Topic: Absolut Tchotchke
Advertisement for Absolut Vodka, 1998.
"Absolut Tchotchke,” Chapter 5 of Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture (University of California Press, 2005), pp. 155-176, 234-237 (notes).
What happens when people form a strong emotional attachment to a language they do not speak? Adventures in Yiddishland examines the transformation of Yiddish in the six decades since the Holocaust, which witnessed the destruction of the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers and the East European center of its centuries-old culture. Shandler traces the shift of Yiddish from the language of daily life for millions of Jews to a postvernacular language of diverse and expanding symbolic value. Shandler defines postvernacularity as a mode of engaging a language in which its secondary, symbolic, or “meta” level of meaning is privileged over its primary task to communicate information, feelings, or ideas. In other words, in postvernacular Yiddish, the very fact that something is said or written or sung in Yiddish is considered to be as important as the content of what is uttered or written—if not at times even more so. While many lament the decline of vernacular Yiddish and dismiss its postvernacular expressions, Adventures in Yiddishland argues for the importance of taking these expressions seriously, whether the formal learning of Yiddish, performing Yiddish, translating literary works from and into Yiddish, or debating (in other languages) the viability of Yiddish. In the post-World War II American context, postvernacularity finds an especially rich and provocative expression in an abundant material culture, notably mass produced items inscribed with one or more Yiddish words.
“Absolut Tchotchke” examines how American Jews express their postvernacular relationship to Yiddish through objects—for example, baby bibs emblazoned with the words “Schmutz” [filth] or “Little Pisher” [pisser], tote bags inscribed with “Schlep” [drag], caps with “Trayf” [unkosher], and wall clocks with “Oy Vey” [Oh, woe]—that literally materialize the language. By rendering Yiddish as a curio or collectible, these objects show how the symbolic meaning of the Yiddish language comes to have greater value than its usefulness as a language of communication. Shandler also examines the related phenomenon of mock Yiddish dictionaries, which offer humorous glosses of selected Yiddish terms, as well as other materializations of Yiddish culture, including the collection and transformation of thousands of Yiddish books, once read by millions of vernacular Yiddish speakers, into objects of Jewish heritage at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
What are some of the characteristics of postvernacular Yiddish materialized by these objects?
1. Yiddish is no longer a full language, but rather consists of fragments. A limited set of highly charged words and expressions—colorful, emotional, playful, humorous, irreverent—assert the presence of Yiddish as such. Yiddish acquires symbolic value as a marker of Jewish distinctiveness not only culturally but also temperamentally: Yiddish comes to signify Jewishness as an earthy and histrionically intense ethnic identity—or, by contrast, as a legacy of piety.
2. In the absence of a working knowledge of Yiddish, delight is taken in creating “mock” versions of the language by giving comic glosses to Yiddish words (e.g., translating bris [circumcision ritual] as “Getting tipped off”). Creative liberties are taken with those few words that are commonly known and understood.
3. Yiddish words (or the idea of the Yiddish language as such) variously become a brand, a fetish, a talisman, or a signifier of heritage that is sometimes sentimental, other times playful.
In these and other ways, such objects materialize distinctive understandings of a language no longer spoken as a vernacular—but highly valued—and the culture and people with which the language is identified.