Speaking Volumes: Philology and Literary History

September 13, 1996

Dovid Katz on Ber Borokhov's Philology and Literary History .

When I was three, we moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Safad, Galilee, where my father, Yiddish poet Menke Katz, hoped the 16th-century kabbalists would inspire him (and they did). But it all came apart a few days before my fourth birthday. We were hauled in by a police officer for "speaking Yiddish in public", such was the antipathy towards the language in Israel then. The chief of police apologised profusely and opened a bottle of wine. But that very night, Menke (as I called him from an early age) said (in Yiddish, of course): "Dovid! We're going back to New York!" I was quixotically determined to find a calling that would "be good" for the survival of Yiddish. My first year at Columbia, with all its "requirements" (from astronomy to track), gave no scope.

One of my favourite escapes was walking through the Lower East Side (an equivalent of sorts to London's Whitechapel). I stumbled into Bernard Morgenstern's Jewish bookshop at 150 East Broadway. Only old Morgenstern could remove a book from the middle of one of the huge stacks without it toppling. There was a big sign in Yiddish and English: "Do Not Touch Anything!" (Signs on the Lower East Side never said "Please".) One Yiddish book caught my eye. It was Philology and Literary History, a 1966 collection of the works of Ber Borokhov (1881-1917). It was compiled by Nakhmen Mayzl, who had edited Literarishe bleter, Warsaw's beloved Yiddish weekly, before moving to New York in the late 1930s.

I got on the subway and started reading. Borokhov's "Aims of Yiddish philology" started with the sentence: "Of all the sciences, philology plays the greatest role in the national revival of oppressed peoples." He went on to argue that philology was the academic component of the Yiddishist movement, and should, in addition to reconstructing the history of the language and its literature, create the institutional means for its transmission to new generations. Next thing I knew, I had missed my stop and was at the end of Brooklyn in Coney Island ("end of the world", we used to call it). Setting up new "high culture" institutions to attract young talent to teaching and research were part of what Borokhov called filol"gye. "Whoever doesn't believe in the survival of Yiddish can still be a Yiddish linguist, but not a Yiddish philologist".

Against the arguments of the Aryanist purists, he wrote: "German, Hebrew and Slavic elements, as soon as they enter the language, cease to be German, Hebrew and Slavic. They shed their erstwhile status and assume a new one: they become Yiddish."

After a long hiss, the same train headed back north. Again I missed my stop, 55th Street in Boro Park, and ended up back in Manhattan. Next in the book was Borokhov's "Library of the Yiddish philologist", a polemically annotated bibliography of 501 studies of Yiddish, starting in 1514, and spanning the 399 years up to 1913, the original date of Borokhov's publications.

When I finally did come home, my father and I went for a coffee. We spoke, as we often did (with dry tears), of the little Lithuanian village, Michalishek, where our family lived and spoke Yiddish for 600 years, right up to the Holocaust. I pulled my new acquisition from my briefcase and showed him that Michalishek had even produced a scholar who wrote about the fate of Hebrew and Aramaic vowels in Yiddish. Number 366 he was, in Borokhov's bibliography. And, I casually mentioned that I suddenly knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

It did not take long to find out that Borokhov's works were originally published in a beautiful (and rare) volume that had rabbinic-style lettering on its title page, framed by an ornate border. Menke and I began to figure out how to acquire a copy. How we set about that is another story again.

Dovid Katz, who founded Yiddish studies at Oxford University, is director of research, Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies.

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