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.

Update (March 2022). The Bookstore now has a website, and a spiffy one too.


  1. I heard a story about friends of my great-grandparents whose original name was Chorny, which means “black” in Russian. Once in the United States, they decided to change their name to a an American name, so they changed their name to Schwartz. Their idea of a real American was a German Jew.

  2. There you go!

  3. I know someone whose grandfather was a Sephardi Jew who moved to England. His last name was D’oro and he thought it sounded too Jewish, so he changed it to Goldman.

  4. My comment is probably non-sequitor, but the above posters made me laugh. I have a Brazilian friend who sends me Jewish jokes in Portuguese (I had one year of college Portuguese and am native-like in SPanish, so I understand). And the jokes, though in Portuguese, are just like ones my New York relatives would tell at family gatherings.

  5. I can echo Bill Poser’s story; despite carrying the last name “Busch”, I don’t have a drop of German blood in me. My Russian great-grandfather had exactly the same idea about passing for German when he got here. The original family name was “Beshunsky” (or something close; I’m not sure about the spelling).

  6. Donna Botten says

    All my GPwere Black Sea Germans. My GF name was Chorny and he married A Kirschenmann. He changed his name to Schwartzman. He said it was easier to get out of Russia if you were German. on the Ellis Island site I found my GF and his parents and GP. Under their name was the word Hebrew. I can’t find my GGF anywhere on ancestry.

  7. Thanks for the story and for reviving this thread, so I can learn that The Bookstore now does have a website — I’ll update the post.

  8. Was there such a thing as a Jewish intellectual from Russia who does not speak Yiddish?

  9. Of course, plenty of them. Mandelstam, for instance, not only didn’t speak Yiddish, he said “In my childhood I absolutely never heard Yiddish.”

  10. Posting to attract rozele’s attention….

  11. hi!
    /emerges from brass oil lamp/
    /shakes off oil/

    and yes: there are plenty – zhargón was no part of the (very small) educated and well-off yiddish jewish world. my great-grandfather, who came from that kind of family (in odes, of course), learned yiddish after coming to the u.s. in 1915 or so (partly, i think, to woo my great-grandmother, who made him quit an accountant job in meridian, mississippi, and come back to nyc before she’d marry him – and right she was!). and ansky, of course, was famously bilingual but didn’t think of yiddish as part of his intellectual and political life until after he’d already Gone To The [Russian] People.

    but maybe more strikingly, part of what’s wrong with the yiddishist world is how much of its architecture was built by non-cradle-tongue speakers with some real romantic projection issues: max weinreich and nathan birnbaum (and a lot of their peers) were both german-educated latecomers to the language, and it really shows. (mordkhe schaechter, on the other hand, was his own most ekhtik Native Informant – so different problems /shrug/)

    and if you poke around in the Leksikon (it’s entirely fartaytsht now!), you’ll see a lot of folks who had published in other languages (some, like mendele, in hebrew – not ivrit, importantly – but most in russian, polish, german, romanian…) before making their yiddish debut.

  12. in odes, of course

    What does that mean?

    and ansky, of course, was famously bilingual but didn’t think of yiddish as part of his intellectual and political life until after he’d already Gone To The [Russian] People.

    I read The Dybbuk as a child in an English translation that had been performed off-Broadway, pretty much before I knew any Jews (the yid-adjacent stage of my life came a few years later and has persisted to this day). I almost saw it performed 35 or so years later, perhaps in a new translation, but it didn’t happen for some reason, Gale was sick or I was, I can’t remember. The play is very Gothic: it reminds me of Dracula (the play), but even spookier.

  13. For a moment I thought, that Nathan Birnbaum.

  14. What does that mean?

    אדעס = Odessa.

  15. Why does Yiddish WP have אַדעס ades and not אָדעס odes? I didn’t think Yiddish used the reduced Russian /o/ in borrowings.

  16. Dmitry Pruss says

    probably because the first syllable of Odessa isn’t pronounced like /o/, being unstressed.

  17. Right, but e.g. Moscow is מאָסקװע /moskve/.

  18. Does Yiddish apply Russian o-reduction based on Yiddish stress??

  19. i can’t speak to the larger borrowing & reduction questions.
    but for “odessa” folks use both /a/ and /o/, and both אַ and אָ – not made simpler by the combination of various kinds of prescriptivism and a frequently laissez-faire relationship to marking the orthographic difference. and it is always stressed on the final syllable (i assume because the penultimate stress persists after the reduction to zero of the final vowel/syllable).

  20. Since this thread recently reopened, it seems like a good place to drop this. Hat, I’m curious about your thoughts and those of others here on the NY Review piece on traces of “pre-Ashkenazic” Jewish culture in eastern Europe as evidenced by calques and unique turns of phrase in early scientific works in Slavic translation that suggest Hebrew sources.

