By Harvey Gotliffe
Once upon a time, nearly a thousand years ago, there were people with no country of their own. From the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, they were expelled from whatever European land they had settled. At times, they were unable to take all of their physical possessions with them, however they always took what was most important their religious beliefs and their language. The people were the Jews, their religion was Judaism, and their language was Yiddish.
When Yiddish began
In the tenth century, Jews from France and Italy migrated to the German Rhine Valley, and Yiddish began in an Ashkenazi culture. The name came from the medieval Hebrew designation for the territory and Ashkenazim or Ashkenazi Jews were literally “German Jews.”
The term “Yiddish” comes from the German word for Jewish Judisch
and to Germans; a Jew was “ein Yid.” Yiddish developed as a blend of
German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of
Romance languages. It was the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews.
By the late 1200s, Jews had created a language rooted in Jewish history that they used in their daily lives and when they conducted business among themselves. When they did business with Gentiles, Jews spoke the language of their countrymen. Today In the United States, you could be greeted in New Orleans with “How you all?” or in Brooklyn with a thickly accented “New Yawk” hello.
In earlier times, Yiddish evolved into four accents or dialects, also depending on the locale. There was Eastern and Western Yiddish, and
Eastern Yiddish encompassed three distinct dialects. A Litvak spoke
“Lithuanian Yiddish” and lived in either in Lithuania, Belarus and north eastern Poland. A “Polish” dialect speaker was known as a Galitzyaner and it was spoken in Poland and the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.
Those who spoke “Ukrainian” Yiddish were from the Ukraine, Romania, south eastern Poland and eastern Galicia. Western European Yiddish was closer to German and began to decline in the eighteenth century.
Hebrew was the language of davening praying used in ritual and
religion. It became known as the loshn koydesh, the sacred language
used exclusively by men. In the Ashkenazi community, women weren’t
considered holy enough for Hebrew, but they learned to read and write
in Yiddish the mame loshn the mother tongue. Men were able to read both.
The Move Eastward
Jews have been a convenient target for persecution, expulsion and
annihilation. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the first crusade to
take the Holy Land away from Muslim infidels. As some crusaders
marched through Germany, they sought out “infidel” Jews and offered
them the choice of death or conversion to Christianity. Thousands of
Jews were slaughtered when they refused to abandon their faith.
After the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews migrated eastward, forming
communities in non German-speaking areas, including Hungary, Poland,
Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
Jews were forced out of France in 1182 and twice in the fourteenth
century, and out of England in 1290.
The oldest surviving literary document in Yiddish is a blessing in a Hebrew prayer book from 1272, and the 1526 Prague Passover Haggadah
contained the first page printed in Yiddish. The advent of the printing press in the sixteenth century resulted in an increase in the amount of Yiddish material produced that has survived.
In the thirteenth century, Yiddish replaced both Hebrew and local languages in conversation. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
songs and poems were written in Yiddish, using Hebrew alphabet
letters. During that time, Jews were expelled from Hungary, Lithuania
and Germany twice, and once each from Austria, Spain and Portugal.
The Jewish population moved further eastward into Poland and Russia
and in the late Middle Ages, Slavic elements were incorporated into
Yiddish. Jews further developed the language and included elements of
Hebrew, Jewish-French, Jewish-Italian, and various German dialects.
In the fifteenth century, Poland’s Jewish communities were the largest, and remained the heart of Ashkenazi Jewry until their demise in the Holocaust. From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, Eastern European Jews lived in shtetls “small towns”and in large cities.
In 1792, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great created a “Pale of
Settlement” where Jews were forced to live in their shtetls within its
boundaries boundaries they dare not cross. The “Pale” covered
western Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and
eastern Hungary. By the eighteenth century, the Yiddish language was between 10 and 20 percent Hebrew and Aramaic, and nearly 75 percent Germanic. A small percent was Romance words with Slavic words framing the rest.
