Our Ethnic DNA

In his course An Introduction to Yiddish Culture, Sol Gittleman tells the story of the many voices that make up America
Russian Wedding, by Marc Chagall
"The Wedding," by Marc Chagall. “After all, no respectable writer would ever write in Yiddish, a language as unpretentious as the millions of East European Jews living in forced isolation in hundreds of little towns and villages—shtetls—waiting for their
June 19, 2013

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One of the last works I have students read in An Introduction to Yiddish Culture is “Eli, the Fanatic,” that early Philip Roth story of postwar American Jews trying to close the door on memory. There is no synagogue in upscale Woodenton. Children have names like Debbie and Kevin, and in one more generation, “no one will know.”

Everything we read in this Yiddish course is in English. By the end of World War II, very few American-born Jews knew any Yiddish, the strange language—written with Hebrew letters, read from right to left, and sounding so much like German—of most of their grandparents. The great American gift of assimilation was working its magic.

In fact, there was little ethnic American literature, except for an occasional Steinbeck novel set among the fish canneries of Monterey, Calif. Otherwise, American culture was strictly American, depicting the America of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Carousel, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Ralph Ellison in 1952 spoke for all minority groups in America when he wrote Invisible Man.

But America was about to discover the DNA of its ethnicity. In 1957, when the Sharks (Polish-Americans) battled the Jets (Puerto Ricans) for control of the streets in the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents show West Side Story, Broadway took the first step in recognizing a new postwar America.

In 1964, the year I arrived at Tufts, Zero Mostel walked onto a Broadway stage, wearing his Orthodox undergarments, and began singing “Tradition!” Tevye the Dairyman, of Fiddler on the Roof, had arrived, the creation—originally—of a secular Russian Jew named Sholom Rabinowitz (1859–1916), who took the pen name Sholom Aleichem to shield his identity. After all, no respectable writer would ever write in Yiddish, a language as unpretentious as the millions of East European Jews living in forced isolation in hundreds of little towns and villages—shtetls—waiting for their Messiah to liberate them.

By the time Maxine Hong Kingston had written The Woman Warrior, in 1975, and Alex Haley had published Roots, in 1976, American literature and culture had undergone a hyphenated revolution.

Sholom Aleichem never dreamed that his works would be read by American college students in English translation. He wanted a simple literature that spoke to the masses of Jews in Czarist Russia, devoted to their faith and cut off from the world around them by two walls—one built by those who hated them and the other by themselves, to keep their children close to their family and to their God.

He knew that change was coming, and that the traditional patriarchal world of the shtetl was doomed. So he created Tevye, who thinks he can protect his daughters and his traditions. His daughter Hodel marries a godless Jewish Communist and follows him into Siberian exile. Tevye weeps, but survives. His daughter Chava marries a Gentile Communist, and Tevye’s world is finished. “The pain is great, but the shame, the shame is greater.” The family says the prayer for the Dead: there is no Chava.

As my parents grew older, the shtetl world they brought with them to America as teenagers began to fade from memory, but not mine. I asked my father to help me with my rudimentary Yiddish, a language heard in our candy store only when my mother and father wanted to exclude me from a conversation. He sat with me and the Yiddish newspaper, reading aloud and answering my endless questions. I had been teaching German literature at Tufts. Now, I wanted to teach the world of my parents, before it completely disappeared. Would anyone be interested?

In 1971, for the first time, I taught An Introduction to Yiddish Culture, starting with Sholom Aleichem and including the other great masters of Yiddish literature: Peretz, Asch, I.B. Singer. The class wasn’t just for American Jews. We looked at all of American immigrant history—red, black, yellow and brown people, some enslaved, as well as the Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews and every other ethnic group that made the desperate journey to America and then faced more hardship.

My parents were among those millions. They grew old, and with them died the Yiddish language in America. But those traditions were picked up by a generation of American writers who brought a new kind of ethnicity to our literary tradition: Saul Bellow, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. The course always concludes with the transition of Yiddish values into American literature.

As it turns out, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, whether your forefathers came on the Mayflower or a prison ship, through Ellis Island in New York or Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, there is something of your family in this course. Every student out there in front of me has a family dealing in one way or another with Tevye, Hodel, Chava and the amnesiac denizens of Roth’s Woodenton. Forty-two years later, nothing has changed.

The article first appeared in the winter 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Sol Gittelman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and Biblical literature and is a former provost of the university. 

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