This essay seeks to demonstrate how the spoken language became a central feature of modern Yiddish literature. This vocal strain was used at first to replace otherworldly with enlightened discourse, esoteric book culture with colloquial style, hackneyed phraseology with straight talk, and Hasidic speech with parody. Not until 1864–66, however, did the new orality enter its second phase, when the Hebrew writer Shalom-Yankev Abramovitsh fashioned an autonomous Yiddish-speaking voice and manipulated the Jewish textual tradition at will. Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz further developed the new orality by introducing gendered speech and professional argot, creating in turn a Yiddish of the common man, woman, and child and a Yiddish Sublime. In the next phase, two verbal artists, Eliezer Shteynbarg and Itzik Manger, perfected a single, minor speech genre that was performable, accessible, and sophisticated at the same time. Shteynbarg's Mesholim (Fables; 1932) and Manger's Khumesh-lider (Bible Poems; 1935) created a sovereign space for spoken Yiddish where all communication occurred in the mother tongue. Even while the oral-based writings of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz were enjoying extraordinary popularity in the major urban centers of North America, new dialects of spoken and written Yiddish came into being there: this new vocal strain ranged from Yiddish humor magazines to the Yiddish American polyphony of Jacob Glatstein's Yidishtaytshn (Yiddishmeanings; 1937). After the destruction of European Jewry, Glatstein, Yitskhok Bashevis Singer, and Aaron Zeitlin made the monologue into a vehicle of inner-cultural dialogue. As if to compensate for the ever-dwindling number of Yiddish speakers, professional actors, notably Hertz Grossbard, turned the written-as-spoken classics of modern Yiddish literature into performance art, so as to capture and commemorate the language. The representation of speech in modern Yiddish writing was not ethnography but the replacement of the old with a new orality, and it happened in five phases. By the final, post-Holocaust phase, the vocal strain moved from the periphery to the center of Yiddish literary culture, becoming “Jewspeak,” an essential expression of the once-living folk.

This content is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.