Wexler's Conversions -  Part 4 (Forward, June 25, 1993)

What have other Yiddishists and Slavicists thought of Paul Wexler’s theories about Yiddish? A number of responses have appeared in print, ranging from the cautiously supportive to the respectfully skeptical to the scornfully dismissive.

Thus at one end of the spectrum, we find the Slavicist Gunter Schaarschmidt of he University of Victoria, who is willing to accept “without challenge” Mr. Wexler's hypothesis that Yiddish is a Slavic-derived language and disagrees only with the unequivocal identification of this language with Sorbian, in place of which he suggests the more general notion of an original “Judeo-Northwest-Slavic.” At the other extreme, we find the Sorbian specialist Heinz-Schuster-Sewc of the University of Leipzig, who is of he opinion that a Slavic ancestor of Yiddish “never existed” and is a pure “product of [Mr. Wexler’s] imagination.”

Between these poles are more moderate opinions. Bernard Comrie of the University of Southern California, for instance, finds the hypothesis that Yiddish derives from a Jewish variety of Sorbian “suggestive, [but] requiring further elaboration before I would find it convincing,” and adds that, while Mr. Wexler martials a large number of linguistic facts that lend a measure of support to his thesis, “it is simply not the case that 100, or even 1,000, weak arguments add up to one strong argument.” The Yiddishist Paul Glasser calls Mr. Wexler's logic “apparently compelling” but ultimately “not supported by the evidence.” Edward Stankiewicz of Yale concedes that Mr. Wexler has mounted “a serious challenge” to current conceptions of the historical development of Yiddish, but concludes that “Wexler's Judeo-Sorbian hypothesis has little to recommend it over the traditional view which sees in German the origin and primary component of Yiddish.”

All of Mr. Wexler's critics agree that he often puts his worst foot forward by trying to push certain arguments too far or to present them in a dramatized form that detracts from a serious consideration of them. It is one thing, after all, to contend that the medieval Jews who first began to speak the German dialect that eventually to be known as Yiddish were previously speakers of a Slavic tongue rather than of--as has been thought until now--French or Italian; it is quite another to insist that this makes Yiddish a Slavic language. Mr. Wexler presses both claims with equal vigor, and in doing so he weakens the first, not intrinsically implausible one by linking it to the second, which is hard to take seriously.

In fact, the history of English, a language that also belongs historically to the Germanic family, offers an apt parallel. Because of the French conquest and domination of England in the 12th and 13th centuries, English absorbed an extremely large French vocabulary and many French grammatical features; yet while there is no way to account for these elements without accepting that they were introduced by French speakers as they shifted to English, much as Mr. Wexler believes that the Slavic elements in Yiddish were introduced by Slavic speakers shifting to German, it would make little sense to therefore call English a Romance language.

The same tendency to overstate is even more evident in Mr. Wexler's new forthcoming book which attempts to make the jump from linguistics to social and religious history. Here too Mr. Wexler starts from an assumption that is debatable but not intrinsically outrageous--namely, that among the Slavic speakers who supposedly switched to German in the 10th through the 12th centuries and eventually ended up speaking Yiddish, there were many converts to Judaism--and proceeds from there to the far more radical assertion that: “The evidence provided by Jewish languages strongly suggests that there is little basis for the claims that the contemporary Jews of Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well as their religious practices and folklores, are ‘evolved forms’ of the Palestinian Jews and their culture of two millennia ago. On the contrary, contemporary Jews, like their religion and folk culture, appear to    be overwhelming of non-Jewish origin.”

Having myself had two aunts with distinctly Tartar eyes that certainly never came from Palestine, I do not find this statement as shocking as some may, but I do not find the latter half of it highly improbable. Whatever the genetic makeup of Jews today may owe to originally non-Jewish admixtures, the main features of rabbinic Jewish culture throughout the ages can be traced to a number of seminal texts, such as the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, etc., the Palestinian or Middle-Eastern origins of which, and the chain of transmission disseminating them to other parts of the world, can be documented beyond the shadow of a doubt. There may be, as Mr. Wexler thinks, major biological discontinuities in Jewish history, but the case for cultural discontinuity that he tries to deduce from this is extremely weak. And as we know from many parallel cases elsewhere, it is ultimately culture, not biology, that gives a people its identity.