    There’s more to it, and that’s by memory without the article at hand, but it seemed like a topic you and others would have interesting insights about it.

    My parents, and my mother after my dad died, had long made a Christmas gift of my subscription. Mom had a tough winter and died in late Spring. I hadn’t received the NYRB in months and hadn’t done anything about it. I was touched to find an envelope with the check to the magazine unsent among her papers, and sent it in. The first issue I received has the article in question.

  21. If you can provide the author/title or a link, it would help me (and I presume others) to have thoughts.

  22. It’s

  23. Here is a passage that seemed of particularly Hattic interest:
    >To decipher the translations and map out the paths of transmission—for instance, to demonstrate that texts, such as biblical books, that exist in other languages were translations from Hebrew—Taube turns to phonetics of proper names and syntactic, semantic, and phraseological “calques,” word-for-word translations of sentences, words, or phrases that retain the structure and meaning of the original language but seem awkward in translation.

    And this is less specifically Hattic, but an interesting summary of the potential impact of the research:
    > Taube’s book approaches the east Slavic region from a new direction—the southeast. It shifts the perspective away from the legacy of Russian imperial historiography, which looks down from Moscow in the north, and away from the history of Ashkenazi Jews, which looks eastward from the German lands

  24. Thanks! It’s Magda Teter’s “Found in Translation” from the December 7, 2023 issue (which I haven’t gotten yet), a review of The Cultural Legacy of the Pre-Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe by Moshe Taube, which is available for free download at (yay University of California Press!).

  25. ooh, thanks for the link to the taube! that’s exciting!

    and for folks who might want it, here’s my understanding of the bare-bones state of play:

    it’s very clear that there were many different kinds of jewish communities in eastern europe before there were yiddish-speaking jewish communities (in eastern europe, but also anywhere) (same goes for sefardi / judezmo-speaking communities). that includes greek-speakers, crimean-tatar-speakers, khazari-speakers, and at least two different slavic-speaking communities, currently talked about as “western knaanic” in the czech lands and “eastern knaanic” centered in what’s now ukraine.

    on eastern knaanic, there’s a certain amount of textual evidence that’s stood up to scrutiny – both direct and through translations (including some related to various judaizing trends in the aristocracy) – and some material evidence, but not a lot of either. there’s a lot more for western knaanic, especially since it’s pretty clearly an ancestral community to the later yiddish-speaking jewish communities of the czech lands, and its language can be traced in those (and other) yiddish lects (iirc, alexander beider spends some time on this, as do alexis manaster ramer and others).

    the relationship between eastern knaanic and later yiddish-speaking jewish communities is almost completely unclear.

    and here’s where i’ll stray a bit from what i understand to be generally agreed:

    part of that is that what’s presented as the history of the yiddish-speaking communities is mostly a priori assumptions and dubious guesswork, hung on thin documentation that mostly doesn’t contain much besides “jews here now”. it’s not even clear at what point we can actually say that most eastern european jews were yiddish speakers: i’m trying to find the citation, but there’s a 19thC source who says that in his grandparents’ generation, the dominant language of eastern european jews was slavic. more to the point, there’s no evidence of mass eastward migration by yiddish-speaking jews, and a massive population increase to account for – and there aren’t a lot of scholars ready to admit what we know from the history of other jewish communities (abayudaya, juhuri, cochin/malabari, etc), which is that they form through affiliation, sometimes incorporating a small cohort of jews from elsewhere.

    (i keep saying “yiddish-speaking” or “yiddish jews” because “ashkenazi”, which usually gets applied to these communities, actually has a specific meaning and is ridiculously wrong. “ashkenaz” is the jewish liturgy/culture-region of the western/central german-speaking zone (where the jewish languages have no slavic element); the liturgical/cultural boundary between ashkenaz and polin is the elbe. the extension of the word over yiddish jewry is pretty much the same as the rhetorical move that calls italian- or greek-americans “anglo-saxon” on account of being understood as white, so that the english folks who’re the term’s primary referent get to be defining and authoritative over the whole group. yes, i will tilt at this windmill every time it appears.)

  26. the rhetorical move that calls italian- or greek-americans “anglo-saxon” on account of being understood as white, so that the english folks who’re the term’s primary referent get to be defining and authoritative over the whole group

    It works both ways. H. P. Lovecraft certainly would object strongly to calling the “mongrel hordes” of “degraded whites” Anglo-Saxon. Then again, the Whateleys certainly were Anglo-Saxons, even though they weren’t altogether Homo sapiens. (On the gripping hand, in Innsmouth “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” is just the opening petition of a comforting childhood prayer.)

  27. “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” is just the opening petition of a comforting childhood prayer.

    A comforting refrain indeed…

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