A revival of the mame loshen hits the US
Call it the Harry Houdini of languages: like the great escapists of a century ago, Yiddish keeps eluding death. As the inscription outside the National Yiddish Book Center attests, “Yiddish is magic. It will outwit history.”
In recent years, Yiddish has been especially successful at duping history, climbing to its feet after absorbing four punishing blows in the first half of the twentieth century: the Holocaust, Soviet persecution, increasing assimilation and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. According to Miriam Koral, professor of Yiddish at UCLA, “We’ve been observing what some of us consider to be a Yiddish Renaissance” during the past 20 years.
The evidence is undeniable. Dozens of American colleges and universities offer courses in Yiddish language and literature. A multitude of Yiddish summer programs, klezmer festivals, and theater revivals dot the map.
So why the Yiddish Renaissance? Here are four reasons for the revival of the mame loshen, the mother tongue of Ashkenazi Jews.
The End of Sibling Rivalry
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the greatest enemy of Yiddish was not smoldering anti-Semitism but the fledgling Jewish state. The substitution of Hebrew for Yiddish, says Koral, was “catalyzed by the political expediency of needing to create a national identity.” This sea change rippled out of the Middle East and transformed the linguistic practice of Jewish communities around the world thanks to the persistence of the Israeli government, which stigmatized Yiddish as the language of victimhood, cowardice and complacency.
But Koral feels the two languages could have coexisted. “Jews have traditionally been multilingual for centuries,” she said. “The zeal of needing to replace Yiddish so completely by Hebrew was really misplaced.”
Hostility towards Yiddish has waned in the past fifty years as Israel has shed much of its insecurity. The Jewish state now hosts a Yiddish daily paper, many Yiddish-language university courses, and a young people’s cultural organization called Yung Yiddish. Moreover, this year witnessed the inaugural Yiddish Culture Day in Israel, marking 150 years since Sholom Aleichem’s birth.
An Alternate Source of Identity
But as Hebrew has gone mainstream in the Jewish community, Yiddish has become a haven for Jewish outsiders of all stripes. Sonia Isard didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish; rather, she came to it through a passion for klezmer music and an interest in Eastern European history and culture. She studied Yiddish at the University of Michigan and she is currently pursuing an MA in Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I feel kind of possessive of Yiddish as a little bit radical or a little bit anti-establishment,” she said, noting that it holds particular appeal for Jews who are uncomfortable with Zionism, as well as queer Jews.
Nadia Kahn, a half-Japanese Yiddishist, speaks the language, in part, because she does not fit the traditional description of an Ashkenazi Jew—a factor of her identity that she feels takes her out of the mainstream. Now working as a program associate for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and enrolled in New York University’s summer Yiddish program, Kahn—who identifies as Modern Orthodox—said that “Yiddish opened an intimate world onto my Jewish heritage that Hebrew just would never do. Yiddish [offered] a way to celebrate Jewish life without having to have a religious affiliation.”
The Generation Gap
The pride that younger Jews are taking in Yiddish represents a stark change from the attitude of their grandparents, whose shame of Old World customs stymied the transmission of their first language. Koral was an exception to this rule. Her parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, spoke only Yiddish at home and Koral spoke no English until nursery school.
Menachem Ejdelman, conference coordinator of Yugntruf, a youth Yiddish organization, said that many of the people who come to Yugntruf are “children [who] want to connect to their grandparents. They see that there’s a disconnect. They want to connect to that past that was being held from them by their parents.”
The liveliness of the language, however, goes well beyond building a bridge to the past. Yugntruf has a range of programs that allow participants to “do” Yiddish, from the Sunday “Drop-Ins,” where students of different levels help each other read to the more casual svives, where people immerse themselves in a Yiddish-speaking world with food, song and conversation.
Some Yugntruf members, such as Rutgers University sophomore Jordan Kutzik, are also pursuing individual projects to make up for a generation of lost time. Kutzik is working on helping parents raise their children to be bilingual, and is conducting video interviews with Lithuanian Jews about pre-war Jewish life and the Holocaust, which he subtitles and posts to YouTube.
A Cultural Goldmine
Along with the lingustic appeal of Yiddish has come a wealth of rediscovered music, literature and performance. The klezmer revival, with festivals like KlezKamp, is a quarter-century old and many Yiddishists came to the language through a love for Sholom Aleichem.
A recent development in the revival of Yiddish culture is the increasing prominence of ethnic and cultural studies within the Academy. These new departments have created space for more Yiddish- and Eastern European-based courses in colleges nationwide.
“If you recognize that the everyday life of Eastern European Jews is worthy of study, then these topics and disciplines can only be conveyed through a familiarity with Yiddish culture, and this means the ability to understand the Yiddish language,” said Marc Caplan, a Yiddish professor at Johns Hopkins University. He added that the increased interest also stems from scholars’ recognizing the language’s endangerment.
The Future of Yiddish
All the same, Caplan does not see a comeback brewing for the mame loshen. Just because young people are showing a heightened interest in Yiddish, he said, “doesn’t mean that they will go on to speak Yiddish everyday, attend Yiddish-language events, or attempt—as I am doing—to raise a Yiddish-speaking family.” From a demographic standpoint, however, Yiddish will likely be on stronger footing in 25 years due to the growing population of Hasidic Jews worldwide, for whom it remains a lingua franca.
But even if the Yiddish language continues its demographic dive, it may still be too entrenched to vanish. In 1974, the renowned Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “as a spoken language it may be a dying language, but it has had hundreds of years of such intense life that even if people would stop speaking Yiddish, it will still play a part in the basis of the future.”
In other words, even if Yiddish were dead, it would still be alive.