The Life and Legacy of Max Weinreich, the Architect of Yiddish Scholarship

Jan. 30 2023

Born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in what is now Latvia, Max Weinreich encountered anti-Semitism from the moment he left the ḥeder for a secular school, and reacted by gravitating toward Jewish culture. He would eventually become the world’s leading scholar of Yiddish, and of the history and cultural anthropology of Ashkenazi Jewry more broadly. In a biographical essay examining Weinreich’s remarkable career, David Roskies begins with his subject’s debut in the Yiddish literary world:

Weinreich published the first-ever translation of cantos from Homer’s Iliad into Yiddish hexameters, so stunning a feat that it earned him a shoutout from the rising star of Yiddish lyric poetry, Moyshe Kulbak. “In every nation,” Kulbak wrote in “The Yiddish Word,” his essay-manifesto of 1918, “translations of Homer are a measure not only of that nation’s spiritual maturity, but also of the artistic development of its language, capable of rendering a writer such as Homer.”

Weinreich would later spearhead efforts to standardize Yiddish spelling, participating in seemingly obscure debates that in fact turned on how one defines the very essence of Jewish culture:

The Vilna standard [developed by Weinreich and his companions] demanded that the etymological spelling of the Hebrew-Aramaic component of Yiddish, the most ancient stratum of the language, be preserved, for this is what all Jewish languages had in common. Soviet Jewish language planners thought otherwise. To achieve universal literacy while eviscerating rabbinic culture, dismantling ḥeder education, banning religious observance, and driving a permanent wedge between the Soviet working classes and “petit-bourgeois” nationalisms, the Soviet state apparatus mandated a naturalized system of spelling in which all Yiddish words were treated equally. By eliminating [the] “superfluous” letters . . . used only in Hebrew-Aramaic-origin words, followed by the abolition of the final, . . . any Yiddish text printed outside the Soviet Union was rendered indecipherable. Not just ritual purity lay in the details; the devil too.

Yet perhaps the work of Weinreich’s that remains most relevant today was the one that did not concern Yiddish at all, but “a second tier of loyal Nazis and enablers” not tried at Nuremberg, which included “scholars, thinkers, and researchers, some world-renowned.” Roskies continues:

They were the most insidious servants of evil, for scholarship in the service of the Nazis was a double betrayal. Besides aiding and abetting Hitler, Weinreich held them responsible for defiling, perverting, and destroying the very integrity of scholarship itself, the ideal of dispassionate visnshaft [academic study] that only yesterday had been the beacon of Jewish self-emancipation. Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes against the Jewish People (1946) appeared in Yiddish, then again as the first volume in the YIVO English Translation Series.

In it, Weinreich tracked the careers of such luminaries as Martin Heidegger and Hans Naumann, a criminal docket that was alphabetically searchable in the Index of Persons and Institutions. For Weinreich, as for Abraham Joshua Heschel, who read Hitler’s Professors in the Yiddish original, some of these German scholars had been mentors, thesis advisers, and trusted colleagues. So on the day when Weinreich completed the manuscript, March 15, 1946, he asked his personal secretary, Chana Gordon, for a cigarette, a pleasure he had denied himself all through the war. She watched Dr. Weinreich light up and take a few richly deserved puffs; then, without finishing, he put it out.

Read more at Tablet

More about: East European Jewry, Jewish studies, Nazi Germany, Yiddish


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount