Defending the History of: Yiddish at Oxford




OPINION  |  YIDDISH AFFAIRS

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.

What had been a moribund field in the seventies arose in Oxford to give forth Europe’s first series of international Yiddish academic conferences (from 1979); first annual intensive Yiddish summer program in Europe (from 1982); first annual conference series in Europe since the Holocaust (from 1985); the first new series anywhere (from 1986) of English academic collective volumes (Winter Studies in Yiddish) since Uriel Weinreich’s Field of Yiddish; first new academic series anywhere in Yiddish (Oxford Yiddish, from 1990, which in turn inspired New York’s Yivo to relaunch the long discontinued Yivo Bleter); and the first new Yiddish publishing house in Europe since World War II which produced Europe’s first Yiddish literary and cultural monthly in the field since the war (Yiddish Pen, from 1994, in addition to a dozen literary and academic volumes by living authors). Oxford Yiddish III (1995, 1000 folio columns) remains to this day the most extensive compendium of Yiddish scholarship in Yiddish since the Holocaust. Are today’s Oxford librarians aware that its first printing (now a bona fide bibliographic rarity) bore the Oxford Centre’s imprint, and iconic 45 St Giles address, on the title pages?

In Yiddish literary history, the Oxford program brought numerous wrongfully downgraded authors to new international attention, most famously A. N. Stencl (via the Stencl Lecture series, and in 1979, bringing the bard of Whitechapel to be honoured at Oxford). The program moreover brought the greatest then-living Yiddish authors, editors, and theatre icons to Oxford from around the globe to interact with serious academic students. These included Harry Ariel, Yehuda Elberg, Yonia Fain, Itche Goldberg, Miriam Hoffman, Abraham Karpinovich, Joseph Kerler, Y.H. Klinger, Abraham Lis, I.A. Lisky, Mordechai Litvin, Jacob Maitlis, Bernard Mendelovich, Joseph Mlotek, Leyzer Ran, Sarah Rosenfeld, Ruth Rubin, Abraham Sutzkever, Bono Wiener; as well as scholarly legends in their time such as Joseph Bar-El, Solomon A. Birnbaum, Benjamin Harshav, Marvin I. Herzog, Jean Jofen, James W. Marchand, Dov Noy, Chone Shmeruk, Hermann Suess, Nathan Susskind, Sarah Tzfatman, and (long may they live) Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Robert D. King, Wolf Moskovich, Chava Turniansky. Indeed, the Modern Languages Faculty regularly appointed Professor Moskovich (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) to fulfill the role of External Examiner for DPhil and MPhil theses in Yiddish Studies. (Are Yiddish DPhils coming out of Oxford these days? Is there reliable academic quality control for vetting OUP publications in the field?)

With a rarefied synthesis of diplomacy, patience, charm and sheer genius in the cause of helping a fragile, beprejudiced field to break through barriers of entrenched snobbism coupled with disdain for the language and ethos of East European Jewry, Dr. Patterson patiently overcame these multifaceted prejudices and hangups about Yiddish in Oxford’s longstanding Hebrew and ancient Jewish history academic “mafia” by finding an enthusiastic fresh new home. That was to be in the non-parochial, open-minded, universalist Modern Languages Faculty, with much and consistent support from Professors S. S. Prawer and T. J. Reed. (Little wonder that when A. Vergelis’s “Sovetish Heymland” master-of-intrigue pupils came eventually to wreck the program, Professor Reed became one of their favorite public targets.)

Yiddish found a happy home, where it was willed to thrive rather than to remain in nooks and corners, far removed from petty internal Jewish squabbles, feuds, pettiness, and near-clinical (at times institutionalized) schadenfreude and begrudging of others’ success (as well as lingering Anglo-Jewish, German-Jewish and Israeli complexes concerning Yiddish and Ashkenazic Jewish culture). There was considerable support from the Taylor Institution Library and its librarians. Yiddish overnight, as it were, became something noticeably more universal, a field where Jewish and non-Jewish scholars flourished at once and in profound harmony, and where the Modern Languages Faculty was proud, more than once, to acknowledge the success of its Yiddish doctoral program. This is a far cry from “Hebrew studies syndrome” in which “Yiddish” must be maintained as a pleasingly marginal, low-level, academically low-ambition spelling-bee plaything of abject mediocrity and infantilized cuteness.

