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Hakka, Hebrew, Yiddish
>From email@example.com Fri Nov 15 09:21:25 1996
Subject: Hakka, Hebrew, Yiddish
Tang poetry was Hakka...NOT!
I am writing to clarify that I corrected my original post with a REVISED
post: Tang poetry was NOT written in Hakka. This was an omission due to
Tang poetry, whether one thinks it is dead or useless, is alive in the
sense that in Taiwan, you have to be able to read a little bit of it to
get through school.
Whether Tang poetry was used to promote a homogenuous Han myth or not, the
"300 Tang Poems" continue to be published in copious numbers, in Japan as
well. In Japanese junior and senior high school, and perhaps in the
college entrance exams, a smidgen of Tang poetry is requisite.
A poem by Po Chu-i, Chang hen ge, is in text books, along with some Li Bai
and Tu Fu (Du Fu?).
Certainly, Japanese kids reading two or three popular Tang poems is just a
symbolic gesture to honor ancient Chinese civilization. But the fact is
that the education professionals in both Taiwan and Japan value Tang
poetry enough to make it a requirement. They have not found a superior
Also, education bureaucrats are often politically affiliated with
conservative parties. It is not surprising that they would want to retain
the tradition of teaching a sampling of classical poetry.
Another parallel: in the U.S., multiculturalism is being debated. A
simple description: one side believes in preserving a popular college
requirement for all students: the classical Western tradition, or, the
influence of the Greeks and Romans on Western thought. The opposing side
argues that non-Western literature and philosophy from Asia, AFrica, the
Middle East should be required as well.
The Western Civilization side is generally politically conservative,
older, of white European ancestry and richer, while the Multiculturalism
side leans toward the left, tend to be much younger, and includes most of
the upcoming non-white academics.
How this relates to Tang poetry: the rulers in the Republic of China and
Japan have kept part of a traditional education alive. I would like to
know if there are activist groups in favor of breaking free from the past.
Also evidencing the importance of Tang poetry: while the average college
student in Taiwan or Japan may be indifferent to it, the poets, the
intellectual novelists, and modern literature professors will have
incorporated classical poetry into their works, or will at least
contradict it. Being resistant to classical poetry still acknowledges
classical poetry's influence on the present. In other words, today's
cultural elite have grappled with the classical past.
Anyway, thanks for distinguishing the Chinese literati from the
common people. The Chinese literati are the elite of society in that
most of them have upper class, or upper middle class origins. These
classes are the movers and shakers of trade and legal system. Thus, it
makes sense that the well to do would want to preserve the status quo,
because it benefits them.
Hebrew and Israeli prime minister
Also, thanks for pointing out my other careless typing mistake. I had
meant that the prime minister of Israel does not have to be able to read
the Talmud or write in old Hebrew. Of course he needs to be literate in
modern Hebrew! What he really needs is fluency in several modern
languages, for diplomatic purposes, and a deep understanding of the local
By this example, I was trying to illustrate that when large numbers of
Jews lived in Europe, from the 1200s to World War II, literacy in old
Hebrew WAS a status symbol. In former times, being able to read the Talmud
= being a rabbi who was the village's religious and secular leader =
power. However, I did not intend to imply that this is true today.
Hebrew and American Jews
Studying modern Hebrew, not in a scholarly way but in a superficial way,
is certainly the first step to preserving Jewish identity in the U.S. A
Jewish American need not know the Talmud. But to keep her or his cultural
identity, a little bit of Hebrew and familiarity with Jewish holidays is
useful. Even a slight exposure to Hebrew would distinguish an individual
from the non-Jews, the vast majority of whom have no contact with Hebrew.
A useful analogy may be found among Chinese Americans. First generation
Chinese in the U.S., i.e., those who came to the U.S. as adults, often
send their American born children to Chinese school. Chinese school is
not rigorous -- usually, it is on Saturday or after school. Children
learn to count in Chinese and write a few characters, but hardly not
enough to read even a Chinese children's book. But this superficial study
of Chinese is enough to remind the child that s/he is of Chinese heritage,
and is different from other Americans.
Chinese Americans who were sent to Chinese school and Chinese Americans
who did not go are usually very different in self-perception. Even if a
child attended an all-white suburban school, s/he would see a roomful or
buildingfull of Chinese kids one day a week. That child's perception of
her/his cultural identity is far different, and stronger than that of a
child whose parents spoke English at home, nor was sent to Chinese school.
In this sense, Jewish American kids' study of Hebrew is comparable to
Chinese American kid's study of CHinese. Both are nominal, superficial
exposure to languages and cultures, but are enough to make the kids feel
that they are different from the other kids, that they have a unique
Therefore, comparing Hebrew to Chinese language is productive.
Yiddish was used by European Jews and Jews all over the world UNTIL World
War II, when most of the Yiddish speakers were killed in the Holocaust or
dispersed. So it is no surprise that your Jewish friend's parents in the
Midwest do not use Yiddish. But probably the grandparents or the
great-grandparents, whichever generation arrived from Europe, used
Yiddish. Many Americans, not even many Jewish Americans, know how
prevalent Yiddish used to be.
One explanation for the amnesia regarding Yiddish may be that after
the Holocaust, the surviving Jews no longer wanted to use Yiddish, which
had distinguished them from the Christians, who persecuted JEws because
they were different, alien.
Yiddish was widely used in New York up to the 1920s and 1930s by recently
arrived European JEws. Yiddish became obsolete in New York when most of
the speakers, who came to New York from Europe as adults, died of old age.
Their children preferred to speak English.
When we discuss Jews in New York, we must not confuse New York Jews of the
1920s with today's orthodox Jews. Today's orthodox Jews come from Eastern
Europe. In the 19th century, in Eastern Europe,the orthodox sects were
founded by Jews who were unhappy with how Jewish culture was becoming
diluted in Poland, due to urbanization, intermarriage, social mobility,
cultural assimilation, etc.
The founders of orthodox sects wanted to go back to the "golden past," a
time when Judaism was pure and Jewish people diligently observed the
rituals and customs. It is highly debatable whether Judaism ever had such
a glorious past. But what matters is that the founders wanted "purify"
Judaism by returning to old ways. Orthodox Judaism, therefore, is a type
of nostalgia, a yearning for the good old days. And it is a relatively
new sect, and has not been in existence forever.
The orthodox Jews began wearing the hats and the jackets with tails
because that is what the Polish aristocracy wore - this dress has been
preserved to this day. That is why today the orthodox Jews in New York
look antiquated - it is because they are wearing 19th century clothes in
the 1990s. And they speak Yiddish. Walk in the orthodox Jewish business
districts of New York, and you will hear Yiddish.
What does any of this have to do with Hakka?
I believe Jewish history is relevant because I see many parallels to how
Chinese-Americans or dispersed Hakka have expressed or demonstrated
similar tendencies. Examples are the attempts to name famous people who
are Hakka, suggest historical figures who may have been Hakka, etc. Isn't
this a search for a golden past, when Hakka were "united, whole"? And our
attempts to reconstruct Hakka dialects, when many of us clearly have
little contact with the language.
Why does it matter whether we are Hakka or no longer Hakka? Somehow it
does matter to me, and I am trying to learn why. Writing helps to process
thoughts and clean up sloppy logic. I hope I wasn't too pedantic.
from Yuki Tung, who is thankful
for the Internet