The Next War

May 4, 2005 |

“The Jews are one people—their language is Yiddish,” I. L. Peretz said in 1908, declaring the language war that was already raging in coffee houses, magazines, and political meetings in Europe and Palestine. Yiddish, which could not claim to be the tongue of Sephardim, saw a brief rise and devastating fall, and Hebrew won. But a century later, it is beginning to seem possible that we may hear an equally chutzpadik intellectual make such a statement about English.

Far more Jews speak English than any other language, and whether your interest is historical, religious, philosophical, literary, or cultural, the best book on a particular Jewish topic is now likely to be available in English from a commercial publisher or a university press. But as part of his revolution, Peretz called for translations of the “cultural treasures from our free, golden past.” With the completion of the Schottenstein Artscroll Talmud, English is well on its way to fulfilling that mission. Alongside Daniel Matt’s Zohar, and Robert Alter’s erudite new addition to the wide selection of Torah translations, the Schottenstein creates an unprecedented possibility: the emergence of Jews reasonably literate in traditional sources, but unable to tell an aleph from an ayin.

English is not quite ready, yet, to unseat its ancient rival. Hebrew grows stronger as native speakers expand its range and canon, and translations, however brilliant, are no substitute for the original. But the day does not seem far off when these recent translations could be understood not only as striking scholarly achievements, but also as the opening salvos of the 21st century’s language war.

[Originally published on]