Irad Ben Isaak: Questioning the Minority Status of Yiddish Literature

I will deal with the question of to what extent Yiddish literature can be seen as a “minor” or “small” literature. Yiddish was the main vernacular, as well as written and printed, language of Europe´s Jews until they were exterminated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Yiddish is a Germanic language written in Hebrew alphabet and has a rich corpus of literature consisting of thousands of books from diverse modern genres. Yiddish literature can be considered a minor literature both in Kafka’s sense, as literature of an ethno-religious minority, as well as in Casanova’s take, as a literature of small nations (Eastern European Jews). On the other hand, it is problematic to attribute “smallness” or “minority status” to Yiddish literature, since the Yiddishland, or “Yiddish literary republic,” has a rather long tradition of ca. 1,000 years and has had a rather “large” readership consisting of 11-13 million men and women around Europe. Defining Yiddish literature´s take on the Bildungsroman genre as a starting point of my discussion, I inquire about the status of Yiddish language within the power relations in Europe, offering room for comparing Yiddish parallel languages in Europe and outside of it.

Irad Ben Isaak is a Doctoral Researcher at the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg and at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt-Oder. Irad´s dissertation project explores the genre of Bildungsroman in modern Yiddish literature. He studies the works of Mendele Mocher Sforim, Yehoshua Perle, or Dovid Bergelson, and inquires about processes of cultural transfer between European literatures. Irad holds an MA degree in Yiddish Literature from Tel Aviv University. His MA thesis examined the figure of the Yiddish poet and cultural activist Melech Ravitch, focusing on his vegetarian poetry and ideology. Irad’s research interests include Yiddish, Hebrew and European literatures, Gender and Masculinity Studies, and Cultural Studies.


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