One of the memes in the Batman Meme Project is entirely in Yiddish. I have just finished the nearly six-week process of writing (a draft of) the commentary on it – and it has turned out to be the longest commentary, by far, yet written. (I suspect it will remain the longest, but who knows! I didn’t expect this one to be so long.)
When I was composing the meme, back in Spring 2016, I had help with the Yiddish from a friend of a friend. I had produced the Yiddish text by using Google Translate, but it didn’t look all that right to me and I had no way of knowing if it was idiomatic, or even basically correct. This kind person helped get it into shape and, as part of that, she changed the Romanization (Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters) according to a standard established by YIVO – a Jewish and Yiddish cultural organization founded in 1925. That, she said in an off-hand remark, gave the text a ‘Lithuanian slant.’
Although my commentary touches on many things (the relation of speech and writing, Jewish naming practices, the etymology of one particular Jewish name, Robin Jeshion’s proposed principle of Single Tagging – basically, you shouldn’t name something if you think it already has a name, and others), the thing I got most caught up in was this ‘Lithuanian slant.’
There are linguistic reasons why certain ways of pronouncing, writing, and Romanizing Yiddish have a Lithuanian slant. But looming behind this there is also the prestige of the Litvak (Lithuanian) tradition in Jewish culture – a tradition which is very much part of my own heritage. As a result, I ended up appending to the commentary a bibliography, as best as I can compile it, of works by some of my rabbinic Litvak ancestors:
1) Avraham Jonah ben Yehoshua Yevnin (1813-1848; “Yevnin” is another form of my surname). Died very young but was already reckoned an important figure. Posthumous publication of two commentaries by him on works of Maimonides. I get my middle name “Jonah” from my grandfather, who got it from him.
2) Nosen Neta Yevnin (1838-1914). His son, my great-great-grandfather. Author of three surviving works. Most excitingly, one of these works is a commentary on a Passover song (“Who Knows One?”) which I am planning to write about in connection with two other memes:
3) Shmuel Yevnin (1839-?). The next son and, this is my impression, the most distinguished of the sons. He studied at the famous yeshiva (religious academy) of Volozhin in the 1850s, when it was at the height of its prestige. He is the author of four surviving works. One is a commentary on a work about the great Gaon of Vilna (the star of Lithuanian Jewry). In one copy, there is an inscription by the author to R. Yitzhak Elkhanan Spektor, another Litvak Torah giant:
As best we can tell, the inscription reads:
A remembrance gift! In honor of my friend and the friend of the entire house of Israel. Here is the great and veritable genius [there is a pun here I don’t know exactly how to render. Some of the words constitute the name of another great Jewish scholar from the academy in Pumbedita, Hai Gaon (939-1038)], light of the diaspora, the most famous pillar of teaching who is famous in the whole world for his name and reputation, Maran [a title of the highest respect for a rabbinic authority] Yitzhak Elkhanan Shalit”a [an acronym also used for highly esteemed rabbis, meaning ‘may he merit a long and good life’]…[the text is here indecipherable]… From the son of one [Abraham Jonah] who was his friend, who cherished him and who respected his lofty worth. This is shm”y forever.
The last sentence is another pun. If ‘shm”y’ is read as an acronym – as the two lines between the ‘m’ and ‘y’ indicate – it means ‘this is Shmuel Yevnin forever’ – a fanciful way of signing the inscription to the effect of ‘ever yours, Shmuel Yevnin.’ But if not read as an acronym, the sentence is from Exodus 3,15, where God says to Moses from the burning bush ‘This is my name forever.’ For Shmuel Yevnin, the acronym of his name also means ‘my name’! How cool is that?
He evidently got a kick out of play on his name. A work which is mentioned as a manuscript but of which I can find no other trace is called Shem MiShmuel. What does this title mean? In the ancient Mishnah Shabbat 12.3, it is asserted that one is liable for having violated the prohibition against writing on the Sabbath not just if one writes a whole word, but if one writes even two letters, since two letters might make a ‘little word’ within a bigger word. For example, if one were writing the name “Shmuel” – the rabbis use this very example, along with part of my own Hebrew name, “Shimon” – but only got as far as the first two letters, one would still have written an entire word, “shem” (name). (Most of the sounds we represent with vowels in the Roman alphabet are not represented by letters in written Hebrew.) Perhaps Shmuel Yevnin’s work Shem MiShmuel (The Shem (Name) from Shmuel) was a commentary on this part of the Mishnah.
4) Bezalel Yevnin (Ewnin) (1840-1909). Another son of Avraham Jonah. He came to the US in 1880 and published three works there, one in Hebrew, one in Yiddish, and one in English. A description (I think translated from a Yiddish newspaper and a Yiddish reference work both of which I am trying to locate) which I found on-line says about him:
He also had a good working knowledge of French and secular subjects. He married into the wealthy Sonnenthal Family and lost his wife at a young age, which left him despondent. Shortly thereafter R. Ewnin abruptly left for America. In America he became more rightist and anti-Reform [Judaism], about which he preached from many pulpits… R. Ewnin was killed by a streetcar in Detroit.
His life seems as if it was difficult for him.
8 Replies to “A Yiddish Meme”
Have you been in contact with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass, where you should be able to find everything you want to know about anything Yiddish.
RLA, no I haven’t. But, for example, I’ve found on-line what I think is the issue of the newspaper where Bezalel’s death is reported; I just can’t find the article in it! I’m working on it. But I will need to make a trip to the Yiddish Book Center (thanks for telling me about it) or the YIVO headquarters or the NYPL, all in NYC, to consult some of these things.