May 19, 2024
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The Yiddish Renaissance: ‘Live Long and Prosper’

A Brooklyn-born Jew whose parents were also born in America told me he used to think that the older people got, the less English they spoke until finally they could only speak in Yiddish. Few American Jews I knew communicated Yiddish. My mother-in-law and her brother, who moved his family to California in the 1950s, wrote letters in Yinglish because they wanted to retain the language they had heard growing up but never studied or actually spoke.

The suppression of language is a form of cultural genocide. Hebrew and Aramaic became victims of the Destruction of the Second Temple and exile and later displacements. For many, the 12th-century German origins of Yiddish became synonymous with the galut, gallus in Yiddish, Diaspora in English. It acquired the taint of trauma, the linguistic bond of a people deprived of their spiritual and national home.

Hebrew survived as loshen hakadosh (the holy tongue), as did Aramaic, the lingua franca of Biblical times. Hebrew was the language of prayer, study and scholarly works. In a separation of the sacred from the profane, Yiddish was relegated to common discourse. My maternal grandmother related that my grandfather spoke Hebrew at home only on Sabbath and festivals. He considered it too pure to be used otherwise.

Before the Holocaust Yiddish was spoken or understood by almost 90% of all Jews. (Non-Ashkenazi Jews were a small majority of the global Jewish population.) Most Yiddish speakers were among the 6 million murdered. Although Yiddish flourished for a brief period in the Soviet Union, Stalin forbade it after the war. Yiddish was known, if not spoken, by many Zionists, who advocated for Hebrew as the language of the Jewish homeland they hoped to achieve. When, in 1948, the long-held dream became reality, modern Hebrew (rather than Biblical) became the official language for Israeli Jews from all nations, all ethnicities. Yiddish didn’t disappear but was denigrated and suppressed. As in America, it became the language of the elderly and the chasidic community.

For seven centuries Yiddish was a living language. Jewish newspapers (Warsaw, alone, had 29 to choose from before the Holocaust) lost their readers either through destruction or assimilation. One after another eventually stopped publishing, as did Yiddish journals. Many predicted that Yiddish would become one of the lost languages. They were wrong.

Yiddish is now enjoying a renaissance in America. Is it nostalgia and the desire to remember and embrace a seemingly defunct culture? The realization that Yiddish literature is far richer and wiser than what generations of immigrants read and spoke?

Most of them, poor and persecuted, fled to lands of opportunity where they and their children could thrive. Their education was limited and, as hard-working newcomers, they had little time, energy or money to devote to learning. Yet all valued it and taught their offspring to do so. Combined with the strong work of the immigrants, this helped their descendants achieve success.

Because of America’s separation of church and state, assimilation didn’t seem threatening. Becoming all-Americans was seen as the path to happiness and wealth. Yiddish was not. However, descendants of the big migration now recognize that the language some vilified as “jargon” still has much to teach current and future generations about history, sociology, philosophy etc.

These may be prime reasons behind the blossoming of Yiddish. There are others. Klezmer music, a staple of Orthodox and chasidic weddings, had a revival following the folk music explosions in the 1960s. It appealed to young musicians who flocked to form Klezmer bands and remains popular. Another important factor is the chasidic community, itself. Chasidim continue to keep Yiddish alive in their homes, schools and synagogues, and in the streets. As the fastest-growing Jewish demographic, we can expect a substantial increase in Yiddish speakers worldwide.

Non-religious Jews, whose identity was cultural, also played a role in popularizing Yiddish by turning Sholom Aleichem’s heart-breaking story of Tevye into a happy yet poignant one with universal appeal. It is performed somewhere in the world on any given day. “Fiddler On the Roof’s” original production was a huge success, It was, somewhat surprisingly, also tremendously successful in its more recent Yiddish version.

The many reasons and the people and institutions behind the revival of Yiddish would fill an encyclopedia. Major ones include the academic discipline of Jewish studies. Departments and courses dedicated to the history and culture of Jews and the Holocaust have led to interest in the language. Yiddish is not always taught directly but interest in it is often spurred. Students can then take advantage of courses and scholarships in other institutions. Also, anyone can learn Yiddish online, at their own speed, through apps such as Duolingo, and this has great appeal to young people.

Jewish foundations are doing impressive work to bring Yiddish to the public through the museums, cultural centers and theatrical and musical venues they establish and support. Prominent among these are YIVO, The Yiddish Book Center and The Museum of Jewish History: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. All are treasure troves of archival materials and produce outstanding exhibitions, conferences, programs and entertainment, many of which can be accessed over the internet.

In fact, the greatest factor in the resurgence of Yiddish is technology. “Shtisel,” the serial about a charedi family in Israel, was a huge success for Netflix. The characters spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. Sub-titles allowed non-speakers of those languages to tune in and watch on their television sets or computers.

Ironically, COVID, which took the lives of millions, including thousands of Yiddish speakers. turned out to be an opportunity to revive Yiddish. Folks stuck at home welcomed the Forward’s free language and cooking lessons. Each lasts only minutes, but the effect is cumulative. The Folksbiene also offers free lessons in Yiddish as well as special programs and performances, especially in celebration of Jewish holidays. YouTube allows viewers to download Yiddish songs, concerts, lectures, films, interviews and digitized books and articles.

Yiddish affinity groups have been around for years but the web, particularly during the pandemic, has made it easier for everyone to hear and speak Yiddish, however haltingly, without leaving home. The Federation of Jewish Mens’ Clubs initiated “Yiddish Alive” to promote Yiddish and create community, albeit virtually. Thousands of people all over the States (and Canada) gather every two weeks to learn from one another with their group. Charleston, South Carolina, with its small but very vibrant Jewish community, has a “Yiddish Alive” group. sponsored by Michael Mills, a past president of the Federation of Jewish Mens’ Clubs. He facilitates it, allowing hundreds of people from places near and far, including New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts, Montreal, Toronto, Ohio and more to listen to Yiddish. Thus, the old language is being reborn, day by day in a variety of places and ways throughout the world. So, call it a miracle, the command to remember and not forget, the desire to learn or sheer stubbornness—Yiddish lives.

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock, the human-Vulcan, in the popular television show “Star Trek” was a proud Yiddish speaker. “Live long and prosper” was Spock’s closing message, to which he added raised hands in emulation of the priestly blessing. LLAP has become a catchphrase for Trekkies, and just before his death, Nimoy sent out it out to his fans in Twitterdom. May Yiddish continue to LLAP.

By Barbara Wind

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