Wexler's Bombshells -  Part 1 (Forward, June 4, 1993)


If Professor Paul Wexler of the Linguistics Department of the University of Tel Aviv is right, the history not only of the Yiddish language, but of Eastern-European Jewry that spoke it, needs to be totally rewritten. Perhaps this one reason why his revolutionary theories have so far not been taken very seriously by most scholars, for who wants to rewrite everything? Two years ago the American-born Wexler, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and settled in Israel in 1969, published a monograph entitled: "Yiddish - The Fifteenth Slavic Language: A Study of partial language shift from Judeo-Sorbian to German." In it he argued that what has been until now the standard version of the genesis of Yiddish puts the cart before the horse. Whereas it has been generally accepted that Yiddish developed in the middle ages as the language of German-speaking Jews who reached Germany from France and Italy and then migrated eastward into Slavic-speaking countries, the truth, Mr. Wexler contended, is the opposite: The first speakers of Yiddish arrived in Eastern Europe not via France, Italy, and Germany but through the Balkans, and they spoke a Slavic tongue, most probably the one known as Sorbian or Wendish before they were expose to German. Yiddish indeed was the result of their shift from Sorbian to German after the area they lived in was overrun by German settlers, and the German that they learned to speak remained permeated by Slavic features even it became their native language.

Now Mr. Wexler is about to come out with a new book that drops an even bigger bombshell. Called “The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of A Jewish Identity” and scheduled to be published by Slavica Publishers later this year, it proposes that the great majority of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe were not originally Jews at all, but rather Slavs and Turks who converted to Judaism sometime before the 13th century.

Of course, the notion that Eastern-European Jewry originally had a large proselyte component is not in itself new. Although there is no hard evidence to support the view, a few historians have suggested that the rapid growth of the Jewish community of Easter Europe in the second half of the middle ages might have stemmed from the destruction in the late 10th century of the Khazar Kingdom along the  Volga, whose royal house and possibly many of whose inhabitants descended from converts to Judaism; fleeing westward to Poland and the Ukraine, it is postulated, they met up with German-speaking Jews migrating eastward and eventually merged with them and adopted their language. The well-known author Arthur Koestler even published a book called The Thirteenth Tribe that claimed that most Jews today are descendants of the Khazar.

But Mr. Wexler's argument is different for two reasons. In the first place, it discounts the Khazar hypothesis and points to formerly Slavic territories in present-day eastern Germany as the cradle of Ashkenazic Jewry. And in the second place, while it too does not refrain from sweeping speculations, these are based on a detailed linguistic analysis that must be dealt with point by point in order to be confirmed or refuted.

For example:

One of the noteworthy things about Yiddish in comparison with other Jewish languages is the high proportion of Hebrew in it. Estimates of the amount of Hebrew or Hebrew-derived words in Yiddish vary from 10% to 15% of the total vocabulary, and although this figure partly depends on the Jewish education of the speaker, even its lower range is several times what one finds among speakers of Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Italian, various dialects of Judeo-Arabic, and so forth. How is one to explain the discrepancy? A number of theories, none particularly convincing, have been put forth. Now Mr. Wexler thinks he has the answer.

The Germanization of Slavs in central Europe, he points out, was also a process of Christianization, the eastward-speaking Germans being Christians -while many of the Slavs were still pagans. In the first stage of Germanification, therefore, before they went over to speaking German, the Slavs both became Christians themselves and borrowed many German for new concepts or nuances; but the Slavic-speaking Jews who lived among them, Mr. Wexler hypothesizes, resisted these German loan words because of their association with Christian culture and sought parallels in Hebrew instead. There is, Mr. Wexler claims, an extremely high correlation between German loan words in a language like Sorbian and Hebrew loan words in Yiddish; a tenant farmer in the former,  for instance, is pachman, from the medieval German Patcher, whereas in the latter it is khoykher, from Hebrew hokher, etc. At a later date, Mr. Wexler believes, when Jews became German speakers themselves they retained all these originally ‘anti-German” Hebrew words, which became part of the large Hebrew lexicon of Yiddish.