Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Defending Yeedle's Composition

I'm going to take exception here to some of the complaints issued against Yeedle Yid's essay. "Poorly written" said one commenter. Look elsewhere for Chasidim who are "fine writers" said another. An "off day" sneered a third.
What these complainers don't seem to understand is that Yeedle was not writing in Standard English, but in Yinglish, a dialect of English with its own rules and its own conventions. I'm not expert in Yinglish. I can't speak authoritatively about its conventions, or explain exactly how it differs from Yeshivish, but I can recognize it, and I can support a Yinglish speaker's right to make his arguments in his native tongue.
The error Yeedle's detractors made is common. We all have done it or something like it.  The basis of the error is the fallacy of authenticity. We often reject things --Yeedle's  dialect, a minhag, a nusach, a bit of Torah -- because something about it strikes as artificial, or less real.

This is a mistake. There's nothing innately superior about Standard English. It just happens to be the dialect of English used by the American elite, and for this reason alone its perceived as the dialect of education, intelligence and prestige. It didn't fall out of the sky, but developed naturally over time.  And the same is true of our Jewish customs and practices. Shabbos, as I've often said, didn't always mean three meals, three prayer services, fine clothes, fine food, and a long nap. Once Shabbos looked and felt different, and because Shabbos is a living entity, it will continue to evolve and eventually it will look and feel like something else. The way we OJs celebrate Shabbos today  just happens to be the way we celebrate Shabbos. There's nothing special about it, or rather what is special about it is entirely subjective, i.e. unique to us, and to our perceptions. 

However, that fact that religious conventions, like grammatical conventions,  are arbitrary does not mean that they are also unimportant or inconsequential.  For instance, I concur with those who said that Yeedle's arguments would be more effective if he made them in SE. His use of Yinglish rather than SE has consequences. In America, those who use other English dialects to communicate are judged unintelligent; likewise, those who celebrate shabbos, even a halachic shabbos, in a non-Orthodox style are not going to be fully accepted in most Orthodox communities.   Spend shabbos sitting in jeans with a tuna sandwich at the neighborhood park and most Orthodox will decide you're somehow less Jewish. These are just blunt facts.

If Yeedle wants the world at large to listen to what he has to say he's going to have to learn to say it in SE, and if the jeans-wearing shabbos observer wants to be accepted by the Orthodox he's going to have to adopt Orthodox shabbos conventions. No matter how arbitrary grammatical and religious conventions might be, you simply have to follow them if you want the members of that discourse, or religious community to take you seriously. People judge you on how you dress, how you write, how you speak, and in the OJ world they also judge you (or perhaps "grade" is a better word) on how you perform rituals and carry out Commandments. That's Just How it Is. 

Meanwhile, Yeedle's  unfamiliarity with SE shouldn't be misunderstood. Yeedle's essay wasn't poorly written, and he's not a bad writer. He's simply not fluent in SE.

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