In Praise of Yiddish

On this day in 1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming the only laureate whose work is in Yiddish. Singer emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1935, but he continued to write in his native language, focusing mainly on Jewish traditions and history. This prompted him to deliver the first part of his Nobel speech in Yiddish, not only praising the language but also predicting its rising from the “dead” category:

There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amid the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning…. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world….

At another talk delivered in Stockholm, Singer acknowledged that Yiddish had some limitations, with no words for such things as automobiles and airplanes…. “But is it so bad if a Yiddishist takes the bus or subway?” He also gave his Top Ten Reasons for preferring to write for children:

Children read books, not reviews.
They don’t read to find their identity.
They don’t read to free themselves from guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
They have no use for psychology.
They detest sociology.
They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake.
They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes.
When a book is boring, they yawn openly.
They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity.

Reason #10 notwithstanding, Singer’s Nobel speech wondered if, “when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet…may rise up to save us all.” He also wondered where he was going to get a replacement for his forty-three-year-old Yiddish typewriter, now that they were no longer made.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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