The Future of Yiddish Equals The Future of Jews

By Shlomoh
October 5, 2007
Oregon, OH

I am a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants; in fact, I am of the last generation of American born Jews, descended from the great Ashkenazi community of Eastern Europe, to have grown up in a home in which the primary language of the parents was Yiddish. I have met many Jews during my long life who have told me that their parents spoke some Yiddish but they spoke it in order to hide the nature of their conversation from the children. To these Jews, Yiddish is a hidden language, and who can blame them if they feel a certain degree of resentment towards Yiddish. If I were a psychologist I would guess that the REAL resentment is directed against the parents who hid Yiddish from them but the anger is deflected towards the language to which is attached many negative associations.

My childhood was different. In my home, Yiddish was a very open language. My parents spoke Yiddish to each other and to all of us 4 children because, my mother said, "I want you kids to know the language of your grandparents." But that was not the extent of my exposure to Yiddish. When I visited the homes of my friends, their parents spoke Yiddish to me. When I went out in the streets, the women in the marketplace were speaking Yiddish. It was in the air, everywhere. When I went to the local park and playground, there were men arguing socialism and communism in Yiddish. When I studied for my BAR MITSVAH HAFTORAH, the old rabbi who taught me spoke to me in Yiddish. I grew up almost as comfortable in Yiddish as I am in English. As an adult post grad, I majored in Linguistics and did my Masters thesis in the field of Yiddish. My Jewish friends and acquaintances say I am something of a Yiddish "expert" but I am far from that.

I have always been attracted to and fascinated by my own Jewishness. I grew up in a non-religious home and therefore for most of my life I have identified Jewishly on an ethnic level rather than on a religious one although I was Orthodox for over 20 years. Because knowing and using Yiddish was one of the major ways I could express my Jewishness, it has always bothered me that many Jews whom I have met have a very negative attitude toward Yiddish, sometimes bordering on nastiness. Of course the people who badmouth Yiddish for one reason or another are usually ignorant of what Yiddish is and how important it has been to the history and survival of Ashkenazi Jewry.

In the 21st century, Ashkenazim constitute the numerical majority of worldwide Jews. Ashkenazim have been speaking Yiddish for over a thousand years. Sephardic Jews may consider Ladino to be a dialect of Spanish but Ashkenazim have always considered Yiddish as a language unto itself, and so does the linguistic community. I don't want to launch into a history of Yiddish here or go into its linguistic structure but I just want to say that Yiddish is part of the Germanic language family. Yiddish and German are cognate languages; that is, they both evolved out of a common proto-language. But to confuse Yiddish with "bad German" is to make a serious mistake. Yiddish is also cognate with Dutch, English and the Scandinavian languages but I have never heard Yiddish called "bad Dutch". Yiddish is a Germanic language that also incorporates vocabulary from several nonGermanic languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian and Polish, Old French, and lately English. That does not make it a "bastard" language as I have heard it called. English is also a Germanic language that incorporates vocabulary from French, Danish, Norwegian, Latin and Greek. No one calls English a bastard language.

I now live in an area of the Midwest where I don't encounter Jews on an everyday basis. There probably are Jews in Oregon, Ohio but they are not as visible as Jews in Brooklyn where I lived for a year. Last week I had occasion to eat in the Sukkah at the Toledo Chabad house. One of the rabbi's children said to me "You speak like you don't come from around here." I asked, "You mean that I have an accent?" "No", he responded. "I mean that you use Yiddish in your speech. Not many Jews around here do that." That observation speaks to what is happening to the Yiddish language in America and elsewhere in the Ashkenazi world of the 21st century.

The last remnants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants are dying out, and with them, Yiddish as a living European language. Most people born five years after I was do not know Yiddish and those of us who do know it rarely have an opportunity to use it. There is simply no practical reason to use it in our everyday lives.

I have a personal attachment to the language of my parents and my ancestors going back over a thousand years and so I do a bit of reading about Yiddish whenever I have a chance. Recently I have read several books analyzing the past, present, and future of Yiddish, and I am amazed that what these books tell is so obvious that people like me, living in the midst of a Yiddish evolution, cannot see what is happening. What I have learned is that the future of Yiddish is also the future of world Jewry; they are both inseparably linked, strange as it seems. That may sound like a paradox since I have said that Yiddish is dying out - but is it really?