The People’s Language
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, secular Yiddish literature flourished and much of its original growth was
attributed to the writing of three major authors. The “grandfather of
Yiddish literature” was Sholem Abramovich (1835-1917), who wrote under
the name Mendele Mocher Sforim.
Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915), better known as I. L. Peretz, was a writer of social criticism, plays and short stories.Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916) was a Yiddish author and playwright who wrote under the name Sholem Aleichem. His stories about Tevye the dairyman were the basis for the twentieth century play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In the 1897 and 1917 census, more than 95 percent of Russia’s Jews who
were mainly poor, listed Yiddish as their native tongue, and for many it was their only language. Jews were subjected to more frequent pogromsterrifying acts of destruction. The increase in their usage and severity ordered by tsarist edicts between 1877 and 1917 caused further fear.
Between 1870 and 1914, some two million Eastern European Jews came to America. They had the foresight and the mazl to escape the upcoming
rampant waves of anti-Semitism in Europe. Many brought little more
than their Yiddish language with them, and the majority who settled in
New York considered Yiddish their native language.
Jews who had been known as “the people of the book,” became the people of the press. The first Yiddish-language newspaper was published in New York in 1870, and in 1875 the Judisches Tageblatt (“Jewish Daily
News”) was the first Yiddish daily to survive.
Its circulation reached 100,000 by 1900 but it was being challenged by
the Forverts (“The Jewish Daily Forward”), whose circulation peaked at
250,000 in 1929. The Forverts helped to Americanize immigrants by
offering a popular Bintel Brief advice column, a variety of human-interest stories, and highbrow and lowbrow literature.
By 1914 there were ten Yiddish daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 750,000. Parties and interest groups across
the spectrum started their own papers, including the socialists, communists, centrists, labor workers and Orthodox Jews.
Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer (1901-1991) was on staff as a journalist and a columnist for the Forverts from the 1930s into the 1960s. He was also a leading figure in the Yiddish literary genre, writing short stories and novels first in Yiddish and then translating them into English. In 1978, Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
During the 1920s, Yiddish was emerging as a major Eastern European
language. Its rich literature was widely published, Yiddish theater
and Yiddish film prospered, and it even achieved status as one of the
official languages of both the Belarusian and the short-lived Galician
Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1925, YIVO was founded in Wilno, Poland, now Vilnius, Lithuania, as the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute, the Yiddish Scientific Institute. It was the pre-eminent repository and publisher of Yiddish-language materials.
When Poland’s 1931 population was just under 32 million, nearly one in
ten of its citizens were Jewish, and more than 87 percent of them spoke Yiddish. In 1937, there were 150 Yiddish newspapers and journals
with a combined circulation of more than 500,000.
Almost Its Demise
The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 curtailed large numbers of Eastern European Jews and others from coming to America. In May 1939, Great Britain produced a White Paper that restricted Jewish migrations to Palestine to 75,000 in the coming four-year period.
The actions of both governments helped to bring about the decimation of Europe’s Yiddish-speaking Jewish population by the Nazis. The Act also eliminated a vital source of new readers and the Yiddish press circulation in America began its decline. Children of immigrants actively strove for cultural assimilation, and they were more likely to read an English-language newspaper than the Yiddish Forverts.
Before the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 and World War II began, there were more than nine million Jews in Europe. In the eastern European countries of Poland, Russia, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia, there were a combined total of 7.3 million Jews, and almost 75 percent of them spoke Yiddish.
Nearly six million Jews were slaughtered during the horrific Nazi era, and two-thirds of them were Yiddish speakers. A Lithuanian rabbi in Kovno, Lithuania wrote that “the bandit Hitler” not only killed a people, but also tried to kill a culture and a language. The Nazis destroyed schools, shuls, books, Yiddish theaters, movies, and radio programs, and the Holocaust led to a dramatic decline in the use of Yiddish.
