No figure surpasses Max Weinreich for the depth, breadth, and importance of his contributions to the field of Yiddish studies and to winning for the language a respected place in both Jewish and general academia. A native German speaker from the northwestern part of the Russian Empire (today’s southwestern Latvia), Weinreich (1894–1969) was drawn as an adolescent to Yiddish and the Jewish socialist party, the Bund. His literary activity began with journalism in German, Russian, and Yiddish and translations of classic works of Greek literature into Yiddish. While overt identification with the Bund waned by his adult years, he remained throughout his lifetime committed to the ideals of Yiddishism, a form of cultural nationalism promoting eastern European’s Jewry’s vernacular, and to the preservation of Jews as a distinct people. After studying at the University of St. Petersburg, he earned a doctorate from the University of Marburg in 1923 with a dissertation about the history of Yiddish language research. He settled in Vilna and worked in the interwar years simultaneously as a teacher in the city’s Yiddish secular schools, a polymath independent scholar, a journalist and editor, and a Jewish community activist. Most important, he was a cofounder, long-time research director, and guiding spirit of YIVO (the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut; known today as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research), a private institution dedicated to the study of eastern European Jewry and its culture. Traveling abroad when Poland was invaded in September 1939, he managed to come to New York City in spring 1940. There Weinreich directed the transformation of YIVO’s small American branch into its new world center and its reorientation to serve the needs of a post-Holocaust American and world Jewish community. He also became in 1947 the first professor of Yiddish at an American University (City College in New York) and wrote for the Yiddish daily Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward) until his death in 1969. During and after the Holocaust, Weinreich embodied the link between YIVO’s eastern Europe origins and its American future. His interest in psychoanalysis and sociology led to important contributions about the problems of contemporary Jewish life, especially among youth. He was also an excellent popularizer, communicating the results of his research in the Yiddish press in Europe and America. His magnum opus Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh (1973) has achieved canonical status in the field of Yiddish Studies and Jewish interlinguistics.
Despite Weinreich’s towering status as a researcher and head of YIVO, his contributions have attracted relatively little sustained scholarly attention beyond his theories concerning the origins and development of the language and his foray into research about the sociopsychological problems of Jewish youth. Excellent multilingual bibliographies (Kahn 1964, Gordon-Mlotek and Goldenberg 1997, both cited under Bibliographies) of his writings have been produced, however, by his students and followers in YIVO circles. While no critical biography has yet appeared, there exist a large number of biographical sketches and memoirs recalling Weinreich. Few attempt, however, to provide an overarching survey and evaluation of his numerous achievements in multiple fields. Most of these are relatively short articles written by those who knew him well (e.g., Fishman 1990) or were directly influenced by those close to him in YIVO circles (e.g., Fishman 1997). Given the dramatic circumstances of his life and his simultaneous engagement in multiple fields, they understandably place a strong emphasis on the biographical in interpreting his work and sometimes limit themselves to a specific period in his life. Many focus on his involvement in YIVO. Major periods in his literary career, particularly prior to the founding of YIVO in 1925, and areas of endeavor, such as his political thought and journalistic activity, have largely eluded treatment. The paucity of established scholars and their students who survived the Holocaust has no doubt contributed to this relative neglect. So too has the decline in practical interest in ideologies such as Yiddishism and Diaspora Nationalism after the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. That the vast majority of Weinreich’s works exist only in their original Yiddish has no doubt served as an impediment to those without adequate command of the language. In recent decades, however, an revival of academic interest in Yiddish and its culture, most often among nonnative speakers, has contributed to new publications about Weinreich, as has the growth of the field of Jewish interlinguistics.
Estraikh, Gennady. “The Vilna Yiddishist quest for modernity.” In Jüdische Kultur(en) im Neuen Europa. Edited by Marina Dmitrieva und Heidemarie Petersen, 101–116. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1994.
A significant part of this article about the development of secular Yiddish culture and Yiddishist ideology in Vilna until the Holocaust discusses the ideological underpinnings of Weinreich’s contributions. These include his leadership of the Yiddishist youth group Di bin, his view of Yiddish as a “fusion language,” and his work to standardize the language Yiddish (e.g., spelling and vocabulary).
Fishman, Joshua (Shikl). “Tsu maks vaynraykhs 21stn yorktsayt.” Afn shvel 277 (1990): 10–14.
Fishman was a prominent sociolinguist and Yiddishist whose academic path was largely shaped by his encounter with Weinreich. He paints a portrait of a demanding and inflexible father figure who was also an inspiring and encouraging mentor, colleague, and scholar. His awe for Weinreich is unmistakable, as is his respect for what he sees as Weinreich’s ability to recognize the limitations of ideologies while respecting their contributions to Jewish cultural continuity across eras.
Fishman, David (Dovid Eliyohu). “Bamerkungen vegn vaynraykhs role in der antviklung fun der yidisher visnhaft.” YIVO Bleter 3, New Series (1997): 298–307.
Fishman understands Weinreich’s life’s work as the fusion of German commitment to methodologically rigorous research and eastern European populism emphasizing the problems of contemporary life. His work’s focus shifted after the Holocaust to preserving and interpreting the eastern European chapter in Jewish history. An extended version appears as “Max Weinreich and the Development of YIVO,” in David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 126–137.
Katz, Dovid. Yiddish and Power. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
While a work about the history of the Yiddish language and its culture rather than about Weinreich specifically, Katz stops on several occasions to describe clearly the importance of Weinreich’s achievements and the essence of scholarly debates in which he engaged.
King, Robert D. The Max Weinreich Legacy. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, 1988.
The Fifth Annual Avrom-Nokhem Stencel lecture in Yiddish Studies delivered at the Oxford Yiddish Summer Programme in 1987, this speech praises father and son for their shared qualities of intellectual brilliance and erudition as well as their dedication to both scholarship and students. It traces the outlines of their lives through mainly their published works, citing anecdotes that reflect these qualities.
Nadel, Benjamin. “Der visnshaftlekher institut (yivo) in vilner period.” Undzer tsayt 517 (1985): 34–37.
Written for the sixtieth anniversary of YIVO, this short article selectively surveys Weinreich’s activity on behalf of Yiddish from his earliest years, about which very little has been written, through the Vilna period of YIVO.
Roskies, David (Dovid Hirsh). “Maks Vaynraykh: oyf di shpurn fun a lebedikn over.” YIVO Bleter 3, New Series (1997): 308–318.
Weinreich aimed in his pre–World War II studies to create a “useable past,” locating secular and European tendencies in Old Yiddish literature and demonstrating a pedigree for Yiddish language and literature. Roskies identifies a shift in Weinreich’s later, especially post-Holocaust work. Weinreich then emphasized internal Jewish historical and cultural continuity over external, non-Jewish influences as he revised and synthesized his life’s work.
Rozshansky, Shmuel. “Vaynraykh. Der derekh, di idee un der stil fun yivo.” Edited by Shmuel Rozshansky. Argentine yivo-shriftn 2 (1969): 5–10.
This brief essays stresses how Weinreich’s position as an “outsider” to Yiddish culture shaped his penchant for linguistic purism and Hebraisms, as well as his desire for the vertical legitimization of Yiddish scholarship within the Jewish tradition.
Ziskind, Nosn. “Prof. Maks Vaynraykh—a ben shivim.” Tsukunft 70.1 (1965): 23–25.
Ziskind reflects on Weinreich’s good fortune in escaping tragedy on multiple occasions and summarizes his remarkable, often pioneering achievements as a scholar and founder of YIVO.
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