For Jonathan Boyarin
, the exchange underscores the vitality and early presence of Yiddish in America.Boyarin, a cultural anthropologist and Yiddish scholar whose field is 20th century Jewish history, is translating a Yiddish book about the Kotsker rebbe written by noted scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel.
arrived at the University of Kansas last fall as a professor of modern Jewish studies, his
first full-time academic position.
...Boyarin, 49, grew up in a chicken-farming community in New Jersey and got his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Reed College in Portland, Ore. After college, he plunged into a rigorous Yiddish immersion program at Columbia University.
Several weeks into the summer program, he
had an epiphany while descending to the subway: He
found himself speaking and thinking in Yiddish.
"I was a little gentler toward myself speaking Yiddish.I felt the language coming out from inside me," he
recalled.He went on to earn a master's degree and a doctorate from the New School in anthropology.His
doctoral research project took him to Paris for two years in the early 1980s, where he
studied the secular Yiddish culture of former Eastern Europeans living there.
One of Boyarin's
early academic works was "From A Ruined Garden -- The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry," which he
co-authored.The book is a compilation of excerpts from yizker-bikher, or memorial books, crafted by former residents of hundreds of European villages and towns to remember and honor the lives and memories they left behind.Boyarin
translated most of the stories in the book.
Years later, Boyarin
enrolled in Yale Law School
, graduating in 1998.For five years he
worked with a New York law firm, doing tax law and litigation, but he
still had the Jewish studies bug.
"All along I was saying to myself, 'There's something I really love, I am really good at it, and that's what I should be doing,' " he
is unabashedly upbeat about his
"We recently passed the point where the number of Yiddish speakers has stopped declining and is starting to grow again," he
said, referring to growing enclaves of Chasidic and Orthodox Yiddish-speakers."It is not a dying language."
But the fate of Yiddish is more than a numbers game.
"The measure of the continuing vitality of Yiddish is not only the number of fluent speakers there are," Boyarin
said."It is also the ways fragments and elements continue to be rediscovered and transformed into new modes of Jewishness that are genuinely creative.We cannot say beforehand what they are going to become."
One example is the vital klezmer music scene.Boyarin
expressed an interest in several Jewish farming communes that failed long ago on the hard plains of Kansas.And then there are the whispered conversations of Bondi and Weiner floating on a stiff Kansas breeze, summoning Boyarin
to new battlefields.