Yiddish Literature Before 1800

Jean Baumgarten

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Yiddish Literature Before 1800

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Old Yiddish literature—the works created and written in the vernacular Jewish language parallel to Aramaic, Hebrew, and the non-Jewish languages from the Middle Ages to the Haskalah in the Ashkenazi world—was for a long time locked up in a complex network of prejudice and a priori associations, or the texts were simply unknown or neglected. A few philological, cultural studies were written, often with an anti-Jewish perspective, during the Renaissance period by Christian Hebraists, theologians, and humanists. In the beginning of 19th century, some scholars from the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement started to take an interest in Old Yiddish literature, but “popular Jewish literature” was defined as the expression of an obsolete society. In the beginning of the 20th century, in connection with the national movements, and the recognition of Yiddish as a language of culture, Old Yiddish texts were brought to light and studied as an essential part of Jewish tradition, not as a dead, passéist culture but as a living expression of the Jewish life. Since that period, many texts were rediscovered and many critical editions were published. Old Yiddish literature is now recognized as a field of Jewish studies, essential to the understanding of traditional Ashkenazic culture and its shift to modernity. To be fully understood, the texts must be integrated into a broad historical and cultural context, in relation to the complex totality of Jewish culture, and must be linked with other constituent elements of European Judaism. If one considers the complexity of the Yiddish compositions with their dynamic relations to Aramaic and Hebrew culture and other coterritorial, non-Jewish cultures, the longevity of this literature, which appeared in the Middle Ages and which has endured up to our own day, and the vast geographical area where Yiddish was spoken, then one begins to comprehend the difficulties involved in delimiting this field, which both transcends the partitions of its constituent disciplines and their divisions into cultural domains and which crosses into numerous fields of enquiry. Old Yiddish literature appears as a transnational, pluri- or transdisciplinary field of studies that requires connection to many domains of research. For this reason, Old Yiddish studies could be either relegated to the margins of many disciplines or, on the contrary, considered as an original contribution to many fields such as history, linguistics, literature, religious studies, cultural and social anthropology, and folklore. Due to more than a century of research, Old Yiddish literature is now considered to be an important testimony regarding many issues central to Jewish society, Ashkenazi culture, and European languages and literature.

Article.  14886 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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