"On account of you I have no translator!" Michael Chabon and Cynthia Ozick's Literary Conceptions of Intergenerational Yiddishlands
For over a century, the Yiddish language has been seen as dead or in a perpetual state of dying, placing Yiddish on a version of what Anthropocene theorist Thom van Dooren calls the “dull edge of extinction,” the long process of unravelling ways of life until the end of a being’s lineage. One response proposed by Jeffrey Shandler is the “Yiddish postvernacular,” stating that while Yiddish is diminishing as a spoken language, it perpetuates among Ashkenazim as a heritage object due to its immense symbolic value. Written nearly forty years apart, Cynthia Ozick’s novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” (1969) and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) both comment on this conception of Yiddish as always-almost-dead. “Envy” tells the story of the fictional Yiddish poet Edelshtein, who champions Yiddish and grows aggressive and despairing as he is unable to find someone to translate his work into English. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a counterfactual novel set in a Yiddish-speaking community in Sitka, Alaska, on the verge of being reverted to the United States and its evangelical president. The texts combine to tell a story of an intergenerational exchange of Yiddish, with a disappearing language and a failed Messiah in each work. Yet by using the language as a plot object, they are perpetuating a postvernacular futurity for Yiddish, inviting readers into Yiddishland through the act of collective linguistic mourning.