The Story of Yiddish



The Story of Yiddish 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 theGerman 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-Hungarianprovince 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 andPortugal.
The Jewish population moved  further eastward into Poland andRussia
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  pogroms—terrifying 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, Lithuaniaand 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 theSoviet 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 shande—a shame—but 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 Centerfor
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 OxfordUniversity 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 BookCenter 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 and zemer, and literally  means “vessels of song.” It was played at joyful celebrations such as  weddings, and that tradition continues inAmerica 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 .

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.”

“Do not allow the first failure to destroy you, nor success to ruin you.”


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