notes on “ashkenazi” (a postscript in advance)

this is the season when i’m working all the time on a purimshpil, and can’t really get anything else done. but this has been nagging at me, so i’m clearing it out of my (metaphorical) drawer.

properly, it’s a postscript to something i’m trying to write out about the current importation of israeli terminology for differences among jewish communities into the u.s. jewish left. unsurprisingly, i’m not a big fan, not least because i don’t see the kind of highly consolidated, deeply racialized two-category system that exists among jewish israelis as something that exists in this country. and the mizrakhi/ashkenazi binary that describes it seems more of a hinderance than an aid to understanding the messy, contradictory lines of racial and class position that do deeply divide u.s. jewish communities. but that’s another post.

this is some preliminary thoughts on one of the things that came along on the way: the question of what we’re talking about when we talk about “ashkenaz”. and, ultimately, whether the term as it’s used makes any sense at all. TL;DR: no.

i’ve still got quite a few questions about this-all, and i’ll lay a few of them out at the end, in hopes that some of you can shed some light in various places.

a postscript
for my grandfather, jules / yidl nukhm schrager,
who said “what do you mean, ashkenazi? i’m a galitsianer!”

if the diversity of the communities grouped together under the term “mizrakhi” is unavoidably visible, the israeli use of “ashkenazi” heightens an erasure of difference that is also present in the u.s. if anything, the use of the term in the u.s. is even more incoherent, since it doesn’t even refer to a social block with the kinds of systematic practical unity that exists in the israeli context. looking with a critical eye at the supposedly common-sense definitions usually offered for the word in the u.s. makes it clear how far from useful it is to continue using it in either the israeli or the u.s. version.

the usual first definition offered for “ashkenazi” is central and eastern european jewish communities and their descendants.

the basic problem here is that the jewish communities rooted in central and eastern europe are as diverse as you’d expect for half a continent, and most of that diversity can’t be understood as “ashkenazi” in any sense. most obviously, in the balkans, which as part of the ottoman empire was a major place of refuge for the exiles of 1492, most jewish communities between the 1500s and 1945 were of sefardi lineage. but alongside them were (and are) romaniotes, further around the black sea the krymchak communities in crimea, and even further the array of jewish communities in the caucasus mountains. and that’s not even mentioning the karaite communities scattered throughout the region, or the communities no longer present (from the ‘bney knaan’ in bohemia to the khazars in what’s now ukraine).

the next definition on offer is usually jews from or descended from communities that use the liturgical and ritual practices of the germanic-speaking lands.

this also doesn’t hold up – it doesn’t in fact apply to most of the jews supposedly falling under the term. “minhag ashkenaz”, used by the communities of the germanic-speaking lands of central europe, is distinct from “minhag polin”, used across eastern europe by a historically much larger jewish population. and that was true even before large numbers of eastern european jews in the hasidic movement traded minhag polin for their own innovative family of practices (“minhag ari”, and the confusingly named “minhag sfard”) even more distant from minhag ashkenaz.

the next is usually jews who speak, or descend from communities that spoke, yiddish.

this is at least arguable. but the differences between “western yiddish” (now basically extinct, spoken in the germanic-speaking lands) and “eastern yiddish” (what we generally just call ‘yiddish’, spoken in eastern europe) are on the order of the differences between french and romanian. western yiddish, among other things, has no elements of slavic origin, which make up a substantial part of eastern yiddish’s vocabulary and grammar. while the two are certainly closely related, there’s a strong argument to be made that they are not the same language. the distinction between languages has at least as much to do with non-linguistic factors as anything speech-related, in any case, and here the linguistic dividing line is essentially identical to the line between those two sets of liturgical and ritual practices, which reinforces the depth of the split. whether we decide to call the two branches of the yiddish family languages or dialects, however, what’s clear is that there’s far more reason to think of them as separate than to lump them together.

and the last fall-back is jewish communities that have been, or descend from ones that have been, historically called by that name.

