JUDAH A. JOFFE (April 18, 1873-September 16, 1966)
He was born in Bakhmut, southern Russia. His father, Yekhiel-Lipman, came from Vitebsk; he had in his earlier years left to live in the colony of Novo-Zlatopol (Novozlatopil’), Ekaterinoslav district, where he married and raised two children, and then decided to abandon his life as a farmer and proceed to study in the rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir, but friends of his discouraged him from doing so, and instead he moved to Bakhmut where he opened a private school and built a new home for himself and his family. Although he was a self-taught man, he achieved a high degree of education. He possessed extraordinary linguistic talent, read Plato and Aristotle in the original, and in addition to Greek and Latin he could read several European languages—and he was an exceptional mathematician. Joffe’s mother, too, was a gifted woman and ran the school with her husband. It was in this home that Joffe grew up. He, too, demonstrated from his youth exceptional linguistic abilities. At age eight he learned Greek, and at age eleven he read Caesar in Latin. At age eighteen he graduated first in his class from the classical high school in Ekaterinoslav (now, Dnepropetrovsk), and right afterward his entire family departed. In 1876 Joffe’s father with his eldest son (later, Dr. Yosef Joffe, of the Baron Hirsch colony in Argentina) spent a short time in the United States and then returned to Bakhmut. After the anti-Jewish pogroms in southern Russia (1881), the family lived for a time (1882) in Paris and again returned to Bakhmut. In 1891 the Joffe family moved permanently to the United States and settled in New York. Judah enrolled at Columbia University, studied general philology with a professor of Latin, Harry Thurston Peck, and received his B. A. in 1893; he went on (1893-1897) to study, also at Columbia, Indo-Iranian languages (two years of this time with a stipend from the university), and in the summer of 1901 he took a course in pedagogy; 1909-1910 he took courses in phonetics and English historical grammar with the famous Danish linguist, Professor Otto Jespersen (who, incidentally, studied Russian phonetics with Joffe); in these years, he studied Sanskrit, Old Persian, and the Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages. He also devoted time to mathematics and music, not solely as an amateur but as a scholar and specialist in both fields. For decades he was a teacher of Latin and mathematics in a high school. He was also a lecturer in Russian at Columbia University and City College in New York. He worked on various dictionaries, encyclopedias, and yearbooks, as well as serving as co-editor, and he engaged in translations from numerous languages and wrote (in English) for them on Slavic languages and literatures as well as on music.
Professor Joffe was to be connected to Yiddish philology for over a half century—from his publication in Chaim Zhitlovsky’s Dos naye lebn (The new life) in New York (August 1909) of “Di klangen fun yidish un der yidisher alef-beys” (The sounds of Yiddish and the Yiddish alphabet). From the very first day of his scholarly activities in Yiddish, Joffe evinced a particularly perceptive interest in Old Yiddish and Old Yiddish texts. On his own he collected in his home an immensely rich library which, from the number of rarities, had few competitors. Living for so many in New York, far from the concentrated Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, he did not even have anyone with whom to cross-fertilize his discoveries and explanations of Old Yiddish texts. The only place at which Joffe attempted to do this over many years was the Jewish teachers’ seminary. Initially, at the time of WWII, when the French university in exile (École Libre des Hautes Études) was organized in New York, Joffe was invited there as an instructor in Yiddish language and literature. He received a regular professor’s office where he worked for many years on his beloved Old Yiddish texts, and Yiddish became a disciplinary subject to teach and research in a general institution of higher learning in the world. His second work in Yiddish research was “Shraybn oder shrayben? (Fun vanen kumt aroys unzer mame-loshn?) ([How do we write the word in Yiddish for “to write”:] shraybn or shrayben? Where does our mother tongue come from?), Literatur (Literature) in New York (July 1910). The third piece was a treatise about the Vilna serial Pinkes (Records) in 1913, edited by Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (Future) in New York (September 1914). Then, after a lengthy interruption, he published his work, “Fun vanen shtamt dos vort geto?” (The origin of the word ghetto), Landoy-bukh (Landoy volume), the first volume of Filologishe shriftn (Philological writings) of YIVO (Vilna, 1926); this piece was reprinted in English translation in YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science I (New York, 1946), pp. 260-73. With the establishment in October 1925 of the American division of YIVO and with the preparation of its Pinkes (published 1927-1928), this was a great incentive to Joffe’s scholarly work in the field of Yiddish philology. Aside from a wide assortment of short pieces, Joffe published in the New York Pinkes such works as: “Katoves tsi ksubes?” (Jokes or marriage contracts?); “Vegn vokativ in yidish” (On the vocative in Yiddish); “Bodnzikhtik” (?); “Vegn der biblyografye fun ‘simkhes hanefesh’” (On the bibliography of the Joy of the Soul); “Vegn lubliner tsenerene” (On the Lublin [edition of the] Tsenerene). He also published classical research in “Der slavisher element in yidish” (The Slavic elements in Yiddish), Pinkes fun amopteyl fun yivo (Records of the American division of YIVO) 1/2 (pp. 235-56, 296-312), which elicited a scholarly polemic in many Jewish communities and drew the attention of Jewish scholars throughout the world to Yiddish philology in America. He went on to publish his research in Yivo-bleter (Pages from YIVO), until 1939 in Vilna and thereafter in New York, including: “Di ershte oysgabe fun ‘kav hayasher’” (The