On Feb. 18, 1912, Franz Kafka introduced a Yiddish poetry reading at Toynbee Hall. In typical Kafka fashion he put his finger on the fear of and attraction to Yiddish that the assimilated Jews in the audience had (or he presumed they had). In analyzing that speech, Louis Begley writes in The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head:
The rub was there [in the fear of Yiddish and by extension the fear of themselves]. Kafka knew that the assimilated Jews sitting in Toynbee Hall feared close contact with their grandparents’ language, and most likely deep down he feared it as well. Of course neither Kafka nor the other Jews he was addressing were afraid of being identified as Jews: they weren’t trying to pass as Christians, if only because it would have been impossible to do so Â in Prague, where everyone in the German-speaking minority knew everyone else. Rather, the fear was of a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma of the shtetl or the medieval ghetto that had been left behind, the heritage that these Jews had recently and completely cast aside. For Kafka, Yiddish and the shtetl held out the attraction of the close-kint spiritual community that he imagined flourished there and, I believe, a special terror: that of further linguistic alienation. (65-66)
Kafka’s situation — and that of other assimilated Jews — is very different from that of Mormon Americans. I am not making any strong case for parallels of any sort here. However, I do want to note the phrasing “a crack in the veneer of assimilation through which might enter the miasma… the heritage… that had been recently … cast aside”.
And clearly assimilated Mormon American artists do not fear a further linguist alienation. Prague’s Jews were alienated from the majority because they spoke German instead ofÂ Czech so that to twist that alienation further via Yiddish was truly a further linguist alienation.
And yet Mormons do have sets of demarcations that show up in dress, vocabulary, socio-cultural attitudes and daily life. Some of the art produced by Mormons does show a certain crack in the veneer. Much of it, especially the lost generation stuff, is cracks in the veneer of Mormon life. Now that we are post-assimilation, I find myself interested in the cracks in the veneer of assimilation, and (I would hope) have no fear, but rather a deep interest in what comes seeping through those cracks. Bring on the Mormon miasma!