Yiddish Language and Culture Maintaining a Vibrant Appeal

A Yiddish summer language institute had to turn away applicants for lack of space. National Public Radio will broadcast Yiddish stories narrated by Hollywood actors such as Leonard Nimoy and Carol Kane.

And thanks to actor Mike Meyers’ Barbra Streisand-worshiping character Linda Richmond on “Saturday Night Live,” thousands can express themselves as feeling “farklempt” (choked-up).

It has long been predicted that the use of Yiddish would disappear with the last generation of immigrant Yiddish speakers. While specialist have been predicting the decline of Yiddish for some years, groups around the country are determined not to allow it to the brink of extinction.

Both the language and Yiddishist culture has a wide appeal – from university students to feminists to television sitcom characters.

“The number of Yiddish speakers in the world is actually rising,” said Aaron Lansky, president of the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Mass. Lansky said that with the high birthrate of Chasidim, who use Yiddish as their everyday language, new generations are still being raised in the mother tongue, the “mammeloschen.”

But the insular Chasidic community is not interested in modern Yiddish literature because of its secular themes.

“The first modern Yiddish story appeared in 1846,” said Lansky, whose study of Jewish history sparked his interest in Yiddish as an undergraduate.

Lansky, along with the National Yiddish Book Center, which he founded, is responsible for rescuing more than l million Yiddish books from being destroyed.

“Until the Nazi era, 45,000 Yiddish titles appeared. And most addressed a theme that American Jews are still concerned with, mainly how does the Jew fir into the modern world?” Lansky said in an interview.

Assimilation was the solution for many immigrants, Holocaust survivors among them, who wanted to begin their lives anew. And the desire to cast away anything associated with their past was part of that process.

Yiddish was one of the first casualties.

“Jews began to recoil from their world, which was destroyed,” said Lansky. “But now that initial trauma has passed.”

It was a desire to learn about the Jewish world before the Holocaust that guided writer and feminist activist Irena Klepfisz to Yiddish.

Klepfisz, a child survivor of the Holocaust, was raised in the Yiddish-speaking world of the Bund labor movement in Poland. She has taught Yiddish classes at various.

According to Klepfisz, although much scholarship focuses on the Holocaust, little of it delves into the Jewish world that existed before.

“I wanted to reconnect with my Yiddish background,” said Klepfisz, who is a poet and author of “A Few Words In The Mother Tongue,” a poetry anthology, and “Dreams of an Insomniac,” a book of “Jewish feminist essays, speeches and diatribes.”

“It was such a vibrant community, with so much happening, and I was interested in learning more about the women activists who played such a prominent role in the Bund and its organization,” Klepfisz said.

Klepfisz is currently working in conjunction with the National Council of Jewish Women to organize a conference on women and Yiddish. The conference is scheduled for October.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture offers a six-week summer program at Columbia University, in which students immerse themselves in Yiddish through language classes, lectures and film.

The majority of the participants are graduate students, but the program is open to non-students, said Jeffrey Salant, director of Yiddish Language Programs at YIVO.

An estimated 30 universities across the United States offer Yiddish courses.

Janet Hadda, professor of Yiddish at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while the numbers of students studying the language has decreased in the past few years, enrollment has increased in her classes on Yiddish literature in translation.

“Students must be incredibly committed to learning the language,” said Hadda. “One of the reasons that it is so difficult is that when learning Yiddish, it is impossible to completely immerse oneself in the language and culture, like students can with French or German, for instance.”

Hadda added that the number of non-Jewish students enrolled in her Yiddish literature classes was also increasing.

“I think that the programs, lime those coming from the National Yiddish Book Center, are helping to generate more interest, and the numbers of people interested in Yiddish will only continue to grow,” she said.

David Roskies, professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said five students were enrolled in the seminary’s doctoral program in Yiddish.

According to Roskies, those most interested in learning Yiddish are cantorial students and those who are studying modern Jewish studies, or other programs where Yiddish is a useful tool in gaining access literature and other primary sources.

Carol Stein of Eugene, Ore., said it was her daughter’s study of Yiddish in college that inspired Stein to organize a Yiddish-speaking group through her synagogue. The group meets twice a month.

While facilitating the group comes easy for Stein, a middle-school teacher and librarian, she does not actually understand very much. Yet she is committed to keeping the language alive.

“It is amazing to me, how one you get involved in something like this, how many Yiddish speakers come out of the woodwork,” said Stein.

“There are rich little veins of Yiddish in the most obscure place,” she said. “There is even a Yiddish radio program in Portland,” Ore..

Group member Ellen Rifkin shares Stein’s commitment. Rifkin, whose interest in Yiddish arose through the folk songs she plays on the accordion, said Yiddish immediately establishes a kind of intimacy and warmth among people, which is part of its appeal.

“we do a lot of singing in the group and have discussions about politics and current events. Or sometimes we read Yiddish poetry in the original and discuss it,” said Rifkin.

Study groups such as the one in Eugene are prompting a curiosity in people who have no knowledge of Yiddish beyond the few requisite phrases learned from family members, or inevitably, from television.

“Yiddish has always been present in Hollywood, just because of the large numbers of Jews there,” said Lansky. “but now they have lost some of their reserve; Jews are more self-affirming in their Jewishness.”

But Klepfisz does not see such commercial usage as positive.

“It is a real denigration of the language,” she said. “It is becoming a T.V. language, associated only with comedy or schmaltz.”

How to make Yiddish accessible to non-Yiddish speakers is a question that faces all Yiddishists.

The biannual publication “Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends,” is devoted to publishing several works in Yiddish in each issue, in both the original and translation. None of the members of the collective who edit the journal speak Yiddish.

“We are not necessarily trying to keep Yiddish alive, but rather we appreciate it for the bridges it builds, bringing us closer to our past,” said Claire Kinberg, managing editor.

“Making Yiddish accessible to people who are not Yiddish speakers is one of our aims,” said Lansky of the book center.

“I’m under no illusion that Yiddish will once again become a spoken language among Jews,” he said. “I’m not trying to revive the past, just to make it more accessible.”

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