Yiddish Fire

"It is no mere coincidence that 100 percent of the great secular writers grew up in traditionally religious Ashkenazic society. The Yiddish that is worth saving is rich in cultural, historic, and traditionally Jewish nuance; it cannot be fathomed in a cultural vacuum, with the words and grammar being abstracted out of the entire culture as a kind of fetish. Whoever has the fire in his or her spirit to become a Yiddish master has to learn a lot of classical Hebrew in its Ashkenazic incarnation and some Aramaic; he or she must be well acquainted with various ancient texts that are as alive as today's date to the Yiddish ear, as well as a religious life that he or she may not be a part of. Is it worth it? Of course, but only if the fire is there. It cannot be demanded or proclaimed. The beneficiary is not Yiddish but the people fortunate enough to master a profound yet fun language that brings so many treasures and delights, of language and literature both, to the user."
—Dovid Katz "Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish"

Not having much love for, or belief in, cultural organicism, I wouldn't put it quite this way. I'd put the proportion of "100 percent" a bit lower. But not much. Maybe 90 percent. After all Dovid Katz himself, son of the great leftist writer Menke Katz, is hardly the product of traditional religious education, and he has himself written some mightily fine short stories in Yiddish. But the point stands. Even many of the great atheistic writers like Joseph Greenspan, Berish Weinstein, Isaac Rontsh grew up with religious life that they later reacted against. This is a lot of what makes Yiddish literature a rich experience. In order to get the most out of a lot of (avowedly secular and often even atheistic) Yiddish literature, I have found myself reading and absorbing religious texts that I would otherwise have had no use for.  It's like what happened in my childhood with the Christian prayers I said in Church Slavonic vis-a-vis the secular Russian literature I read. Only without the childhood resonance. I will never say El Mole Raḥamim walking up to somebody's grave, or intone the Kol Nidre. But they're worth knowing as background for the same reason the King James Bible is worth knowing as background for 18th and 19th century English literature, only ten times so. When Mani Leyb references the Kol Nidre to implicate white barbarism in the act of lynching a black man, for example. 

Pourquoi Derrida Dérida

The claim that Greeks privileged speech over writing is beyond bullshit. "Phonocentrism" and "logocentrism" of western thought are little more than a chimera for postmodernists to jack off to. It is annoying that it keeps cropping up among people who, unlike Derrida, should know better. Unless your entire understanding of Ancient Greece derived from Plato and maybe the works of Albert Lord, you really have no reason to still believe this anymore with the wealth of insight now available.
There is in fact something deeply suspect about modernity's worship of the written word and insistence on the (increasing) debasèdness of speech. It has some rather far reaching ramifications, such as people getting into a whiny tizzy over Dylan's Nobel award.

In this, Derrida was constructing, not deconstructing a damn thing.

Then again, I hold him in such regard that I think he deserves every bit of that irony.

The Limits of Identity

In the final analysis, no identity is completely fixed or "organic." Nobody's "positionality" is sufficient to explain every thing they say or do, let alone to explain them as a human being, not because we're all special snowflakes, but because such facts — even if there were a measurably accurate way of ascertaining them — can never completely delimit the sorts of people you may happen to meet, or hear about, or fall in love with. They cannot predict — nobody can — what book you may happen upon one day and chance to read, or what conversation you might chance to overhear. Intersecting identities do not serve as transparent proxies for where and how a person gets their information. I have never met a single soul that could be accounted for in terms of identity or positionality, no matter how intersecting. "Basically" as Sloterdijk put it "no life has a name."

Traductive Thinking

I wouldn't say translation of poetry makes you a better creator of non-translated material. In fact, in many ways, it actually makes you worse at it. Too much translation without creative language work of other kinds can ossify you, get you too much in the routine of working from template, of thinking in terms of the extraneous. Get you too accustomed to limiting yourself to the inventive side of creativity, to knowing exactly what you want to say before you figure out exactly how to say it. Most of the best translators of poetry are at best okay at writing it. 

Purity Shmurity

It is often said or implied that a language is in danger if it is borrowing too many words from others, becoming too influenced by others etc. Witness Russian, Arab and French delusions regarding Anglicisms and English code-mixing. Or Nazi anxieties that the "mongrelization" that befell Yiddish and English might one day afflict German and debase its Germanic purity.

The thing is though, that examination of linguistic history will demonstrate that the exact opposite is the case. The more open a language and its speakers are to outside influence, to borrowing, to loanwords and code-mixing, the more viable it is.

Thanks to 19th century Gallo-Russian and Germano-Russian bilingualism in the upper classes, it is impossible to write an extended passage in standard literary Russian today without French influence being evident in every other sentence, and German influence in every paragraph. Russian did not borrow an extreme amount of lexical items (as English did) so much as duplicate French morphological and phrasal patterns, and some aspects of German sentence structure. Morphological and phrasal calques are legion, and in fact probably make up around half of the contents of your average Russian dictionary. There were intentionally gallicizing texts that were written in the 19th century, sometimes in order to satirize hyper-gallicism, and at other times in order to signal that e.g. a fictional character should be understood as speaking in French even if the words are in Russian. Today many such texts do not read as foreignized at all. Some, like Tatyana's Letter to Onegin in Pushkin's verse novel, just read as beautiful Russian.

Of course, Russian would have continued to exist just fine without its various (overlapping) episodes of Church Slavonic, Gallic and Germanic influence, as well as the oft-denied period of extensive Polish influence in the late middle ages, and the oft-decried period of English influence today. But it is certainly the richer for all of them.