Anthropologists and linguists who know anything about Yiddish know that Yiddish has existed as a SHTETEL language for most of its history. As one observer of life quipped, "You want Yiddish to flourish? Create a SHTETEL and have Jews live in it, and Yiddish will flourish there." Yes, Yiddish speaking immigrants came to the streets of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, and created Yiddish speaking neighborhoods that ACTED like SHETELs for a generation or two but once the generation of American Jewish children was born, American culture and American language began to take over and Yiddish was heard and used less and less. Some of this had to do with the type of Ashkenazi immigrant who sailed across the sea to America. The overwhelming majority of immigrants from Russia and Poland were economically lower class, unlearned people. They were unlearned in the sense that even in Europe they were not drawn to the study of religious learning necessary to maintain an Orthodox life. It's not that America drew them away from Jewish Orthodoxy. They came here ALREADY DISPOSED to abandoning the classical religious way of life which they found oppressive. Back in the SHTETEL they had had no choice. They had to be part of the Jewish community which meant being part of the Jewish RELIGIOUS community. In America they had many choices and most of them chose to become secular.

During the late 19th century, there was a substantial group of Jews in Eastern Europe that was drawn to the new movement known as Socialism. They were attracted to Socialism for many reasons but mainly because Socialism held out the promise of equality. Whether or not it delivered on that promise is not the point. The point is that many young Jews in Russia and Poland wanted equality. They believed in equality between Jews and gentiles, between rich and poor, and also equality between men and women. Traditional Orthodox teaching militates against equality. Traditional Orthodox men thank God every day that they are not gentiles, vassals, or females.

Ashkenazi immigrants in America were free to preach and act out their Socialism. Jewish Socialist and leftist leaders found Yiddish a useful vehicle for attracting these immigrants and forming a cohesive political Yiddish speaking base. Eventually in the 2oth century, Socialism and even political anarchy, became identified with a new social phenomenon, YIDDISHISM. Leftist movements were already associated with secularism and militant atheism, and in the minds of those Jews who CHOSE to remain in the SHTETEL, which means those who chose to remain locked into a religious lifestyle, 20th century Yiddish in the new world was looked on with disdain.

In the minds of many Jews, Hebrew came to be associated with religion, Yiddish with atheism and the "outrageous" ideas of equality. Orthodox Judaism teaches that the world ought to be divided by what it calls HAVDALOT, "separations". As far as Orthodox Judaism is concerned, gentiles are NOT the equal of Jews; women are NOT the equal of men; religiously ignorant people are NOT the equal of learned Talmudic TALMIDIM; democracy is NOT the equal of the TORAH life.

But there was more. In the Western countries, including the United States, Yiddish was also seen as the language of the persecuted and the impotent, the language of the ignorant and old-world pre-moderns. Leftist political Yiddishism barely made a dent in the consciousness of the average deracinated Jew. While the Orthodox back in Russia considered Yiddish as a "woman's language" or a new vehicle for Western secularism, the secular, Jewishly uninvolved Jews of America considered it as the vehicle of the Orthodox.

Then two major disasters occurred in the mid twentieth century that appeared to sound the death knell for Yiddish. In Eastern Europe, actual communism took over and the Jew-hating Stalin saw Yiddish culture as counter-revolutionary and did everything possible to suppress the Yiddish language throughout the Soviet Union. In Western Europe, Nazism killed off most Yiddish speakers and with the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe, what remained of SHTETEL life was destroyed, along with European Yiddish language.

The majority of Jewish victims in the Holocaust were Eastern European Orthodox Yiddish speaking Jews. Hitler went after them with a vengeance since they were the most Jewishly visible. Those Orthodox who survived the death camps and who survived Eastern European communism came to the Western world with a fierce determination to keep religious Judaism alive and to disassociate themselves with anything that smacked of GOYISHKAYT. In order to achieve these aims, they began a systematic program of recreating a type of SHTETEL existence in their new homes in the West which meant creating as much of a HAVDALAH [separation] as possible between themselves on the one hand and the non-Jewish and nonreligious-Jewish worlds on the other. It also entailed the creation of large families with as many children as possible per family.