first edition of Kav hayashar [A just measure]), issue 7 (1934); “Yidish in amerike” (Yiddish in America), a controversial work but of considerable value, issue 8 (1935); “Hundert un fuftsik yor yidish” (One hundred, fifty years of Yiddish), issue 15 (1940); and “Yidishe prakht-drukn” (Fine Yiddish publishers), issue 15 (1940); among others. Other work by Joffe would include: “Di eltste forsher fun yidish” (The oldest researcher in Yiddish), Der tog (The day) in New York (February 5, 1928); a piece in Filologishe shriftn (YIVO) 3 (Vilna, 1929); a piece in Yidish (Yiddish) in New York (June 1932); an essay in Yidish far ale (Yiddish for everyone) in Warsaw (December 1938); essays in Yidishe shprakh (Yiddish language) in New York, from July-August 1941 on; “Alt yidishe literatur” (Old Yiddish literature), with N. B. Minkov, in Algemeyne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), “Yidn G”; and elsewhere. In 1949 there appeared the first volume (of a planned three volumes) of Elye bokher, poetishe shafungen in yidish (Elye Bokher, poetic writings in Yiddish), “with philological comments, an Old Yiddish dictionary, and a short grammar by Judah A. Joffe,” which contained a reproduction of the first edition Elye Bokher’s Bovo-bukh (or Bovo dantone (Isny, 1541), with an introduction by Joffe: “Elye bokher, der mentsh un der kinstler” (Elye Bokher, the man and the artist), at the beginning of the volume in Yiddish and at the end of English. In it he investigated the text of this classical work on the basis of a series of editions in the Italian language. He had in manuscript a number of works, in the field of Yiddish as well as concerning syntax and morphology of the Yiddish language. Of considerable value and significance was Joffe’s contribution to the Groyser yidisher verterbukh (Great Yiddish dictionary), the first volumes of which appeared in the early 1960s. His dozens of scholarly papers at YIVO conferences, bit by bit, published as separate works, although the majority of them still remain still in manuscript. His writings in English would include: “Note on Eur. ‘Medea’: vss. 340-345,” The Classical Review (London) 10.2 (March 1896), p. 104; “Russian Literature and Its Latest Historian,” The Bookman (December 1900), pp. 43-47; all the entries on Slavic languages and literatures, various authors, music, and the like, in New International Encyclopedia (New York, 1902); on Jews, music, Russian authors, and the like, in International Yearbook (1900, 1901, 1902); on music and opera, in Nelson’s Looseleaf Encyclopedia (New York, 1910); “Russian Literature,” in Lectures on Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1911), pp. 311-32; on abbreviations in New Websterian 1912 Dictionary (New York, 1912); a short dictionary of the English language (Cleveland: World Syndicate Publishing Co., 1937-1938), 400 pp.; also contributed to Collegiate Dictionary for the same publisher; style editor for Psychiatric Dictionary by Dr. L. E. Hinsie and Dr. J. Shatzky (New York, 1940); the entry on Yiddish, in Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York, 1943), pp. 598-602; “The Yiddish Language,” in Colliers Encyclopedia; editor and contributor to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Encyclopedic Edition (1951); on Russian music in the early nineteenth century, in Critical Review (December 1954); “Dating the Origin of Yiddish Dialects,” in The Field of Yiddish: Language, Folklore, and Literature, ed. Uriel Weinreich (New York, 1954), pp. 102-21. Among his translations (or translations under his editorship), one would find the following: from English into Yiddish, Professor A. A. Goldenweiser, Antropologye (Anthropology) (New York, 1920), 217 pp.; from Russian into English, Byliny (Russian oral folk epic stories), and books by Rimsky-Korsakov and Sabaneev on music; from German into French, the laws of indemnity for workers in Hungary, Finland, France, and Belgium (Washington, 1909); among others.
Judah A. Joffe was all these years also involved in community activities, initially in the “Educational League” (1900-1913) and later on the board of the American division of YIVO and on the YIVO board in New York. He was the honorary chairman of the linguistics circle at YIVO. On his seventieth birthday in 1943, Yivo-bleter published a bibliography of his writings and an article about him. Ten years later, on his eightieth birthday, a second YIVO publication, Yidishe shprakh, brought out three special Judah Joffe issues (8.2, 8.3, and 8.4) (New York, 1953). On his eighty-fifth birthday, YIVO issued the Yude a. yofe-bukh (Judah A. Joffe volume), ed. Yudel Mark (New York, 1958), 320 pp., with a biography of the honoree and a bibliography of all his works until then. In April 1960 he gave his rare collection of over 1000 books in Old Yiddish to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He lived in New York until his death in the Riverdale neighborhood.
Sources: Sh. Epshteyn, in Tsukunft (New York) (October 1910); Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky, in Oyfkum (New York) (October 1928); N. Shtif, “Di dialektologishe ekspeditsye fun der katedre far yidisher kultur” (The dialectological expedition of the chair in Yiddish culture), Di yidishe shprakh (Kiev) 19 (November-December 1929), pp. 1-29; E. Spivak, “Problemen fun sovetishn yidish” (Issues in Soviet Yiddish), Afn shprakhfront (Kiev) 304 (1935); N. Mayzil, in Tsukunft (October 1935); Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (New York, 1942), p. 163 (his full name, Judah Achilles Joffe, is given here); Yivo-bleter (New York) 21 (1943, pp. 1-4; Yidish shprakh (New York) 2-3 and 4 (September-December 1953); H. Abramovitsh, in Kultur un dertsiung (New York) (October 1943); A. A. Roback, Di imperye yidish (The empire of Yiddish) (Mexico City, 1958), pp. 70-71; Yude a. yofe-bukh (Judah A. Joffe volume) (New York: YIVO, 1958), pp. 5-15; Yidishe kultur (New York) (May 1958); on his collection at the Theological Seminary, see Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (April 25, 1960; April 30, 1960); Y. Shteynboym, in Tsukunft (December 1961).