Living Yiddish: an insider’s observations

I recently had a fascinating correspondence with a reader who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking environment. She has allowed me to publish her emails, but prefers to remain anonymous. As per her request, I have given the text a – very light – edit.

DerYidMuch as I enjoyed your book Lingo, I was surprised to read your description of Yiddish today. In your book you describe Yiddish speakers as mostly older survivors while the next generation speak it at best as a second language. It is not surprising therefore that you are pessimistic as to its future.

But this situation could not be further from the truth. Yiddish in places like Brooklyn, London, Montreal, Antwerp and Israel is not just spoken, but it is often as a primary mother tongue. In villages like Kiryat Joel and New Square in upstate New York Yiddish is the official language of everything from commerce, education, press etc.

I grew up in Brooklyn, moved to upstate New York, and today live in Israel. My husband is British and his mother is Antwerpian. I have thus been to major centers of the Orthodox Jews where it is common for Yiddish to be a mother tongue. Most Hassidic families I know have somewhere between six to twelve children and they are the fastest growing group of Jews in the USA.

I am no demographer or linguist, but I think I understand what is happening here. You see, the millions of non-Orthodox Jews who spoke Yiddish before the war, did not pass it on to their children after moving to places like the USA and Israel. At the time the Yiddish speaking population – so decimated by the war – was but a tiny minority. As the older, less religious generation died, so did Yiddish. Yet the Hassidic and Orthodox Jewish community – due to their high birthrate – boomed and with them came a boom in Yiddish speaking homes. This holds true from the USA, UK and Israel (see here and here).

So though from the 2000 census we see an aging Yiddish population, the situation twenty years later is very different. I have seen the shelves of supermarkets and book stores in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods fill with an ever rising pile of Yiddish newspapers, magazine, adult and children books and even comics. This phenomenon was not just noted by me.

I therefore have no fears for Yiddish. Though it’s quickly absorbing so much English (or Hebrew in Israel) as to make old timers like my father gnash his teeth, I see the reverse happening as well. So many of us in the Orthodox Jewish community pepper our speech with Yiddish and Hebrew words and grammatical features as to make it possible (given enough time and isolation–something more difficult in our current age) for us to develop our own Jewish dialect of English! Try to watch this video making fun of how Orthodox Jews speak English and see how much is comprehensible to an outsider.

It would be difficult for most people to have a real grasp on where Yiddish is holding today. Yiddish went from a language tied to Eastern European Jewry in general to one mostly tied to specifically Orthodox (usually Hassidic) Jews hailing from Eastern Europe. As the language became increasingly the sole domain of the most religious Jews, it became increasingly tied up with their religiosity. Speaking Yiddish plays the same function as dressing in traditional Hassidic garb. It is a way to keep the community together, to keep if from assimilation and to tie it to the past. It is a badge of pride and a desire to remain a people apart – living in the heart of places like New York City or London yet more closely connecting to eons of Jewish history. This is not a community that invites outsiders to peek in or answers questions to demographers, anthropologists or linguists. In a way, the isolating force that allowed German to become Yiddish is now being used in reverse to keep those desiring Jewish distinctiveness going.

And so, from academia it would be easy to see Yiddish disappearing from the Jewish stage, but harder to see into the isolationist Hassidic communities. Yet more and more has been written about this living Yiddish in the last decade, such as this and this.

Besides, most writers on the subject of Yiddish tended to study a different Yiddish than the one I speak. Their Yiddish was that of Yiddish theater, socialist Yiddish papers and secular Yiddish writers. It was the Yiddish preserved by institutions like YIVO and mostly spoken by Jews hailing from Russia, Lithuania and Poland.

I know very few speakers of this brand of Yiddish today. The Yiddish that is spoken by Hassidim today is mostly the Hungarian/Galician Yiddish which had a different accent and vocabulary. The Yiddish on the street is likewise different from that preserved by academia in that it has starting to show its English setting. I don’t just mean in vocabulary – that is easy enough to see – but in subtler grammatical ways. Whenever I listen to old Yiddish speakers or recordings I notice how the word order I tend to choose would usually match English, not something older speakers do. Yiddish, like German, has many gendered words that require different articles but I and many other modern American Yiddish speakers sometimes ignore gender altogether.

You inquired about the use of the Latin alphabet. This is something I have never seen done at all in Yiddish. Yiddish books written in Israel are sent straight to the USA, UK or Belgium since all Yiddish is written with the Hebrew alphabet and no adjustments are required.

But transliteration of Yiddish into Latin alphabet is common in another from: When Orthodox Jews write books, magazines etc., they often transliterate Yiddish words, as well as Hebrew and even Aramaic ones, that are part of our everyday speech. Standard practice of copy editors is to mark these words by italicizing them and many an editor will require a rewrite if there are too many words being italic (after all this is usually meant to be English!). This is the case unless these words gain acceptance in the broader English speaking world, such as ‘kvetch’, ‘spiel’, ‘schnook and the like. To see a typical Yiddish newspaper today check out Der Yid.


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