April 18, 2013
Yiddish yesterday, today and tomorrow. Interview with Thomas Soxberger
Thomas Soxberger was born in 1965 in Lower Austria. He moved to Vienna to study History and Jewish Studies. In the early 1990s Thomas participated in Yiddish Summer Programmes in Oxford. 1998-2000 - Master Degree in Yiddish Studies at London University. After moving back to London, Soxberger finished his dissertation at Vienna University and worked for the Austrian Parliament. He has also worked in several research projects and as Yiddish teacher at Vienna University. Soxberger’s publications include research articles in the field of Jewish and Yiddish studies, several translations of Yiddish literature, two novels in German and Yiddish poetry and short prose. His book on Yiddish culture in Vienna "Revolution am Donaukanal: Jiddische Kultur und Politik in Wien 1904 bis 1938" was published this spring by Mandelbaum Verlag, Vienna.
To start with, tell me how did you get to do what you are doing now?
It came rather straightforward, based on the things I was encountering on my way. I had a general wish to do Jewish studies. It is difficult to answer the question of personal motive, but certainly it was something that was “in the air” at that time. The 1980s, especially before and after the Waldheim elections, were an interesting time. People started to talk about the Austrian past and questioning the official narrative. Remember, the Green party started at this time too. It was somehow all connected with each other, so I think it was also a generational thing. At this time contemporary Klezmer music came to Austria. Some klezmer bands were also putting Yiddish songs into their repertoire. This was an opportunity to encounter this language, which for a German speaker is mostly easy to understand. I immediately felt a fascination with that language. Then there was the encounter with the general theme of Jewish culture and Jewish history, as well as with the part Austria played in this history. And then it was also about finding my own place in this world. Anyway, I decided to do Jewish and then Yiddish studies. There was a summer program in Oxford in the 1990s; by that time I had already been studying some Yiddish in Vienna University, a basic course. I seems that I did have a certain talent for the language and I started to write little poems in Yiddish, first of all as an exercise. I was writing poems in German before. But it was a feeling I could express something special in a special language.
Can you think of a point which turned your fascination into something you dedicated your life to?
It’s difficult to tell whether I actually “dedicated my life to it”. It turns out that just now I’m not working in the academic field. For many years I thought that I would go on to an academic job in Jewish studies, that I could turn this into a career, but one thing lead to another and now I’m doing a journalism job for the Austrian parliament. But I’m also a board member at the Jewish Liberal Community ‘Or Chadasch’ in Vienna, and this becomes an important part of my life more and more now. Of course, I am also doing academic work if I can; I have been writing for an exhibition on Jewish Humor, which openend in the Vienna Jewish Museum in March. I was asked to write about the role of Yiddish in the development Jewish humor, so I had a chance to speak about Sholom-Aleichem and also some Viennese humorists. To tell the truth, it was probably just too hard for me to make an academic career with Yiddish, because the academic field is rather limited. Apart from that I’m still writing literature, mostly in German, but in Yiddish as well. I do both poetry and prose, though prose is the bigger challenge for me.
Could you elaborate on that?
Many people think that prose is easier to write, but indeed writing good prose is a big challenge. You need to have something to say and you need to have a good technique and language to express it. Speaking about what is now considered to be contemporary Yiddish literature, quite a few people do write Yiddish poetry, because it’s a short form and I suppose it’s also a question of how much time and effort you can dedicate to writing. And not even all people who want to write in Yiddish do have a sufficient grasp of the language to write prose.
What are your topics in prose?
My last story was published in the journal Gilgulim in Paris, and unlike previous ones, it is a longer piece. There I tried to describe my own Yiddishist experience, yet that is not as easy as one might think. It’s not exactly autobiographical, I am trying to create a literary fiction based on my experiences. But in general for a writer, once you realize how vast the range of human experience is, naturally you want to write about some of that. Interestingly, there are some writers around – some of which I know personally – who try to write in Yiddish and I think we do share the same experience with Yiddish literature to some degree: you take from it and you want to give something back.
You were mentioning your involvement in the Liberal Jewish Community. How can you describe the link between your involvement in Jewish culture and your more recent involvement in Jewish religion?
Religion helps to understand Jewish culture. Apart from that, religion provides some answers that secular culture alone cannot give. At least that is what I feel. Liberal Judaism is a result of trying to connect the two and allow for the individual to find its own answers. On the other hand, many religious Jews will think that Liberal Judaism is too laissez-faire in many things. So the question arises: where is the common ground? I find this issue immensely interesting.