Millions of Yiddish speakers survived the war including those living in America, yet further assimilation in the United States and the Soviet Union diminished the daily use of Yiddish. In Russia, Stalin was suspicious of Jews and their “secret language,” and Yiddish culture became a prime target. Jewish institutions were suppressed and its leaders, actors, writers and poets were arrested, and in August 1952, thirteen prominent Yiddish writers were executed.
Yiddish Barely Survives
Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors sought refuge where anti-Semitism
wasn’t overt, including the United States and Israel. The latter seemed to be a promised, egalitarian land for Yiddish speakers. Unfortunately, its leaders feared that if the seeds of Yiddish was allowed to be planted, then both the country’s new identity as a special haven for Jews and its lingua franca, Hebrew, might not flourish.
To counteract an unwritten law of what was acceptable, those in power curtailed a nascent Yiddish theater. It had been created by survivors as a dedication to and a remembrance of the way things were. It was a shandea shamebut an understandable one for a new nation. Then and now, Yiddish was spoken on a daily basis primarily in Jerusalem’s religious neighborhoods. A tale is told about an American grandmother who was visiting Israel and was overheard on a bus teaching her ten-year-old grandson a few words in Yiddish. A man sitting across the aisle said, “Tell me why you are teaching your grandson Yiddish. You know that Israel’s national language is Hebrew.” She looked at the man and said, “Because I want him to remember he’s a Jew.”
Until Israel was established in 1948, Jews were a people without a country, a government, or a military, and their Yiddish language was one fragile connection between them. After World War II, Jews in the United States sought to live in an assimilated society. They encouraged their children to become even more American and in doing so, discouraged them from learning Yiddish.
Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors also wanted their children to have a better opportunity to become successful, and they also equated success to becoming more Americanized. One requisite was to speak “perfect” English and Jewish children learned to read Hebrew, the language that represented Israel. With Yiddish slowly being silenced, the old country and its rich culture was becoming a fading memory.
Parents of baby boomers viewed Yiddish as the language of their parents and grandparents. By 1960, only three percent of American children enrolled in Jewish education learned Yiddish. At the same time, Yiddish newspaper circulation continued to decrease.
In 1999, the Minority Language Committee of Sweden formally declared
Yiddish as one of its country’s five minority languages. In its latest Atlas of the World’s Languages, UNESCO, the United Nations World Heritage organization, referred to Yiddish, as a “definitely endangered” language. That foreboding term means, “children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.” What would become of the mame loshn if it were no longer the mother tongue?
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 survey of language use revealed that only 158,991 people spoke Yiddish at home, and that figure had declined in every census since 1980. The major exception is found in the more closely-knit, ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) communities, yet there are many modern Orthodox Jews who do not know Yiddish. However, there has been resurgence in Yiddish learning and the language, with many Jews embracing Yiddishkeyt.
Yiddish in America
Yiddishkeyt reflects a person’s “Jewishness.” It is an eclectic mish mash of mannerisms, speech and a cultural and emotional connectivity to things Jewish. It could involve attending Jewish movies and plays, enjoying Jewish humor, books, periodicals, music, and associating with and supporting Jewish organizations. You don’t have to speak Yiddish to be part of Yiddishkeyt, but if you are of Ashkenazi descent, it helps.
When Yiddish theater was banned in Russia in 1883, some of its troupes
first went to London and then came to New York City. Today, Yiddish
theater is doing well in New York and The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene produces both Yiddish plays and plays translated into Yiddish. Folksbiene began in 1915 when there were fifteen Yiddish theater companies in New York alone, and others throughout the world.
Between 1936 and 1939, “The Golden Age of Yiddish Film,” there were
seventeen Yiddish sound films produced in the United States, and many
reflected the immigrant experience in America. The National Center for
Jewish Film at Brandeis University has restored thirty-eight Yiddish
feature films, and some are shown at international film festivals.
