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Why Yiddish is having its moment

May 18, 2020

Yiddish enthusiasts around the world are kvelling and plotzing at the revival of their favorite language in recent popular culture. But what makes Yiddish so unique and exciting?

Yiddish Summer Weimar
People from more than 20 countries descend on Weimar each summer to learn YiddishImage: Felikss Livschits 2017

Many people are gaining extra skills during the coronavirus crisis — discovering new prowess in the kitchen, performing improvements on the home, or simply perfecting the act of washing hands. Some are using the extra time they’ve got on their hands to learn a foreign language, using remote learning tools, language apps or just dusting off old instruction books.

One language that has been enjoying some growing interest is Yiddish, which was starting to rear its head in popular culture even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus. The renewed popularity of klezmer music in recent years and the penetration of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism in popular culture with TV shows like Unorthodox and Shtisel have made Yiddish something of a cool language — even a cult language — to know, attracting people from all walks of life a thousand years after its first recorded use.

Netflix Series Unorthodox
The Netflix series Unorthodox gave a glimpse into a language, which no longer is heard every day in EuropeImage: Netflix/Anika Molnar

Read more: Socalled: A rapper sings Yiddish folk songs

The Yiddish language is very expressive, full of interjections that show how the speaker feels. Because of its roots in Middle High German, for many Germans, Yiddish is at once strange and familiar, and that combination is fascinating," Alan Bern, Founding Director of Yiddish Summer Weimar and the Other Music Academy in Weimar, told DW.

"A similar sense of strange and familiar is there for many Jews whose grandparents or parents spoke Yiddish but didn’t pass it on to them. For many people, exploring Yiddish is a way to deeply explore their own sense of identity."

The sound of music - and much more

Bern, a composer and musician, has been devoted to sharing the Yiddish language and culture with contemporary European audiences for 20 years. His annual “Yiddish Summer Weimar" festival has grown to one of Europe's leading event exploring the richness and importance of Yiddish today.

"After World War II, people tended to associate the city of Weimar with Buchenwald [ed: the Nazi concentration camp]. So, when the city was named European Capital of Culture in 1999, it invited my band, Brave Old World, to give a short workshop on klezmer music — partly to convey a more positive Jewish presence and message. In a few years it grew into Yiddish Summer Weimar," Bern explains.

Yiddish Summer Weimar l | Alan Bern and Sveta Kundish
Alan Bern (l.), seen here with singer Sveta Kundish, says his love for Yiddish culture is his driving forceImage: Yulia Kabakova

By that time, Germany had become "one of the most important centers for Yiddish music," Bern stresses, saying that it was chiefly through music that Yiddish has reclaimed its position as a European language over the past two decades:

"Unlike Jewish audiences in the US, German audiences in those days had few preconceptions about Yiddish music but a great interest in it," he tells DW. 

"Those are great conditions for artists to develop creatively. It was not always easy, but artists don’t run away from pain. They run away from boredom."

Yiddish Summer Weimar
Musicians from all over the world descend unto the annual Yiddish Summer WeimarImage: Shendl Copitman

A language that survived death

Twenty years on, Yiddish Summer Weimar still attracts people from over 20 countries each season, and will even hold events in 2020 while observing social distancing measures. According to Bern, the mission of the month-long festival is to create an immersive experience that provides "a doorway to the complexity and relevance of Yiddish culture for past, present and future." 

Some linguists and language enthusiasts fear that Yiddish could in fact be a dying language, with only around half a million native speakers estimated. Before World War II, there were an estimated 13 million, and 85% of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust spoke Yiddish as a native tongue.

Yiddish prayer book from the 13th century
While considered a Germanic language, Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet as seen in this prayer book from the 13th century Image: picture-alliance/AP/Sebastian Scheiner

Eszter Szendroi, a professor of Information Structure in Language at the University College London (UCL), however, remains hopeful about the future: "I think a language that today has half a million speakers, the majority of whom are under 20 years old, is doing just fine," she tells DW.

Eszter Szendroi, Professor at University College London
Eszter Szendroi wants to see more effort invested into preserving the Yiddish languageImage: University College London

Szendroi herself is not a native speaker of Yiddish but discovered her passion for the language several years ago and made it the central focus of her linguistic research. Like her, there are an estimated 50,000 Yiddish language enthusiasts worldwide, known as Yiddishists.

"Languages need institutional support — schools, libraries, cultural institutions and publishing houses. So anyone who wants Yiddish to survive should support such institutions," Szendroi adds.