Contemporary Yiddish literature: Some people question the very right of it to exist, since Yiddish is not a contemporary used language.
But who are these people that they have to be asked whether Yiddish literature is allowed to exist? Indeed, some people might think that literature in general is irrelevant for their life and wonder how others can spend time on such nonsense. It’s a very loaded question. You might ask: is there still relevant literature in Yiddish at all? I think you just have to look for it, to find it and then you will realize it’s just as relevant as any other literature.
What would you answer to people, and there are many of them, who argue that Yiddish belongs to the past, and younger people should not pay too much attention to it?
Well, one could just as well say that Torah belongs to the past; it’s actually even much older. You always have to decide which part of the past you use. What can be a reason for people to decide that they don’t want to use this specific part of the past? I am also an historian and I can say that you need to know something about the past, otherwise what’s your claim for the future? This is my first argument against it. Also, there are many useful things to be learned from the Yiddish experience. If you question the relevance of a certain experience, you should at least know something about it and not dismiss it out of hand. Modern and older Jewish culture will never be fully separated. You might claim that Yiddish is not as mainstream now as it was back then in the Eastern Europe, that the Jewish mainstream is somewhere else now. If people just decide that they want to look only at things that are mainstream, alright, if they want it that way ... But for example, there are still people doing Latin poetry, and Latin is certainly more “dead” than Yiddish. But they have their own reasons for doing it.
There are people who write Yiddish poetry today, who just keep the tradition alive. There are people who take Yiddish and try to make it sound modern. It particularly applies to modern covers of traditional Yiddish songs. They are not trying to prolong the tradition, but rather to offer it as a new tradition, to revitalize it. What’s your opinion about this approach?
Before answering that, I have to underline that Yiddish has been “modern” now for over 100 years ... Of course, if you do use a language, it will develop, even if fewer people speak it now than was once the case. Yiddish of the early XIX century was different from Yiddish of the middle of the XX century, when it was still a widely spoken language. It was developing until this period and this did not really stop after that. You cannot say that everything Yiddish just ended with the Shoa. This enormous crime actually destroyed the whole culture in Eastern Europe. But there were big Yiddish-speaking communities in the USA and other places, which did not quit speaking Yiddish because of the Holocaust, but for other reasons. And there were also some people around who tried to keep it alive. In that respect, you could argue that the second half of the XX century was mostly a big failure for the Yiddishist enterprise, and who wants to be a part of a failure? It was not so for the Chassidim, but they are a different matter.
So did Yiddish language develop since 1945?
Obviously, it did. The Yiddish speaking communities of Chassidim were always alive. But there have been also non-chassidic, even secular circles, where the language was passed on from generation to generation. And if we look at it, there language also has developed, though there is criticism of this development too. For example, among dedicated Yiddishists there were attempts to prescribe which words in Yiddish should be used and which should not be used, because of their being “too German”. You find such “warnings” in the dictionary of Uriel Weinreich. And Mordechai Shechter in New York continued that tradition, he always argued for more “Yiddish”, more “Jewish” words to be used instead. That is a purist approach which argues that everything should be and can be expressed in Yiddish terms. If you lack words, you should make up new words, which is a phenomenon in itself. But I personally think the purist approach does not show the way to any new development of Yiddish.
Yiddish has many dialects. Is there a certain ‘high Yiddish’?
I would say there are at least two of them. There is Yiddish as the language of the Yiddish stage. And then there is Yiddish as a language of Yiddish literature, which appeared during the XIX century and which was then thought in Yiddish schools. These literary languages avoid regional expressions and aim at a style that as large an audience as possible will understand. Many languages are in a situation like that. I read that in Norway during the XIX century, two literary languages were developed, and people still use both of them. Some prefer the one because it’s closer to the spoken language of a certain region, and others prefer another one because it’s connected to a longer literary tradition, even though it’s closer to Danish. And not every language is like French, with its language academy and tradition. There are many languages which are in more ‘disorder’, so to say, and one of them is Yiddish. One can always cultivate a supposedly ‘uncultured’ language and use it in a very literary way. It is a lot about people who know how to use language.
Do you have some practicing partners in Yiddish?
I was doing Yiddish courses in London, and there we talked Yiddish most of the time. I meet people at Yiddish language conferences. It’s an interesting phenomenon. The dilemma is whether it’s only about keeping Yiddish literature alive some way or other or really pushing it to a level of some relevance.