The secular Jews of the western countries had by now given up speaking Yiddish as they assimilated into the cultural life of their fellow citizens. The new RELIGIOUS Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe clung to Yiddish as the language that separated them from the GOYIM. Yiddish was now no longer looked upon as a "woman's language" by these ultra-orthodox, mainly Chasidim. It now became a kind of "holy tongue" to them in its own right.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are roughly a half million ultra-Orthodox Chasidim in America. These Jews call themselves CHAREDIM, a Hebrew term which means Fearers, that is, those who fear God and follow His TORAH as strictly as possible. They cut themselves off from gentiles and Jews who are not like themselves. Of the half million CHAREDIM in the United States, the overwhelming majority are of the sect of Satmar. It is estimated that by the year 2085, given the CHAREDI birthrate, there will be eight to ten million Jews living in America, over 90% of whom will be Yiddish speaking CHAREDIM.

There has also been a phenomenon of late of what is known as Academic Yiddish among secular people, both Jewish and Christian, in the West, and now also among linguistic academics residing in countries which were part of the former Soviet Union, mainly in Poland and Ukraine. But their Yiddish is really an artificial language created by mid twentieth century Yiddish linguists and Yiddish poets and writers. This Yiddish is studied and spoken the way other language enthusiasts study and speak Latin or ancient Greek. In contradistinction, the language of the CHAREDIM is a vibrant living Yiddish, still evolving in the normal way a language evolves. This "religious" Yiddish of the 21st century has its own Orthodox oriented idioms and even its own orthography, different from that of academic Yiddish, and incidentally, the CHAREDI Yiddish spelling system is more related to original Yiddish orthography, closer to Hebrew and Aramaic, than that of the artificially constructed college Yiddish.

By the middle of the 20th century, many people believed that the world was seeing the end of religion and certainly the end of Yiddish as a living language. By the end of the 21st century, there will be 8 to 10 million Jews speaking Yiddish in the United States, no longer a European Yiddish to be sure but a new American Yiddish, a "genuine" Yiddish nonetheless. The same will hold true proportionately wherever CHAREDIM live in the Western world.  Even in countries such as England, France, and Belgium, Yiddish will be more a religious language rather than a European language. And what about Israel?

Not only is Israel part of the Western world. It is a country where CHAREDIM are growing in numbers and in political power. CHAREDIM do not ordinarily speak Israeli Hebrew. They speak Yiddish and use Ashkenazi religious Hebrew and Aramaic only for TORAH and TALMUD study. The average secular Israeli family has 2 children. The average Israeli CHAREDI family has 6 to 10 children. What does that mean for the future of Yiddish in the only Jewish country in the world? Although the traditional attitude among secular Israelis has been disdain and perhaps hatred for Yiddish, there is now a growing curiosity and appreciation among the younger Ashkenazi Sabra generation for the language that kept their ancestors Jewish amidst the barbarism of European Christians. And as the CHAREDI population of Israel grows, so will the use of Yiddish in Israel become more widespread than ever before. Perhaps within a century there may be as many Jews in Israel speaking Yiddish as will be speaking Hebrew.

Today modern Israeli Hebrew is being influenced more by Middle Eastern Sephardic Sabras than by Ashkenazic. Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews have become an important part of Israeli Hebrew culture in the arts, in media, in poetry and fiction as well as in popular Israeli music. The future of Israeli Hebrew belongs to them.

BUT ironically --- the future of Yiddish has become the future of the Jewish People, even in Israel. Yiddish, and RELIGIOUS Yiddish at that, has come back to haunt the secular doomsayers who predicted its demise. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of Yiddish are greatly exaggerated. It seems that the chickens have come to roost and they cluck in Ashkenazi Yiddish. It is a language that has lived in the hearts and on the lips of Jews for over a thousand years, a language which appears to have its very own karma as well as a strong survival instinct.

Monday, October 8, 2007 10:45 PM
From: "Grace Harris" []

For some reason I forgot, or never knew, that you spoke Yiddish fluently. I think you are the only person I know of that does so.
I would like to copy this as a simple interest piece onto the orthodox Messianic Jewish forum. Would that be okay?

Monday, October 8, 2007 11:15 PM
From: ""

Man, you've still got it! I loved reading this piece. And I shall send it to many people; I think you are right on target.
With greatest respect,

Return To The Jewish Essays Index

Return To The Essay Index

Return To The Literary Index

Return To The Site Index Page

Email Shlomoh