of the past few years has also witnessed a revival of a concern first enunciated decades ago—namely, the absence of Yiddish texts authored by women available in English translation. In 2022, Yiddish women’s prose writing expanded in wonderful ways. The growing bookshelf now includes Fear and Other Stories (Wayne State University Press) by Chana Blankshteyn, translated by Anita Norich; During Sleepless Nights and Other Stories (Farlag Press) by Anna Margolin, translated by Daniel Kennedy; Judith: A Tale of Love & Woe (Farlag Press) by Miriam Karpilove, translated by Jessica Kirzane; and From the Jewish Provinces: Selected Stories (Northwestern University Press) by Fradl Shtok, translated by Jordan D. Finkin and Allison Schachter. That the library of Yiddish women’s writing would grow so quickly, and become so diverse, once seemed unimaginable. Thinking alongside Mann and Trachtenberg, one looks with excitement to the future Yiddish bookshelf: its contents, its surprises, and what each volume will teach us about the meaning of Yiddish culture.