Scholar to work on Yiddish encyclopedia

A local professor will spend the summer researching an encyclopedia written in the Yiddish language

A local professor will spend the summer researching an encyclopedia written in the Yiddish language in the 1930s in Berlin and translate parts into English.

University at Albany assistant professor of Judaic studies Barry Trachtenberg was awarded $6,000 to research Di algemeyne entsiklopedye (the General Encyclopedia).

“Very few people are aware of the story of the encyclopedia itself,” said Trachtenberg. “It provides a window to look upon Jews of the 20th century.”

The General Encyclopedia was produced between 1933 and 1966 and tells of the history, demography, economics and politics of Judaism and Jewish culture.

Written entirely in Yiddish, it is a useful map of how Jewish scholarship changed as a consequence of the Holocaust.

It’s a 12-volume book with thousands of pages.

It’s written in Yiddish, which was the international language of the Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. A hybrid of Hebrew and medieval German, it takes about three quarters of its vocabulary from German but also borrows words from Hebrew and other languages in countries where the Ashkenazic Jews lived.

For Trachtenberg, 38, the project started when he was asked to contribute to the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies.

“I had a few volumes of the General Encyclopedia on my bookshelf I had picked up at a Jewish bookstore 10 years ago,” said Trachtenberg.

He decided to write an article on the book and he applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to research it.

Trachtenberg said that the first attempt to publish a comprehensive encyclopedia in Yiddish began in Berlin in the 1930s.

Editors included former socialist and labor leader Raphael Rein Abramowitz, who fled from Berlin to Paris after Hitler came to power in 1933. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Abramowitz and others were forced to escape to New York, where they completed the last volume of the General Encyclopedia in 1966.

Initially, the goal was to make the General Encyclopedia something like an Encyclopedia Britannica filled with general information for Yiddish-speaking Jews, who numbered around 9 million in the early 1930s.

Because of the Holocaust, as well as linguistic assimilations among Soviet Jews to Russian, American Jews to English, and Israeli Jews to Hebrew, the number of Yiddish-speaking Jews dramatically declined.

“What’s so exciting is that they considered abandoning it when they lost their audience, but the project shifted and it became a memorial to the Jewish people who were destroyed,” said Trachtenberg.

“It became a book about Jewish life and death and the possibility of continuing. They re-imagined the project rather than just discontinuing it,” he said.

The General Encyclopedia includes phenomenal works of scholarship that have rarely been translated, Trachtenberg said.

“What I hope to do is come out with translation of key articles into English. There are some important works on the Holocaust from firsthand observers, studies of Yiddish language and literature, on Jewish life in Poland and brilliant essays on the Jewish enlightenment. These essays go virtually unknown.”

He plans to edit a companion volume of English translations of the encyclopedia’s most significant works as well as make available online an unpublished volume of the encyclopedia on the topic of Israel.

Trachtenberg said he’ll explore how Jewish studies have been shaped by the Holocaust, the decline of the European Jewish culture and new centers of Jewish studies in the U.S. and Israel.

Tens of thousands of people still speak Yiddish, not a large number considering that once millions spoke Yiddish at its height, according to Trachtenberg.

There is also a small resurgence in Yiddish classes at certain colleges around the United States.

The Yiddish revival is secular in nature by people who have approached the language later in life, according to Trachtenberg.

Among people who have it as their primary language, Yiddish is thriving in ultraorthodox communities. This includes a community in Orange County — Kiryas Joel — that’s home to 18,000 Yiddish-speaking residents, almost all of them Satmar Hasidim.

Trachtenberg also said he receives four or five Yiddish newspapers a month and there’s a presence of Yiddish online.

Yiddish is a very lively, colorful language, though not necessarily dramatically different from other languages. He said the way it’s represented in popular culture is how we understand it and there’s also a strong tradition of Yiddish Jews in vaudeville.

Trachtenberg isn’t sure how long his research will take, but he plans to spend the summer at the Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, which houses the archives for the General Encyclopedia.

His goal is to complete an anthology of the best writing from the 12 volumes of the encyclopedia.

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