An explosive debate erupts from footnotes suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews are Europeans

This is the first of two articles on the origins of the Yiddish language. This week, the late historian Cherie Woodworth provides an outstanding explication of the origins and historical stakes of the split that is roiling modern Yiddish scholarship. Next week, staff writer Batya Ungar-Sargon profiles the academic personalities and their battles in the field of linguistics.

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There are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers today, perhaps even half a million, but the shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, where Yiddish was woven into the fabric of everyday life, have faded into dust. Yiddish was born in about the 10th century and thus rounded out an even millennium before being pulled under by the tide of history. If you want to know not just what Yiddish is but where it came from, how it managed to survive and even to flourish, you can do no better than the new edition of Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language—but be sure to read the footnotes. They extend for over 750 pages, are now published in English for the first time in the new Yale edition, and contain the most interesting, and controversial, part of what had seemed till now a fairly straightforward and unchallenged historical narrative.

Weinreich’s original text and notes were published in 1973, four years after his death. A partial translation into English—without the notes—was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980. Yale’s new edition thus finally makes available for the first time the greater part of Weinreich’s work—the notes are longer than the text—thoroughly edited by Paul Glasser. The notes cite research in two dozen languages and took more than a decade to edit and check even after they were translated. These notes are not just the usual formal apparatus, reassuring to any scholarly reader: They are essential to understanding Weinreich’s many-stranded argument about the relationship between culture and language. They also provide a subtle counter-argument to his lifelong thesis. Weinreich was a careful, fair, and judicious scholar, and it was in the notes to his monumental work that he gave place to the vexing confusion of counter-evidence to his main, and beloved, story of Yiddish origins and, by implication, the origins of millions of East European Jews and their descendants in America.