Yiddish at Oxford
Under the leadership of the visionary founder of modern Jewish studies at Oxford University, Dr. David Patterson (1922–2005), the academic research and teaching institution which he created became for around two decades a major world center of Yiddish studies. That institution was the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies (since renamed the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies). Indeed, it was Yiddish in the last quarter of the twentieth century that catapulted the Centre from just another sleepy Hebrew studies unit to a world-class center in advanced studies, including successful doctoral programs that provided a generation of (today’s) professors, and seminal publications in English and Yiddish that will be there for centuries to come. The kind of thing that the current twenty-first century incarnation of the same institution might well look back on with pride and even some nostalgia.
Among today’s scholars, educators, authors and personalities in the wider arts who were attracted to come and study Yiddish by our team, enabled at each stage by Dr. Patterson (in an array of settings ranging from weekly classes through summer courses to doctoral programs) at the Centre between the 1970s and 1990s are Prof. Marion Aptroot, Dr. Helen Beer, Prof. James Dingley, Prof. Jennifer Dowling, Prof. Gennady Estraikh, Mr. Elliot Gertel, Prof. Christopher Hutton, Dr. Devra Kay, Prof. Dov-Ber Kerler, Ms. Miri Koral, Dr. Holger Nath, Prof. Ritchie Robertson, Ms. Elinor Robinson, Mr. David Schneider, Prof. Robert Moses Shapiro, Prof. Astrid Starck, Dr. Heather Valencia, Prof. Nina Warnke, Mr. Tim Whewell, among many others. The first BA option in Yiddish was introduced at Oxford University (Faculty of Modern Languages) in 1982, and the doctoral program was inaugurated in 1984. After some years it was awarded a citation of excellence by the Modern Languages Faculty, signed by its then head. These were all achievements of historic order for the small, fragile and frankly still struggling academic field of Yiddish.
Ayelet Brinn’s well-intentioned interview with Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krוtikov, published today in In Geveb, fails to ask the two veterans of Aaron Vergelis’s Sovetish Heymland about their controversial role in 1990s Oxford, together allegedly wrecking the Oxford Programme in Yiddish that had done so much in Yiddish Studies. They did so, allegedly, while becoming part of campaigns of personal destruction against the scholars who brought them there in the first place and worked countless hours to raise the support and facilities to bring them. Estraikh presented himself as a penniless graduate student in Moscow begging for help in the wake of the USSR’s collapse (winter 1990-1991) and came to study (in 1991) with Dovid Katz and Dov-Ber Kerler. Krutikov, by contrast, was an already-emigrated young scholar whom JTS’s main man in Yiddish recommended for Oxford as part of the wider project to dismantle the Oxford Program in Yiddish he had been railing against for years; he arrived in 1996, after a pseudo-search committee set up so that the JTS man’s recommendation would be the only one taken into account. The ex-Soviets went on to artfully trash the scholars who spent decades building the program. In classic Sovetish Heymland style intrigue mode, Krutikov was brought to Oxford primarily to serve as for-hire hit man in Soviet-style intrigue. Both former students of A. Vergelis, both gifted actors and masters of machinations, used it as a launch pad for American careers and rapidly destroyed the magnificent program that they had usurped. That history will be written and is very heavily documented (down to Estraikh’s apology for plagiarizing a grammar of one of his teachers, which he then “fixed” with a recall of the entire edition and addition of a front-cover credit sticker; the original is now a collector’s item). What is weird in the third decade of the twenty-first century is the (ab)use of In Geveb for an agenda of rewriting recent Yiddish Studies history for the glorification of a rather curious-bedfellow clique bringing together veterans of JTS and Sovetish Heymland (perhaps united by disdain for mainstream cultural Yiddishism, such as that of the late lamented Yiddish educator Naomi Prawer Kadar for whom one of the naive and manipulated enabling funding bodies is rightfully named).
VILNIUS—Beware of any academic conference hosted by a nation’s parliament. This isn’t about Lithuania, the Baltics, or Eastern Europe. It’s about the intellectual independence and academic integrity of bona fide academic conclaves anywhere. There are elementary questions. Was there a public call for papers? Was there an academic committee established to select those papers by the most competent specialists on the actual topic of the conference? An academic committee that would guard against the petty jealousies, politics of revenge and personal exclusions, as well as larger political correctnesses or state-sponsored-agency attempts to predetermine the proceedings or (ab)use them for governmental PR? Is the conference a free tribune for the exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of collegiality and mutual respect? One where scholars of opposing views can thrash it out, robustly and publicly — without the loss of interpersonal respect — to yield positive results for the area of human enquiry to which the conference was dedicated in the first place. One of the ironies is that Vilnius is nowadays host to some of the world’s best (and most academically free) conferences in an array of fields, both in the humanities and the sciences. That Soviet-style rigging should survive in the case of Judaic studies, of all things, will itself be studied one day.