If you want to lernen a bisl Yiddish today, you can do so in a university classroom, a shul, Jewish community centers, in small study groups, on your own, or on line. The academic study of Yiddish received a boost in 1949 with the publishing of Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish: An Introduction to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture.
Yiddish is taught in universities across the United States, and a graduate program in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University began in 1952 under Weinreich’s leadership. The prestigious Oxford University in England offers an MSt in Yiddish Studies and there are intensive summer study programs offered in the United States, Canada, Israel, Poland, Lithuania and Germany.
There are also classes available on line from the Yiddish Book Center that was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky. The Center has helped rescue more than one million Yiddish volumes and has diligently worked to preserve the Yiddish language. Since 1998, it has digitalized the full texts of more than eleven thousand Yiddish books that can be downloaded at no charge. The Center has helped establish Yiddish collections at the Library of Congress, the British Library, and more than 600 libraries around the world, including national libraries in Australia, China and Japan. In 2010, a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary was published.
In 1981, The Yiddish Book Center began publishing Pakn Treger the Book Peddler. It is written in English with some Yiddish, and looks at
contemporary Jewish life and its Yiddish roots. In 1983, the Yiddish-language Forverts became a weekly newspaper, and now has a circulation of 5,000. In 1990, the Forward, began as the English-language weekly version and its circulation has grown to 26,000. The Forward went online in 1998 followed by the Forverts, which tries to reach a younger, worldwide audience of Yiddish speakers.
Today, there are Yiddish-language newspapers, magazines, as well as
Yiddish radio programing with one station each in Boston and New York,
and others around the world. Highly spirited klezmer music emanated in the Hasidic culture of Eastern Europe in the 1700s. The name comes from the Hebrew words klei andzemer, and literally means “vessels of song.” It was played at joyful celebrations such as weddings, and that tradition continues in America where its melodic and somewhat soulful sounds have helped spur interest in all things Yiddish. There are more than two hundred klezmer groups found in thirty-six states.
Yiddish melodies were sung and played by an array of artists including the Andrew Sisters recording “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” in 1937, Cab Calloway’s “Utt Da Zoy” in 1939, and Billie Holiday’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme” in 1956.
Many organizations in the United States and around the world work to
preserve and promulgate Yiddish. In its world headquarters in New York
City, YIVO’s library has more than 385,000 volumes and its archives contain more than 24 million pieces, including manuscripts, documents,
and photographs. YIVO offers cultural events and films, adult education and Yiddish language classes, as well as a six-week intensive summer program.
The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is a Yiddish language-oriented,
American Jewish fraternal organization committed to social justice, the Jewish community, and Ashkenazic culture. To perpetuate the Yiddish language and culture, its extensive on line Jewish Book Center offers songbooks, CDs, klezmer CDs, textbooks, instruction books, and dictionaries, as well as books of Yiddish literature.
The International Association of Yiddish Clubs (IAYC) helps unify Yiddish activities and events, holds international conferences, and strives to keep the Yiddish language, literature and culture alive.
Information on these and other Yiddish-focused organizations can be
found in the Glossary and on DerBay.org.
Yiddish Lives On
The Yiddish language has survived centuries of fervent anti-Semitism,
planned and executed pogroms in Eastern Europe, and man’s ultimate evil personified by the calculated, calamitous atrocities committed by the Nazis. Yet the Third Reich was destroyed while the remnants of European Jews and their coveted Yiddish language still survive. Today, many Holocaust survivors relish conversing in Yiddish whenever and wherever they get together.
On December 8, 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in
Literature and delivered his acceptance lecture in both Yiddish and English. He concluded by saying, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and cabalists–rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of the frightened and hopeful humanity.”
The vulnerable Yiddish language could have languished and died but
instead it has become a venerable part of our society. The
one-thousand-year-old story of Yiddish is not over. It may not be as
richly told as before, but it would be a mistake to write it off. Now
is the time to continue writing the current chapter that begins with,
“Once upon another time in the twenty-first century.”