The Modern Tinek-Shenishbe: Anti-Assimilation Among the Descendants of the Yiddish Nation

In the beginning, the assimilationist/anti-assimilationist dialectic was limited to a debate on the negation or promotion of self. The enlightenment and the [temporary] liberation of Jews that followed forced us to re-examine our constitution in new ways. Battles of debate and action raged around the entire globe, from New York’s Lower East Side, to Johannesburg, and Warsaw. In the 20th century this dialectic was played out in the most painful of ways within the 3rd Reich and Soviet Union. The era we find ourselves in now is one in which most of the dust has settled, leaving it for us to figure out what exactly remains of both the dialectic and our nationhood.

The 20th century was brutal to the Yiddish nation. Between the abortive national policy of the Soviet Union, the genocidal policy of the 3rd Reich, the Negation of the Diaspora credo of the State of Israel, and the embrace of Western culture and language in America, very little remains of what once was a nation of millions. It would seem that all that is left of the once diverse Yiddish nation are the various Chassidic courts that continue to employ the Jewish language and reject western culture.

The cold hard truth is that Jews of Yiddish decent do not have a diverse and multitudinous people to “return” to. What exists are Chassidim and possibly a lot of elderly people (who in no way constitute a living breathing society on a national scale). The tragedy of anti-assimilationist Jew of Yiddish decent manifests itself in a status that could be interpreted as that of a modern tinek-shenishbe. A tinek-shenishbe being the transcription of a term used in Talmud to refer to a Jew who is like a baby captured and raised by non-Jews (thus having no/little understanding/respect of Jewish ways/customs). The term is expanded also to refer to Jews who are raised by non-observant parents, and therefore not responsible for transgressions. This concept works well when applied to modern Jews, who for a host of reasons, have come to reject assimilatory ideals and seek a return to their people. (It is in no way my intention to address the question “What is a Jew?”, but rather I seek to specifically address what I consider a fact, namely Jews of Yiddish decent, descend from a culturally/religiously/linguistically Yiddish nation and by choosing to fight against assimilation those individuals [must] look to embrace that national identity as their own.) Whatever the reason, such Jews never inherited the national makeup of their fore bearers. Instead they were figuratively taken as babies (tinek=baby), and raised by non-Yiddish peoples in a non-Yiddish cultural arena. These individuals are not accountable for their assimilation, but they do suffer its consequences and reap its benefits. As it so happens the Rabbis have an easy fix for the captive babies of yore, namely placing them among educated and reverent Jews. After a while they will come to respect the ways of Judaism and lose their wretched status. But alas, such a quick fix is hard found for the modern tinek-shenishbe! Where can one “place” these estranged outsiders to regain their Yiddish essence? The Chassidic community represents just one remaining shard of a once diverse nation of millions and is surely not for everyone, nor should it be expected to be. If its hard to be a Jew, its even harder to be an anti-assimilationist tinek-shenishbe! Sure, one could go and learn Yiddish, but a language alone cannot replace a folk-spirit that must be created and lived, and cannot simply be learned.

Without a folk to return to, our unsatisfied tinek-shenishbe must move in a radical direction, for while she is in the captivity of a strange and foreign culture, her nation that she seeks to reunite with finds itself in the captivity of history. The Yiddish nation cannot and will not be liberated by nostalgia and sorrow, but rather through a tangible folk-oriented program, a program that must take territorialist dimensions. Redemption of yesterday’s hopes can only be accomplished through pushing the limits of today’s realities.

The fatalists cry, “History has spoken!”, but the radical tinek-shenishbe triumphantly responds, “History will speak!” By starting our work now, we will be prepared when that moment comes. Then, not only will we shed our captive status, but our nation too will once again be able to rejoin the brotherhood of humanity. We start now!


Yisroel Bass is an executive board member at Yugntruf—Youth for Yiddish, a non-profit that seeks to promote Yiddish among young people. He is currently working to create a summertime agricultural program where Yiddish speakers from various backgrounds will come together to learn new skills, participate in community, and develop a folk-culture all in Yiddish. If you are interested in helping with this project or simply have a question you can contact him though email: yisroel@yugntruf.org


¡Benjaminista! said...

I support the project in principle. But is language enough? It is the shell, but what is the kernel? A Yiddishkeit renaissance faire? The essence of exile is, for me, not linguistic, but spiritual-metaphysical.

The W said...

I agree with you and I feel I adress your point in my post. The kernel is what we decide to create using our historical tools.