An Oksforder's blues

January 16, 1998

How has internationally renowned Yiddish expert Dovid Katz found himself jobless and penniless on a Welsh hillside? Dan Cohn-Sherbok tells his story

Alone in a tiny cottage in North Wales one of the world's leading Yiddish scholars, Dovid Katz, is pondering his future. Why does this internationally known scholar now find himself isolated from the glittering academic society of Oxford, where he was director of studies at the Institute for Yiddish?

He believes he is the victim of a full-scale plot to submerge his institute within a European research centre, including the study of film and media. According to the institute, the story is quite different.

In a written statement submitted to an industrial tribunal last week, Katz alleged that he was the target of anti-Semitic abuse from his closest colleague, director of policy at the institute, Marie Wright. He insisted that she stated that "she was sick and tired of the ****ing Jews. The Holocaust happened because you are all so bloody arrogant." Last week, however, Katz abandoned his allegations of constructive dismissal because it appeared that he had not been employed at the Oxford Institute for a full two years. This is a necessary condition for a claim to succeed. In addition, he dropped the allegations of racial abuse, which Wright has repeatedly denied. After last Monday's hearing, Katz said: "I never believed Marie Wright to be a racist. I felt the invective was part of the campaign to force my departure."

The aftermath of this affair has left Oxford in turmoil. According to some of those implicated in these events, it is a scandal that the industrial tribunal did not allocate time for Katz's allegations to be challenged. Further, they maintain that instead of attempting to oust Katz from the institute, the merger of Yiddish and the European Humanities Research Centre would have strengthened the role of Yiddish on the Oxford scene. They assert vehemently that there has been no plot against Katz and that his statement is the product of an overactive imagination. Furthermore they point out that this is not the first time that Katz has been the centre of controversy - only two years ago he left the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies.

Nevertheless, in the view of Jim Reed, professor of German language and literature at Oxford, the absence of Katz from the Oxford scene is a great loss. "Whatever the ins and outs of the case," he says, "for an institute to lose the international star who is the main point of existence for that institute is, to say the least, careless." In the opinion of others at Oxford, Katz's departure is nothing less than a tragedy. According to Dov-Ber Kerler, one of the lecturers in Yiddish at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Katz is one of the most brilliant Yiddish scholars of his generation, whose work at Oxford was laying the foundations for a revival of Yiddish scholarship in a post-Holocaust world.Even though the future of Yiddish at Oxford is secure now that there are two lecturers at the Oxford centre, Katz will be sorely missed.

What is Yiddish and why is it important? Yiddish was the language of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. It is a dialect of German with Slavic and Hebrew additions and it is written in Hebrew characters. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a rich literature grew up; there was thriving Yiddish theatre and the works of such writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer were world-famous. This civilisation was destroyed by the Holocaust.Today Yiddish is spoken only by a pathetic handful of survivors and by the thousands of devoutly religious, black hat, black jacket Hasidim, many of whom live in Britain.

Katz is not a Hasid. He is not even a particularly religious Jew and he was born not in Eastern Europe in 1916 but in Brooklyn in 1956. Why should he be interested in a dying language? His background provides part of the answer. He was the son of the Lithuanian Yiddish poet Menke Katz, the author of 18 books of verse. He was an only child and spoke Yiddish to his father; in their Brooklyn home they created a private imaginary world based on the tiny village of their ancestors, Michalishek, on the banks of the Viliya River in Lithuania. The Jews of Eastern Europe may have been murdered by the Nazis, but somehow, in the minds of the father and son, the old Yiddish civilisation lived on.

Although his family was not strictly Orthodox, Katz was sent to a series of talmudic academies so that he would gain a thorough grounding in Jewish learning. A brilliant student, at 15 he published his first Yiddish article in New York's Jewish Daily Forward.

While at New York's Columbia University (where he was the first undergraduate ever to major in Yiddish), Katz spent a year at University College, London. At the British Museum he discovered a wealth of Yiddish manuscripts, and in London he encountered a new world of Yiddish writers in Whitechapel, including the poet Avrom Stencl. This environment became his spiritual home when he returned to England in 1978 as a PhD candidate. During this time, he encountered David Patterson, founder of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, who asked Katz if he would like to teach Yiddish at his new centre.

At Oxford, Katz had a clear idea of what he hoped to accomplish. If a world centre of serious Yiddish scholarship could be set up in Oxford, he believed it would provide the vehicle to save Yiddish as a living language.For Katz, it was vital that much of the work of this centre be carried out not only on Yiddish but also in Yiddish. To this end, the doctoral programme and a summer course were conceived as interlocking elements in the teaching of Yiddish language and literature. Grandiloquently Katz speaks about a 100-year plan for saving Yiddish scholarship from extinction.

For 16 years Yiddish came to have its own calendar at Oxford. While all the university studies wera concentrated into the three eight-week terms, the months of August became synonymous with the four-week summer course. Here students from many countries mingled with visiting Yiddish teachers, writers, editors, actors and artists, while the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford became the focal point for Yiddish gatherings. When Katz's father visited in 1984, he was inspired to write a poem to the pub, a testament to the little Yiddish world created among the dreaming spires.

During 16 years of what Katz described as "blissful harmony - the closest thing to academic paradise I can imagine", he attracted a wide range of Jewish and non-Jewish students.

His publishing record too is lengthy - including major studies of the origins and dialects of the Yiddish language. He launched the Oksforder Yiddish series, the first academic series to be published in Yiddish since the Holocaust; volume three, produced in 1995, is the largest anthology of Yiddish scholarship ever compiled. His Grammar of the Yiddish Language appeared in 1987; his guide to modern Yiddish stylistics came out in 1993; and his Code of Yiddish Spelling appeared in 1997. This latter work codified the traditionalist variants of modern Yiddish spelling and sought to capture the common ground between the orthodox and secular factions of modern Yiddish culture.

But a fundamental shift in Katz's work occurred after his father's death in 1991. Although he continued to produce works of Yiddish scholarship, Katz embarked on the publication of Yiddish fiction under the pseudonym Heershadovid Menkes. Three collections have appeared: Eldra Don, Flat Peak,and Tales of the Misnagdim. His fiction has been awarded the Chaim Grade Prize in Modern Yiddish Literature and most recently , the 1997 Manges Award, the most prestigious international Yiddish prize.

Despite such literary accolades and international recognition, not everything went well at Oxford. Two years ago Katz broke away from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and founded the Institute of Yiddish Studies. It was from this institution that the acrimonious parting,subject of last week's abandoned industrial tribunal hearing, took place in January 1997. Today he is unemployed. His tiny North Wales cottage is crammed with Yiddish folios, and money is a serious problem. Reluctantly he speaks about going on the dole. Although relieved that his court case is now over, lawyers' fees need to be paid. His house in Oxford is on the point of repossession and he is worried about the mortgage payments on his Welsh home. He is due to be a visiting professor in the US this autumn, but has no permanent academic job. He has no further ambitions of being a director of an independently financed institution. By his own admission he is no administrator; all he wants to do is teach and carry on his research.

Yet despite the setbacks of recent years, his vision remains unchanged: to save Yiddish. This is not simply a scholarly aim - Katz's love affair with the Yiddish language grows out of a love affair with a past that is lost forever. From his childhood, the Jewish villages of Lithuania were more real to him than the environment in which he found himself. He knew the world he and his father created for themselves in their imaginations better than their Brooklyn neighbourhood. This is what he is seeking to preserve in his linguistic studies and is striving to recreate in his fiction. It is his personal answer to the Holocaust. "I never felt I could reverse the past," he says, "but I hope I can make a little dent in history."

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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