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Reading Jewish

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


How do you read jewish? The question sounds odd. Why is it that reading jewish is catachrestic in a way that reading German is not? The obvious answer is that German is a language while Jewish is not. Yet there are Jewish languages. Hebrew is one, of course, and linguists describe many more, from Ladino (the language of the Iberian Jewish diaspora) to Krymchak (the ethnolect of a group of Crimean Jews). There is also Yiddish, the language of most European Jews for roughly the millennium preceding the Holocaust; now it lives on primarily in Hasidic communities around the world. Yiddish means Jewish; and in a sense, knowing how to read the former (i.e., decipher the Yiddish language) can imply knowing how to read the latter (i.e., decipher Jewish identity). This has been the belief of many Jews from the late nineteenth century to the present who accept the idea that language is central to national identity. Strangely, in this period the reverse notion has also been active: that knowing Jewish implies knowing Yiddish. his paradox—that you can read a language without knowing it—was catalyzed by a modernist approach to the intersection of Jewish language with Jewish identity. But it was also grounded in facets of the history and philology of Yiddish reading that opened a path to literacy through illiteracy.

Theories and Methodologies New Geographies of Reading
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 2019

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