Anti-Semitism is increasingly making headlines, from reports of violent incidents directly targeting Jews to the growing importance of ethno-nationalist discourse that frequently uses Jewish stereotypes. This rise in anti-Judaism includes a renewed attention to the medieval image of the wandering Jew, translated into contemporary language by the term “globalism”. Conservative activists see the interconnected globe as a threat to traditional social structures and as directly linked to diasporic Jewish thought, politics and culture. For these conspiratorial thinkers and their political representatives (from Viktor Orban to Donald Trump and beyond), Jewish worldliness serves as a threatening foil to the violent reactionary policies of contemporary nationalism.
It would be tempting to dismiss such ideas as uninformed distortions of Jewish culture and history. One could cite examples of Jewish patriotism or various forms of Jewish nationalism that even share a contempt for “globalism.” Indeed, many argue that Jewish community life is unfairly targeted and that Jews belong to a minority group not much different from others. However, these defenses are often articulated by those who simultaneously emphasize the unique suffering of the Jewish people throughout world history and extol the particular achievements of the Jewish genius. It can easily become a board game of counting good Jews and bad Jews, good citizens of the world and bad globalists. Refuting stereotypes often serves to reinforce them: these particular Jews are “normal”, but the seemingly timeless idea of the Jew remains steadfast.
It may be useful then to think with the stereotype rather than against it. What does it mean to think of the world “like a Jew”? What could a vocabulary of Jewish worldliness reveal about the global present?
“What could a vocabulary of Jewish worldliness reveal about the world present? “
A translation exercise might be useful here. The word “world” comes from German papule, which combines Latin vir with germanic alt to mean “the age of mankind”. Over time, this temporal designation gave way to a spatial designation, such as papule has come to denote the space in which humanity exists. papule thus produces a confluence of time and space, marking the capacity to measure history and memory in a knowable domain of human existence. So something like “world literature” would indicate the attempt to conceive of all literature, across languages and across space and time, in a system of cultural exchange.
The Hebrew translation of “world” produces a similar confluence, but with a horizon of more explicitly redemptive meaning. Hebrew for “world”, olam, as found in the Bible, rarely, if ever, means the physical world. It designates first of all the long duration of existence, both human and divine, transcendent and worldly, future and past. The phrase brit olam signifies a divine covenant for all times; metey olam refers to those who are long dead. The term only takes on the better known (and more modern) meaning of the physical world in post-biblical literature where there is a difficult convergence between the concrete and the spiritual: living in this world, ba’olam mist, in a world of secular experience, and to strive to enter the messianic world to come, olam haba, the world of eternal transcendence. Thus, in the Jewish tradition, from biblical sources to rabbinical sources, a person exists under the demands of opposing but complementary “worlds”: human and divine, transitory and eternal, circumscribed and unlimited. A Hebrew world always tends towards a messianic horizon. To take the example of world literature, a literature of olam would be marked by eternal and redemptive aspirations. This ends up being a fairly familiar definition from world literature, indicating those texts deemed to have attained a certain universal position, beyond any specific cultural origin.
Something else happens, however, when we turn to a different Jewish vocabulary: What does the world mean to think in Yiddish, the thousand-year-old vernacular of Eastern European Jews? Yiddish is a fusion language, its Germanic shell incorporating vocabularies and grammatical structures from Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as Romance languages, Slavic languages, internationalisms, and other languages. German papule is perfectly at ease in Yiddish because velte. Due to the multiple linguistic components of Yiddish, a given concept can be covered by more than one word, especially the doubling of a Germanic word with a Hebrew word. Thus, Yiddish has olam in addition to velte. As is common in such borrowings, a third horizon of meaning appears in the gap between languages. In Yiddish, olam, pronounced with an Ashkenazi accent like oylem, retains all of its Hebrew meanings but also benefits from an additional meaning: public or crowd. In Yiddish, the designations of time and place, sacred and profane, of this world and the hereafter, are constrained by the immediacy of a oylem.
“When we translate ‘world’ into Hebrew and In Yiddish, we realize that there is a constant struggle to determine to which worlds and which worlds a text belongs to and how the different worlds are interconnected and overlapped, if at all. “
In this translation, many of the metaphysical and theological meanings of the world become secondary. Oylem limits our understanding of the world to that which is determined by concrete human activity. Oylem literature is not a universal group of texts, but rather that which is determined by the changing needs of actual readers. Simultaneously with the proposed status of the world as a system of exchange or mode of transcendence, it persists under a world of human judgment and institutional action: a set of people in a room deciding whether or not to applaud.
Taking these translations together, Jewish worldliness does not necessarily imply an infamous plot to control the world economy, nor does it demand the messianic desire for a borderless utopia. Of course, these meanings persist – but they also come up against a vernacular remainder. When we translate “world” into Hebrew and In Yiddish, we realize that there is a constant struggle to determine which worlds and which worlds a text belongs to and how the different worlds interact and overlap, if at all. Think about the world like oylem introduces a translational limit: the promise of a single organizing structure – the cohesive map of the cultures of the world, the conspiracy theory that explains everything – must meet concrete empires of culture and all that is untranslatable from the human community. Oylem allows us to imagine the possibility of a planetary human connection while recognizing the challenge and vitality of difference.
Featured image from the cover of American Jewish Writing and World Literature: Maybe for Millions, Maybe for No one by Saul Noam Zaritt.