On Friday morning, Allison Schachter of Vanderbilt University shared her research on a number of women writers who worked in a global Jewish context in the 20th century. Through her speech, I learned about the experience of isolation shared by many of these women writers—something that was elucidated in the writings of Debora Vogel, who lived between 1902 and 1942. According to Professor Schachter, Vogel was born in Galicia and educated in a number of languages, including Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Her work bounced between these languages while also bouncing between styles of writing: while she began as a Hebrew poet, Vogel later published a number of “prose montages” in Yiddish.

In our class, we have explored a variety of short stories and essays from a vast range of languages. I have read all of them in English; many are translated editions. Something that became clear to me after learning about Debora Vogel’s writing is that the language in which an artist chooses to write is a significant choice—it denotes culture, indicates personal history; language means something. When Vogel wrote in Hebrew, she was largely dismissed as a “Hebrew nationalist,” because she was Jewish. When writing in Yiddish, Vogel’s work was widely ignored; Yiddish was a language for women, for feminine men—not for real writers. But Vogel herself saw Yiddish as an international Jewish language, which is an incredibly powerful idea. Language, most of the time, is regional, meaning that distance is often a barrier in communication, even in a modern world where mail moves quickly and people can travel the globe in fewer than eighty days. Yiddish was a solution to that problem in the 20th century, existing as the universal solvent for whatever might stand in the way of international Jewish communication and connection.

The power of language is remarkably delicate. Using Yiddish to communicate artistic thought across the globe is a remarkable thing, especially for a Jewish people living far and wide in a post-diaspora world. Jewish literature demands an audience; the Jewish people demand literature; Yiddish was, in the 20th century, the tool that would bring Jewish literature around the world to its people. This momentous solution, however, was held captive by misogyny. Women were not credited with the intellectual power that they very much possessed, and Yiddish was associated with women, so the language lost its credit, too. The effects of this are clear in the way that the literary world of the last century refused to acknowledge the value of Vogel’s work. Language is as vulnerable to social marginalization as people are.