I was in Lenox this morning, happily browsing Matt Tannenbaum’s The Bookstore (so old-school they don’t have a website, but probably the best literary bookstore in the Berkshires), when I found a new book about the Jewish community in New York a century ago, A Fire in Their Hearts by Tony Michels (you can read part of the introduction and first chapter here in a pdf file). The introduction explained something I hadn’t known about the linguistic world of the immigrants from Russia:
The origin of the Jewish labor movement can be traced to the convergence of two disparate immigrant groups in a single section of lower Manhattan. When large numbers of eastern European Jews started arriving on New York’s Lower East Side, they discovered a thriving socialist labor movement among German (mostly non-Jewish) immigrants, who constituted the majority of the area’s population into the 1880s. A number of Jews, mainly Russian-speaking intellectuals, started learning the German language so they could mix with their neighbors and read their publications. German socialists welcomed the “Russians” and encouraged them to organize Jewish workers into unions and socialist groups of their own. They provided financial assistance, publicity, organizational models, and ideological guidance. With their help, Russian Jews created their labor movement in a German image. They experienced an unusual kind of Americanization, one guided not by native-born elites but by a larger, already established immigrant group. Through socialism, Russian Jews did not become so much Americanized as German-Americanized.
The German socialist influence led to a second interesting twist in the “Americanization” of immigrant Jews, particularly regarding the Yiddish language. To organize Jewish workers, Russian-speaking intellectuals needed to employ Yiddish, the spoken language of nearly all eastern European Jewish immigrants. But many of the intellectuals either did not know Yiddish or had rejected it years earlier as a marker of cultural backwardness. They had to learn or relearn the zhargon, or Jewish vernacular, thousands of miles from Europe’s Yiddish-speaking heartland. This return to Yiddish was initially justified as a short-term concession necessary only until immigrants learned English. Yet the trend toward Yiddish gathered momentum as the number of immigrants increased. Over the next four decades, Russian-speaking intellectuals continued to adopt Yiddish so they could take part in the East Side’s political and cultural activities. Some intellectuals even began to glorify the once-scorned zhargon as the authentic voice of “the folk masses.” They advocated a full-blown cultural renaissance in Yiddish, which they hoped would serve indefinitely as the primary medium of Jewish culture in the United States. Although the movement was controversial, proponents of yidishe kultur helped animate the new socialist culture arising from the Jewish labor movement. From Russian to Yiddish via German: such was the circuitous path of Americanization on New York’s Lower East Side.
Who knew? Well, you maybe, but not me. And may I remark that bookstores have been at least as much of an education to me as schools.