What would you say about Yiddish culture becoming trendy in Eastern Europe now, for example in Poland, where there are not so many Jews, but there is an active Jewish stage and a high interest to the Jewish culture?
It reminds me a lot of what I have mentioned about Austria, it just came to Poland a little bit later. It happened when Klezmer music became a part of the whole trend of world music, a part of the mainstream. I am not surprised that such things are taking place. It’s the younger generation, who is looking at the past of the country and trying to come to terms with it. It also has a lot to do with questioning the received narrative about the national history. Austria had a certain narrative too about being the first victim of Nazi Germany in 1938. I remember it quite clearly, the whole thing about questioning this received narrative in the 1980s, and now a new version has become the mainstream. Politicians for example have to acknowledge on memorial days in an almost ritualistic fashion that it wasn’t only the Germans that occupied Austria, but there was Austrian participation in the crimes of the Nazis and an Austrian responsibility. I don’t know if all of this holds much promise for Yiddish literature in particular, but to all people who are interested in this topic, this development is interesting.
Can you think of some other people from Austria, who were also influenced by this trend to that extent?
I can mention a friend, Armin Eidherr, who is actually teaching Yiddish literature in Salzburg; another academic friend of mine, Brigitte Dalinger, is writing a lot about Jewish theatre. When I look around, there is also a bunch of people involved in Jewish culture, often touching the topic of Yiddish too. It’s a very small group, but I think it certainly can be found.
Poems that Die Young
by Thomas Soxberger; translated from the Yiddish by Irving Massey
There are always some poems that die young.
It's always been that way, always will be.
No sooner do they see the bright day
Than they're buried
With a handsome titlepage for a headstone
In a book (published by the author), in an anthology, ,
Or maybe it was in the pages of The Future I
That they entered immediately upon their eternal rest,
Or got into The Golden Chain,
And already nobody cares about them.
What do those poems sing about, the ones that die young?
About anything that you can think of, and about the fact that
In the year 1965 there was a spring,
And, obviously, an autumn.
There were stars in the sky that year
As there were the next year.
And at that time there was love, too,
People longed, hoped, and the dear departed
Had not yet been forgotten.
What do we need those poems for, if
Anyway they're going to die young,
If no eye will ever see them again
In their selfappointed graves,
And no one is going to waste any breath
Reading them out loud?
Whom could you ask? Could it have something to do
With the fact that there will be poems being written
About spring in 2115, about love in 5790?
לידער, וואָס שטארבן יונגערהייט
אלע מאָל זײַנען דאָ לידער, וואָס שטארבן יונגערהייט.
אזוי איז געוועןף און אזוי וועט ווײַטער זײַן.
זיי האָבן נאָר וואָס דערזען די ליכטיקע שײַן
און זײַנען שוין באגראָבן געוואָרן
מיט א שיינעם שער־בלאט צוקאָפּנס
אין א בוך (פארלאג פונעם מחבר), אן אנטאָלאָגיע,
אָדער זײַנען גאָר אויף די זײַטן פון דער צוקונפט
ארײַן אין זייער אייביקער רו,
אָדער ארײַן אין דער גאָלדענער קייט
און זיי גייען שוין קיינעם ניט אָן.
וועגן וואָס זינגען די לידער, וואָס שטארבן יונגערהייט?
וועגן וואָס נאָר איר ווילט, און וועגן דעם,
אז געווען איז א פרילינג אין 1965,
און א הארבסט, פארשטייט זיך, אויך.
שטערן זײַנען געשטאנען אין די נעכט דעמאָלט
פּונקט ווי אין א יאָר ארום.
און דעמאָלט איז אויך געווען ליבע,
מען האָט געבענקט, געהאָפט, און טײַערע טויטע
זײַנען נאָך ניט פארגעסן געוואָרן.
פאר וואָס דארף מען אזעלכע לידער, אויב זיי שטארבן
דאָך סײַ ווי שוין יונגערהייט,
אויב קיין אויג וועט זיי שוין מער ניט זען
אין זייער זעלבסט פארלייגטן קבר,
און קיינער קיין אָטעם ניט פארשווענדן
זיי צו לייענען אויף א קול?
גיי פרעג א קשיא. אפשר האָבן זיי א שײַכות
צו דעם, אז מען וועט נאָך שרײַבן לידער
וועגן פרילינג אין 2115טן יאָר,
וועגן ליבע אין יאָר