30 January 2012

Japanese Yiddishists

What makes this article - on a new Yiddish-Japanese dictionary - citeworthy on this blog is the following line:

All [Japanese Yiddishists], he says, are driven by “healthy intellectual curiosity and interest in traditional Ashkenazic culture, which, unlike modern Israeli culture, seems to have much in common with traditional Japanese culture.”


  1. I recollect that when we were in Vilne among Yiddishists from 13 countries, one was Japanese. Upon meeting her, most everyone did a double-take. Then we'd quickly realize, "Yes, but Jews learn Japanese and Africans learn German and Germans learn Sanskrit. How is this different?"

  2. Otherwise occupied just now, I was thinking about the affinity between Traditional Japanese and Traditional Askenazic culture perceived by Japanese students of Yiddish.

    I am hard-pressed to locate much affinity.

    Surely, these are two populations that have made significant contributions to the world by virtue of their capacities to ask good questions and research useful answers.
    And one can always point to mothers who love their children, fathers who educate their children, food as a way of binding families and celebrating events; and unusual written and spoken language.

    But then I lose the thread.

    Japan has enjoyed continuous presence within an island national homeland whence they could repel enemies and nurture their unique culture; has a history of a standing and aggressive miltary, a semi-divine absolute monarch, ranks of nobility within a strict and inviolable hierarchy, separation of the roles of men and women with no regularly occurring confluence of these roles, huge regard for the arts as a profession, a religious pantheon with major and minor deities commonly represented in statuary, no systematic social welfare, a paralyzing code of honor with suicide as an accepted remedy for soiled honor, vertical burial, and a diet rich in seafood.

    I'm really curious what Japanese Yiddishists find they have in common with a people who have no homeland that has not been repeatedly threatened and occupied, who are universally reviled and obliged to sustain their own culture within hostile host cultures, who defend themselves with surprising success but have had no military until recently, who have eschewed royalty, nobility, and hierarchy except within the Temple, who recognize differences between men and women but require that the sexes meet and act in partnership, that produces artists but has had no opportunity to cultivate an artist class, that has a single Deity never represented in art, that has institutionalized social welfare, that defines honor as an elastic and evolving trait of individuals, that buries everyone prone in a plain wood box, and that forbids consumption of seafood.

    And in case you're thinking of posting this, I'd have to add that I have visited Japan twice for prolonged stays, and that I admire what I've absorbed of traditional Japanese culture and art, and that I love vegetarian sushi.

    In the mountain hut, trapped indefinitely by foul weather, we foreigners who could not understand Japanese language broadcasts nor read Japanese books made the waiting pass as best we could, swapping guide books and making paper games. The Japanese bested us considerably with their advanced, hour-devouring skills in cat's cradle and origami. Before that, I had not appreciated that origami is a survival skill.

  3. The reference under discussion is traditional (italics) Japanese culture and traditional (italics) Ashkenazic culture.

    But I'm still thinking about it and I had to look up present demographics.

    Worldwide, there are about 13o million Japanese; and there are about 13 million Jews [of Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and other extractions].

    I'm not sure what that implies beyond the obvious: that it's nice to have a defensible island to live on - even if it is awfully mountainous.