A modest selection of documents and keepsakes from those years has been collected online and is freely downloadable. Readers are invited to send more for the collection. See the dedication to Dr. Patterson’s role in a 1990s paper on Notions of the Yiddish Language. His personal love for Yiddish, pride in his own East European Jewish heritage, his modest Liverpudlian roots and self-made status, preference for modest home, car and clothing, inspirational charisma, and genuine human warmth toward people of all backgrounds, incomes, races, and stations in life, were all a source of annoyance and disdain for some of the Anglo-Jewish elite who never stopped trying to topple him. Incidentally,  Dr. Patterson was proud to hail from the Ma(ha)rshaks, a family going back to the illustrious rabbinic author, Aaron Samuel Kaidanover (1614-1676) whose life included refuge in Vilna during the Chmielnitski massacres of 1648-9. The Center’s pioneering role in helping the post-Soviet rebirth of Judaic studies in Vilna was close to his heart. It was one of those rare came-full-circle moments. And then, with characteristic generosity of spirit, Dr. Patterson spared no effort to bring the frail (and impoverished) Professor Meir Shub, a wounded war veteran of the fight against Hitler, from Vilnius to Oxford’s Yarnton Manor for a year of study and rest. Meir Shub was the intrepid and deeply determined founder of Judaic Studies at Vilnius University in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

The permanent contributions (in studying, degrees, training of generations of scholars, publications in English and Yiddish) are indeed part of the twentieth century history of Yiddish generally, at a juncture where the success of the field at Oxford played a potent symbolic role in helping overcome prejudices about Yiddish language, language and literature in many lesser academic institutions all over the world. Some of the repeat summer course attendees alone (i.e. who never actually did in-term degrees) went on to build innovative programs in Canada, France, Israel, Poland, South Africa, the the UK (primarily in London), and the United States. At Oxford there were able uniquely to “inhale” not only that city’s academic reach for excellence in Yiddish, but also the synthesis of that rigor with an ethos of higher studies  in Yiddish; the bona fide language and culture of the last generation of pre-Holocaust born masters;, and, a newly created international community of Jews and non-Jews that took Yiddish to a very special place in the late twentieth century. The litany of publications (Winter Studies in English, Oxford Yiddish in Yiddish, Yiddish Pen, Oksforder Yidish Press and its books), and the dozens of works by scholars and authors published during the period will tell the tale when the last veterans of that Oxford Yiddish experience have long gone the way of all life.

One would think that the twenty-first century Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies would not wish to suppress the history of one of the fields in which it has taken a true international lead over its roughly half century existence. But no, the same forces (“Hebrew”, “Ancient Jewish Studies”, “Anglo-Jewish”, “German-Jewish”) that tried to prevent the success of Yiddish in the first place — once outwitted by Dr. Patterson’s brilliant way of sidestepping empty disputes by moving the field to the humanistic and minority language friendly Faculty of Modern European Languages — have moved on to diminish or delete the major academic success story that helped bring the Centre to international prominence in the first place.

For example, the current Centre website provides PDFs of all its annual reports from 1990-1991 onward [archived], in other words from the year that Dr. Patterson was sidelined and was being cruelly forced into a drawn-out process of premature retirement by a vested-interest clique of monied Anglo-Jewish “wannabe royalty” types (though exploited to his dying days as a fundraising robot).

Why would the current leaders, and indeed the website’s editors, not wish for the Annual Report for earlier years to proudly appear on the same page?

To help them out, DefendingHistory.com has scanned in as many as possible which have today been put online gratis. Readers can feel free to browse through the Annual Reports for academic years spanning the years 1981-1992 (with appreciation to readers who can obtain copies from earlier years and issues missing). They are all OCR enabled and searchable (key in “Yiddish” in search/find for details of the year’s activity in that field).

The failure to post the earlier Annual Reports is but a symptom of the problem. To perceive the issue more directly, one can have a look, inter alia, at one of the more pronounced instances of academic hatchetry and distortion of the record disguised as “academic history” in a case of rewriting history as a hired gun rather than a fair scholar who does the research for the topic commissioned and bothers to contact the people written about for more material and their input. We refer to the volume Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, edited by Martin Goodman et al. and with the commissioned chapter on Yiddish by Cecile E. Kuznitz which glorifies the ex-Moscow  Sovetish Heymland staff members who in the late 1990s destroyed all of Oxford’s programs in Yiddish, and attacked its stalwart builders far and wide. Needless to say, the effort does not reference the Centre’s own publications in the field, e.g. Yiddish Studies at Oxford (Oxford 1990).

See more publications, documents and keepsakes of a unique period of Yiddish academic history at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies from the 1970s through the 1990s, assembled in memory of Dr. David Patterson

2022 POSTSCRIPT:

At the world’s leading 2020s online international Yiddish Studies program based on the Yiddish-in-Yiddish ethos, a significant proportion of the senior instructors are veterans of programs at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies where they were attracted to come (from far and from very far), and where they chose to  spend a lot of time in the later twentieth century. [archived]

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