The professional challenge, meanwhile, is to bring Yiddish culture home to students at a big Midwestern university. He’s trying to establish a summer workshop featuring contemporary Yiddish writers, and he also wants to bring Yiddish language instruction to campus. These ambitions reveal his optimism about the future of the language.
“We recently passed the point where the number of Yiddish speakers has stopped declining and is starting to grow again,” he says. “For tens of thousands of children now being raised in Hasidic and strictly observant Jewish communities, Yiddish is a first language. The fact that these are highly traditional Orthodox communities should not make them invisible to us. While native speakers are alive, Yiddish is not a dead language.”
But the fate of Yiddish is more than a numbers game. “The measure of the continuing vitality of Yiddish is not only the number of fluent speakers,” he says. “It is also the ways fragments and elements continue to be rediscovered and transformed into new modes of Jewishness that are genuinely creative.”
Take klezmer music—the riotously joyous, sometimes melancholy blend of clarinet, violin, and other jazz instruments accompanied by singers letting fly with vibrant Yiddish lyrics. Klezmer performances and recordings have attracted a huge following in recent decades. Another example that Boyarin finds fascinating is the artist Y-Love. He’s a black musician who converted to Judaism, joined the Bostoner sect of Hasidism, studied at a yeshiva in Israel, and now fronts an Orthodox hip-hop style offering up fragments of Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, the language of the Talmud.
Boyarin’s own current work pushes somewhat less edgy frontiers. He is now translating a book by noted scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel about the Kotsker Rebbe, an early Hasidic leader. It will be added to a considerable bibliography; he has already published 10 academic books, including two co-written with his brother Daniel, also a gifted Jewish scholar.
“Yiddish,” says Boyarin, “is the repository of the legacies of centuries of people figuring out how to be simultaneously distinctively Jewish, and in and of a particular time and place.” For this recent transplant to the sunflower state, that will mean bringing a bit more Yiddishkeit to campus in the month of Av in the Jewish year 5766, when fall semester begins at the University of Kansas.