Yiddish Is Dead, Long Live Yiddish

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.

6 Older Responses to “Yiddish Is Dead, Long Live Yiddish”

  1. Motl Didner
    September 16, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    Thank you very much for bringing positive attention to this very exciting movement. The Yiddish revival has become a rallying point for meaningful community building. In the larger geographic centers of the revival there are numerous musical, theatrical and social events each week. It is not only the attendees but the presenters who are become more and more represented by the under 40 crowd.
    At The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, we have been building a network of young actors, singers and musicians who have come to the Yiddish world as young adults. They have learned, or are learning, the language in universities, the various summer courses, or continuing education at the Workmen’s Circle, Yugntruf, YIVO, JTS, The 92nd St. Y and many other places.
    I know that Yiddish theaters in Montreal and Tel Aviv are also actively training a new generation of Yiddish performers.
    We have recently launching a Youth Advisory Council of emerging leaders in the Jewish Community who have an affinity with the Yiddish revival.
    We have a Facebook group which helps us to keep in touch with our members, invite them to performances and allow them to post their feedback. As our performers and supporters bring their friends to our events, we are seeing our group growing steadily. This is one of many Yiddish oriented Facebook groups.
    All of these efforts have resulted in the noticible inclusion of younger audience members at our events.
    By developing our next generation of performers, audience and supporters we are trying to do our part, along with the other wonderful Yiddish institutions around the world, to ensure that Yiddish culture remains a vital part of Jewish life long into the future.
    And as a soon to be parent (keyneynehore) my wife (also a Yiddish performer)and I plan to raise a bilingual child. I am only sorry that Yiddish skipped my parents’ generation.

  2. Sergey Kadinsky
    September 16, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    Last week, I found a copy of Der Yid on my subway commute. Most of the things I know about the Satmars comes from secondhand sources.
    Though my understanding of Yiddish is limited, having the official Satmar newspaper in my hand gave me the ability to learn of their latest rabbinic decrees, anti-Zionist rallies, outlook on the holocaust, business advice, and other matters.
    On the opposite end of the religious spectrum, I have at home a few small books written by socialist Yiddish writers before the war. Like the Satmars, they had a very active literary scene, with books, magazines, and newspapers.
    Also, both groups sometimes Yiddishized English words with Hebrew lettering. A possible infant version of an “Americaner” dialect to complement the Litvak and Galitzianer varieties.
    A language that once spanned across the Ashkenazi religious spectrum, is now spoken by only a few admirers.

  3. Cory Fischer
    September 16, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Great article! I work at Yiddishkayt in Los Angeles, and we just announced a new fellowship in Yiddish culture for young adults, the first-ever Yiddishkayt Folks-Grupe (People’s Group).
    The concept of the Folks-Grupe, and the excitement of those applying to join, match with many of the reasons for a “Yiddish Renaissance” as discussed here. Find out more at http://www.yiddishkayt.org and reclaim your roots!

  4. Mila
    October 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    Do we have a Yiddish Theater in LA? I would like to invite a Yiddish Singer to my dad’s 85 birthday party..any recommendations?
    Thank you.

  5. jordan
    October 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    Mila, there is unfortunately no Yiddish theater in LA but I’m sure that you’d be able to find a Yiddish singer if you search around. Yiddishkayt LA might be the best first place to try, they’re in contact with a lot of people. There’s also a list of performers at derbay.org and if you search for Klezmer musicians you’ll find lists of performers including singers.

  6. Yankel
    March 24, 2010 at 5:51 am #

    We started offering Yiddish Online lessons over the internet since 2007 and I can confirm that there is a huge demand for Yiddish.
    Have a look at our website in order to have better idea on how to learn Yiddish online: http://eyiddish.org

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