In other cases, though, being open to foreign influence is a matter of language life and language death. Particularly in situations of prolonged asymmetrical bilingualism. (i.e. when it becomes a "Minority Language" like Modern Occitan, Modern Catalan or Modern Welsh.)

Minority bilingual groups that regard foreign influence of the majority language as something to be avoided at all costs, as a sort of ethnic sin for which penance is required, tend in fact to be the ones whose languages die most quickly. If you can't say it "correctly" enough, or if there's no way to say it "correctly" without socially unacceptable calques and loanwords, then you have all the more reason to just switch completely to the majority language. Lexical purism is not as much of an issue, particularly in an age when digital devices can allow easy lookup. On the other hand, if you're puristic about *syntactic* influence from the majority language, then you're either being unrealistic or you're dooming your own language out of reverence for it.

This problem of purism is one that has exacerbated the situation and lowered the prospects for many endangered Native American languages, even in the face of wide-spread interest in their survival.
I might wager that this has something to do with why Aramaic-speaking Jewish communities in early medieval Europe so quickly shifted to (lexically Judaized) European languages. Not "despite the sanctity of Aramaic" but because of it. As opposed to the easy survival of other Jewish languages....well, before the Holocaust anyway (and before the re-vernacularization of Hebrew.)
If you're okay with borrowings in syntax, then stable bilingualism is far easier to maintain.

Romani has developed (almost) unique devices for the incorporation of loanwords, maintaining a boundary between Them and Us by using different morphology (and in many dialects a somewhat different stress pattern) for European loans. Time and again linguists have remarked on the unusually profound and widespread degree of borrowing in Romani dialects at all levels. If borrowing were the way toward language death, then Romani would have died out hundreds of years ago, as indeed did most of the other once-numerous* diasporic Indic languages throughout Eurasia, of which most have left only traces by which to infer their past existence, and of which only a handful of others have survived long enough to be documented.  Romani, though, thrived. Contrary to what one might have predicted. Some dialects of it died, to be sure, and many others are endangered. But much of this is quite recent. Many dialects of it are doing quite well. (It has vastly more speakers than many territorial European languages. More than Maltese, Icelandic and Slovenian put together.) It remained vigorous for centuries in contexts where any sociolinguist might have reasonably guessed that it wouldn't be long for this world. In part because it borrowed the living shit out of co-territorial languages. It made linguistic boundaries more permeable, even as it made them all the more manifest. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the tenacity of Romani in surviving for so long or its level of syntactic, morphological and lexical borrowing are unique. They aren't. But they're certainly remarkable. Romani, no less than the Roma, survived by sheer adaptability.

Promiscuity is often the way of survival. Life-long virgins are not known for their many grandchildren.

If you're wondering why they were so common — Northward migration, usually temporary but obviously in a few cases permanent, of all sorts of trade-based communities and kin-groups appears to have been commonplace in ancient and medieval India. Usually for economic reasons. Documentation of trade-based Indian communities outside of India goes back to Roman times. The origin of the Roma is only a mystery in popular imagination and in the minds of those who want a sexier answer.

What Poetry?

What is poetry? In the face of the total extermination of a people, of the methodically cold establishment of quicklime ovens and gas chambers, of the extirpation of entire Jewish families, of the wiping out of entire Jewish genealogies, entire family chronicles, what is literature? Is poetry the attempt to smuggle it, to lure it into the fourteen lines of a sonnet? Or is it screaming, keening howling, and walking from yard to yard rousing all the shuttered windows? Who now can give literary appraisals? 
— Jacob Glatstein, writing in 1947 (tr. from Yiddish by Yours Truly)

וואָס איז אַזוינס פּאָעזיע? אין אָנגעזיכט פֿון דער טאָטאַלערפֿאַרניכטונג פֿון אַ פֿאָלק, פֿון דער מעקאָדיש-קאַלטער איינריכטונג פֿון קאַלד-אויוונס און פֿון גאַז-קאַמערן, פֿון אויסקוילן גאַנצע יידישע משפחות, פֿון אָפּווישן גאַנצע יידישע גענעאַלאָגיעס, גאַנצע פֿאמיליע-כראָניקעס – וואָס איז אזוינס ליטעראַטור? איז פּאָעזיע דאָס זוכן אַרײַנצוגנבענען און אַרײַנצונאַרן דאָס אַלץ אין פֿערצן שורותֿ פֿון אַ סאָנעט, אָדער דאָס שרײען, קלאָגן און יאָמערן און גיין פֿון הויף צו הויף און וקען אַלע פֿארהאַקטע פֿענצטער? ווער קען איצט שאַצן ליטעראַטור? 
– יעקבֿ גלאַטשטיין 

Christmas Carol

Dark the herald pages bring.
Roast in hell or praise the king.
Swords not peace,on earth spread faith.
Sin is created, the God-card played.

Die, or believe that Love Thy Brothers
Made one god damn all the others.
Nations drink triumph's elixir.
History hidden by the victor.
Best not tell troth the truth, the shame
Of Caesar spawned in Bethlehem.

So hail to you: prince, führer, chief
And legislators of belief.
Hail, we must say, to all who taught
There can be evil in mere thought.

On your gilt crucifix see him lie,
Born to give new reasons to die.
He is born of a corpse and a myth. His grave
Is the world. The soul of time - his slave -
Shakes as the kings and christendom
Of Alpha Male Omega come.