and this actually gets us someplace meaningful, though that place does not match the ‘common-sense’ understanding of the word. the use of “ashkenazi” to refer to jews who speak (eastern) yiddish or use minhag polin is pretty recent. by the 1600s, the jewish communities which had recently developed in eastern europe (after an expulsion lasting from 1495 to 1569) were already called “polyak” in contrast to the “ashkenazi” jews of the german lands. in the 1800s, as growing numbers of yiddish jews emigrated westward (both into the prussian empire and within the austro-hungarian empire), german jews drew a very firm line between themselves and these “ostjuden” (“east-jews”, or, to preserve the term’s racialized connotation, “oriental jews”). in the 1900s, this longstanding distinction was carried into english in the consistent description of yiddish-speaking jews from all over eastern europe as “polish” or “russian” even when they were from territories that hadn’t been part of poland since the 1600s, or only came under russian rule in the 1800s (or both). the contrast that made the meaning clear has always been between “polish”/“russian” versus “german”, never between the two terms for yiddish-speaking jews, or between either one and a strictly political term like “austro-hungarian” or “ottoman”.

my grandfather, born in new york city to parents from what’s now western ukraine, was only echoing the common knowledge of the previous 500 years when he distinguished himself as a yiddish-speaker, and as a southeastern european jew, from the “ashkenazim”. he knew, as we should, that the word simply means the jewish communities of the germanic-speaking lands, united by their language (western yiddish) and their distinct liturgical and ritual practice (minhag ashkenaz).

yiddish jews and german jews are distinct communities, in history, in language, in liturgy and ritual, in culture. they were distinct in europe, even within the german and german-speaking states and empires. and they still are in the u.s. this is not news to anyone, but it is made harder to see by the use of “ashkenazi” to refer to them as if they were one and the same.

i suspect, though i’m not sure i have the research stamina to prove it, that this erasure of the distinction is actually the main reason the term originally came to be used in this way in the u.s. i’d bet that it started around 1900, to make the two groups appear to be one, so that well-established, generally wealthy, german jews could claim legitimacy as they fought to hang onto the leadership of u.s. jewish institutions even as they were outnumbered tenfold by immigrant yiddish jews they considered uncultured, backward, and dangerous.

basically the way the descendants of settlers from england like to talk about all white folks in the u.s. as “anglo-saxon” or “teutonic” – including folks from ireland, sicily, or poland – in order to claim legitimacy for their privileged positions within the racial category of whiteness by defining it with a term that referred to them above all others.

and in a zionist context, a similar dynamic applies, amplified by the white supremacist politics of the movement. yiddish jews were not white enough to be the standard-bearers of european colonization in palestine – even in their own eyes, for zionists from yiddish backgrounds. just as the taint of arabness and spanish backwardness clung to sefardi communities (even the ones in northern europe), so too did the ‘eastern-ness’, the ‘orientality’ ascribed to even christian russians, of yiddish jewry place it outside true european civilization. if zionists were going to be true europeans, they had to define themselves, in jewish terms, as “ashkenazim” – as germans. and so they did.

and there you have it. anyone who has good sources on when and how “ashkenazi” began to be applied to eastern european jewish communities, i’d love to hear from you! i’m also interested in more early citations for the distinction between ashkenazi and “polish” (and other terms for yiddish jewry) communities, but it’s the story of the conflation that i’m having the most trouble tracking…

and, finally, in shorthand for other linguistically-minded folks in the yidishe velt, what i’m arguing is that weinreich’s ‘ashkenaz I’ and ‘ashkenaz II’ are not connected in the ways that he wants them to be.

that when the bney khes’ started to get pushed off the upper danube, the part that went northwest and absorbed the ‘bney hes’ on the rhine founded something we could more meaningfully call ‘ashkenaz II’: a second zone of small jewish communities throughout the germanic-speaking lands, highly integrated with their locales (“embedded”, as some jewish history types say), speaking a cluster of dialects that usually get called ‘western yiddish’ (but we might better call ‘ashkenazic’).

the part that went east and brought the linguistic seeds of (‘eastern’) yiddish into the lands between the baltic and the black sea did something else, something deserving recognition as a distinct history, rather than a sequel or continuation of ‘ashkenaz I’. that wing of the ‘bney khes’ absorbed a number of other existing jewish communities (knaanic jews in bohemia; rus’ jews around kiev, &c) and grew explosively (most likely through conversion and intermarriage) to become a comparatively uniform regional jewish culture. in the highly diverse space of the imperial borderlands, yiddish jewish communities never needed to be as ’embedded’ as their ashkenazi counterparts – and were often too large to easily do so anyway.

their path diverged, in all the ways that matter to defining a separate group of people, from ‘ashkenaz’. so let’s finally abandon any prestige that could concievably be gained from insisting on a connection to germany – whether the deutschland of the Wissenschaft des Judentums or the ashkenaz of the ShUM rabbis – and honor our ancestors who made something new: yidishland.

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