About one year ago, I had some contact with an onomast and linguist specializing in Jewish languages. (There are many Jewish languages: Hebrew ancient and modern, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Italkian, and others.) I wrote about this in several previous posts about the Yiddish meme in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I have been wanting to write more about that experience for some time but have hesitated owing to ethical concerns that make it difficult, concerns that arise mostly (though not exclusively) from my irascible expert’s having forbidden me from publishing any part of their emails.
Yes, you read that right. This expert ended by invoking the law, asserting their rights over the contents of their emails, and forbidding me from quoting anything from them!
The whole episode was on the way to becoming quite upsetting to me when my partner enabled a Gestalt switch that led me to find it both entertaining and enriching. “This is like something out of The Savage Detectives,” she said, referring to the Roberto Bolaño novel I was reading at the time. And it was! A literary ‘feud’ over esoteric scholarship, one party becoming more and more enraged precisely as the other party tries to assuage them. The affair was both heated and absurd!
Here follows as much of the story as I can bring myself to relate. (And even this makes me uncomfortable – not, I should add, on my own account.)
Jews have a practice of giving double names to their children, one a religious, “Jewish” name, the other a secular one. Batman, in the meme, gives as his Jewish name “Simcha Bunim.” But is “Simcha Bunim” a Jewish name? Or is “Simcha” a Jewish name and “Bunim” a secular one? This was to be a major theme in the commentary on the meme but I was finding it hard to get good scholarly information on the nuances of this double naming practice and its historical vicissitudes. One expert on Jewish names whom I consulted suggested I contact the irascible expert. Tracking them down was not easy but I eventually found a mailing address and wrote them a letter. Surprisingly (but as it turned out, wholly in keeping with their generosity), they replied quite quickly by email, letting me know they had received my letter and would respond at greater length shortly. And so they did, offering a lot of very helpful material concerning the distinction between Jewish and secular names, including a passage I wished to quote in the commentary.
The meme represents Yiddish in Roman letters and another major theme in the commentary is the different methods used for doing this. (The ‘native’ orthography of Yiddish uses Hebrew letters.) Since my correspondent was also an acknowledged expert on this topic, I decided, in my pushy way, to send them, a couple of weeks later and with the excerpt from their email incorporated, a draft of the entire commentary on the meme. I sent the commentary out to quite a few people at that point to get feedback. It is long – seventeen or so pages – and a crazy mixture of scholarship (somewhere between mock and aspiring), a bibliography of the rabbinic works of my ancestors in the old country, and Batman-related nonsense.
Reader, the expert read it! They were, indeed, the only person I had any reason, at that time, to believe did read it. I was overjoyed and so very, very grateful. Nor was my gratitude in any way diminished by the expert’s opinion that my piece was so riddled with error as to be barely rectifiable! Since I cannot quote their verdict, let me give you some of my response:
First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to read my piece. And thank you also for your frank appraisal of its deficiencies, which I truly appreciate. I can’t help but feel that your willingness to help me will put you in violation of the Yidish¹ proverb you cite: af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh.
As you can infer from my reply, the expert had, again I say, with amazing generosity, offered to help me remove the errors from my wretched commentary. There was, however, a Faustian element to the offer: I would have to promise, in advance, not to include anything they thought unworthy of publication and to include only what they thought to be correct.
I explained, at some length, why I could not agree to this. There was a very specific problem, which I shall not go into, but the more general point I tried to convey was that although the scholarship in my commentary was important to me, and I wanted it to stand up in its own right, nonetheless my goals were not primarily scholarly but literary and philosophical. For example, in the commentary I explain how ‘the artist of the memes’ (i.e. me) arrived at the text that appears in the meme. That involved composing the text in English, putting it through Google Translate, and then getting help to put it into real Yiddish. I was able to recognize that what Google Translate had yielded was awful but it served my purposes to include it in the story of how the final text was reached. But for the irascible expert, it was offensive to give any space to the obviously deficient output offered by Google Translate.
Having audaciously made my case for why I wanted both the expert’s help and the right to make my own decisions about the content of the commentary, I waited. I was hoping that the charm with which I explained all this, the playfulness of including a specially composed Batman meme incorporating the Yiddish proverb they threw my way, the slyness and subtlety of my whole project, would win them over. I was a little boy trying to coax a stern and severe parent into indulgence. It was at this point, if I remember correctly, that my partner staged her Bolaño-inspired intervention.
