Yiddish-Speaking Orientals: Language Shift and the “Verbessening der Juden”
Christian discussions of the affinity between Yiddish and the Hebrew language in early modern Germany shifted from a more theological to a more cultural perspective from the second half of the eighteenth century. The cultural implications of the Jews' historical shift from Hebrew to the Yiddish language were expressed in increasingly explicit Orientalist terms. A more cultural approach to the Jewish “falling from grace” can be traced to Johann Jacob Schudt, who published a short tractate about the Frankfurt Jews of his time. The Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder attributed the linguistic and cultural decay of the Jewish people to their transition from the biblical Orient to their contemporary existence in the diaspora. In order to deorientalize the Jewish population living in their midst, German reformers and bureaucrats passed legislation to try to replace Yiddish with the German language as a key step toward the “improvement” (Verbesserung) of the Jews. Discussions on the Jewish language were informed by the question of the possibility of Jewish cultivation and eventual integration into German culture.
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