On January 29, 1969, the Yiddishist Max Weinreich, a protean scholar who studied and wrote about every imaginable facet of Yiddish language, culture and society — as well as a number of other fields — died, at the age of 74. Although Yiddish researchers continue to argue vociferously over the origins of the language and culture of Ashkenazi Jewry, about which Weinrich put forward his own, controversial theories — it is universally acknowledged that his contributions to Yiddish scholarship were invaluable.
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Max Weinreich was born on April 22, 1894, in Kuldga, Latvia, then part of the Russian empire. Raised in a secular, German-speaking home, he became fluent in Yiddish and Russian while in his teens and led a Yiddish-speaking youth movement, Di Bin (“the bee”).
Weinreich attended the universities of Saint Petersburg and Berlin. In 1923, he earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Marburg, in Germany. His dissertation, on which his first book was based, was on the history and dialect distribution of Yiddish.
In 1925 Weinreich was one of the four cofounders of the Yiddish Research Institute, or YIVO. Nominally based in Berlin, it was in practice run by Weinreich out of his own apartment in Vilna (today’s Vilnius, Lithuania).
Evading the Nazis by luck
On September 1, 1939, the day Germany began its invasion of Poland, setting off World War II, Weinreich was in Copenhagen, en route to a linguistics conference in Brussels. He and his 13-year-old son Uriel-Eliezer remained in Denmark, while his wife, the former Regina Szabad, returned to Vilna to be with their younger son, Gabriel. In March, Max and Uriel left for New York, leaving Denmark just before it was occupied by German forces. Regina and Gabriel joined them later.
Weinreich became the research director of YIVO’s New York branch, which he turned into the organization’s headquarters. He also became the first professor of Yiddish in the United States, teaching at both the City College of New York and Columbia University.
As a research institute, YIVO had sections dedicated to philology, economics, history and psychology. Weinreich wrote on all of these subjects, as well as on Yiddish theater, sociology, ethnography and philosophy. He also translated the works of Homer and of Freud into Yiddish. In 1946 his authoritative book about the collaboration of German academics with the Nazi regime, “Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People,” was published.
Two volumes just for the footnotes
Weinreich’s magnum opus was “Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh” (“History of the Yiddish Language”). Written in Yiddish, it was published posthumously by YIVO in 1973 in four volumes — two of text and two of footnotes. A full English translation, edited by Paul Glasser, and nearly 1,800 pages, appeared only in 2008.
Naturally, Weinreich attempted to answer the essential question of where Yiddish came from and how it developed, which inherently involved looking at the geographical origins of Eastern European Jewry. He concluded that Yiddish was a “fusion” language whose beginnings lay in the Jewish dialect of Loez. Containing elements of Old French and Old Italian and influenced by Hebrew-Aramaic, it was brought by French Jews to the Rhineland in the 10th century. From there, the Jews — and their language — moved eastward, he deduced.
Needless to say, there are other theories, including the suggestion, advanced most forcefully by Israeli scholar Paul Wexler, that Eastern European Jews had their origins further east, not to the west, and that Yiddish was at root a Slavic language. But, as Cherie Woodworth noted in an article published posthumously in Tablet last year, even the scholars who disagree with Weinreich are indebted to him for his original research and his scrupulous notes.
Weinreich died of heart disease. He was predeceased by two years by his son Uriel, a professor at Columbia who, before his death, at age 41, managed to publish both a Yiddish grammar and a highly respected English-Yiddish-English dictionary. His younger brother, Gabriel Weinreich, is an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Michigan and an ordained Episcopal priest.