And a good thing she did! The reply I received, far from manifesting the fondness I was trying to elicit, was now not just impatient and dismissive but positively outraged and angry. The expert, apparently, had not previously read the commentary, but merely skimmed it. Now that they had read it properly (but how grateful I am that they did, after all, not just leave it skimmed but read it properly) they found what I had written highly offensive. They felt I was poking fun at Yiddish by implying that there was something intrinsically funny about seeing Batman and Robin talking Yiddish. There would be nothing funny, the expert said, about seeing them talking French or German. So why should it be a source of humor to see them speaking Yiddish, a real language into which Shakespeare, Whitman, Einstein and many, many others have been translated. Would I also find a source of fun the articles of Kant- and Hegel-scholarship written in Yiddish and published in Yiddish journals?
It seems I had well and truly brought us to a pass in which I was Robin, receiving a slap, and the expert Batman, delivering it. And who is to say I had not unconsciously aimed at just this? As I reflect on it now, I see how inappropriate my reply was to the expert’s reaction to my shoddy scholarship. Could I realistically have thought they would be amused by the meme I made in their honor? What a misjudgment of tone on my part! So perhaps I was, after all, trying to provoke them.
I wish I could quote from what I can only describe (with but the tiniest exaggeration) as the irascible expert’s torrent of indignation and rage. Alas, I cannot. But here is my reply, the last salvo in this strange folie à deux:
As always, thanks for your thoughtful engagement with my work. I am not sure why I have been so unsuccessful in communicating my ideas to you but let me say categorically that it is not my intention, in any way, to make fun of Yidish or its speakers. Quite the opposite! All these days, I have been straining my eyes trying to make out the Yidish, to the small extent I can, in digital archives of the Yidish press finding out about some of the ancestors whose works I list at the end. I daily curse the fact that I do not know Yidish properly and have, at various times in my life, seriously thought about learning it.
In the piece I have written, I say at one point “Starting in the second half of the 18th century, Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment began to stigmatize Yiddish as a merely debased form of German that kept its native speakers from accessing European high culture. The image of Yiddish as a comic, backward, folksy language began to take shape, in contrast to dominant European languages, on the one hand, and Hebrew, on the other – an image that even many subsequent supporters of Yiddish have been happy to accept.” In an earlier version, I then referred, in a footnote, to a recent book on Yidish (I won’t say which one though I’m sure you’ll recognize it from what I go on to say) that exemplifies “a supporter of Yiddish” being happy to accept this comic image of Yidish… This made me angry for just the reason I have made you angry…
So, I heartily share your indignation on behalf of Yidish and its speakers and I was using this commentary as a way of linking myself to both of them. (Hence the whole discussion of Lita² and my ancestors there.)
HOWEVER, none of this is to say that I haven’t myself been guilty of the thing you and I both condemn. I will have to think hard about whether I have unintentionally mocked Yidish in saying that there was something humorous about seeing Batman and Robin speaking that language. I will say that in another meme, I have them speaking Latin and find that humorous for similar reasons, though of course, the nature of the contrast between Batman and Latin IS different from that between Batman and Yidish – and that’s where it’s possible I have fallen into error.
I seem to have made things worse with every email I have sent you and for that, I am deeply sorry. (I hope this email doesn’t make things even worse.) I approached you with respect in my heart and I have admired your erudition and hoped to learn from it. But I will certainly excise the quotation from your email and altogether stop bothering you!
Even now, I sometimes find myself wishing I received some word from the irascible expert. It would hardly matter whether it was conciliatory or angry. If the former, I would have finally succeeded in replacing the slap with a loving caress; if the latter, my exciting and Bolaño-esque ‘feud’ would continue. I have loved this irascible expert and love them still. They paid attention to me and they offered to help me; they saw something in me. I hope I have seen something in them, too.
¹ This is not an error. Different approaches to the Romanization of Yiddish yield different opinions on how to write the language’s name in Roman characters. I adopted the spelling “Yidish” in my reply to the irascible expert out of deference to their stated preference on the matter.
² Jewish Lithuania.