Alan Bern agrees, saying that to accomplish that, people need to "research, teach, create and present Yiddish expressive culture."

Building bridges through language

Part of the fascination with the Yiddish language is likely its intelligibility among non-Yiddish speakers of other Germanic tongues. Eszter Szendroi says that a native speaker of German or Dutch would likely understand about 60 - 70% if they heard Yiddish spoken. 

"But Yiddish also has a sizeable Semitic component, with words borrowed from Hebrew and Aramaic," she adds. "It also has a big Slavic influence because later on in its evolution, it was spoken in Eastern Europe."

Shopfront in Lviv
Some Yiddish inscriptions on shopfronts in the Ukrainian town of Lviv have survived the calamities of World War IIImage: DW/ Stadnyk

Yiddish can thus also connect people to the past across Europe, reaching far before the Holocaust to a time when it was commonly heard on the streets of many European cities. For 1,000 years, says Alan Bern, Yiddish culture "was like a nervous system that ran through Europe, connecting European cultures with each other" — an image difficult for many born after World War II to imagine.

"To me, Yiddish represents being Jewish in a local setting. Being Jewish was one of the major central and eastern European cultures. Its unique features resulted from it being the only non-Christian one," says Eszter Szendroi.

"Yiddish is also a meeting place for the secular and the religious. Secular Yiddishists and Hasidic Orthodox Jews in kaftans come together around the language. There are not many instances in the world where two such fundamentally different approaches to life can meet. With Yiddish, it's not only possible, it happens."  

Crossing the Bridge to Brooklyn

Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
New York hosts the largest Hasidic community outside IsraelImage: Imago Images/ZUMA Wire/R. Adar

Across the Atlantic, one place where Yiddish has long been the first language of the local majority is the New York suburb of Brooklyn — particularly the neighborhood of Williamsburg, where Hasidic Jews of various denominations conduct all their business in Yiddish. That even includes the operation of schools and ambulance services.

Walking through other streets in New York, one will easily hear Yiddishisms like plotz or shvitz or shlep even among non-Yiddish speakers and gentiles. Here, the use of the Yiddish language has a century-old tradition, explains Eszter Szendroi: "By 1925, when immigration laws in the US changed, there were close to three million Jews in the US. The majority of the new arrivals were originally Yiddish-speaking." 

Most Jews who arrived in the US stayed in New York and contributed to the city's cultural melting pot. “One way in which these words entered American English is through the media. For instance, one of the first national newspapers in the US was the Yiddish-language Forverts. By the early 1930s it had a higher circulation than the New York Times," Szendroi highlights.

Today little Yiddishms continue to bring people together in New York and other parts of the US with a high Jewish population, such as in parts of Florida. The language's rich level of expression and subjective feeling appear to be aspects where the English language falls short. 

Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York
The Hasidic community places great emphasis on keeping the genders separateImage: Imago Images/ZUMA Wire/M. Santos

L’chaim - to life!

Alan Bern hopes that by engaging with Yiddish, people will change some of their common misconceptions about Jewish culture — especially where the Holocaust is overemphasized as the chief characteristic of Jewish culture and history.

"That’s a distorted, outsider’s view," says Bern. "If the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Jews is piles of dead bodies, then Hitler won the war for your mind."

Entrace to Auschwitz
For Alan Bern, reducing Jewish culture to death camps is not only a simplification but a disservice to Holocaust victimsImage: picture-alliance/Zuma/D. Klamka

"We have to move away from these stereotypes, not just in Germany but everywhere else. You know, some people in the US severed their relationship with me when I moved to Germany. It felt like a betrayal to them."

Read more: Jewish life in Germany is 'thriving,' commissioner says

Eszter Szendroi takes a slightly different view, while still stressing the importance of Yiddish in the contemporary context. To her, the horrors of the 20th century are also part of the appeal of the language: "Yiddish represents, elegiacally, a culture that was once thriving and is no more." 

"There is a well-known private library and cultural center inside the central bus station in Tel Aviv with over 50,000 Yiddish books from individuals whose children and grandchildren did not get to read them anymore, explains Szendroi. 

YUNG YiDiSH Center at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv
The YUNG YiDiSH Center in Tel Aviv holds over 50,000 books and is Israel's biggest cultural center for the languageImage: Reuters/C. Kern

"Every time I enter that space, theYUNG YiDiSH Center, I hear the voices of thousands of Yiddish-speaking people: the writers, the readers, the voice of the person who bought the book and wrote an inscription, the librarian who catalogued it long ago somewhere in a Polish school. To me, they all come to life."

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