"Yiddish," comes from the German word for Jewish, Judisch, and to Germans,a Jew was "ein Yid." Yiddish developed as a blend of German dialects with
Rashi, famous Biblical commentator living in France:1040-1105 CE who studied in the Rhineland of Germany and returned to Troyes, France.
Once upon a time, nearly a thousand years ago, there were people with no
country of their own. From the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, (1,000 to 1499 CE)
they were expelled from whatever European land they had settled. At times,
they were unable to take all of their physical possessions with them.
However, they always took what was most important––their religious beliefs
and their language. The people were the Jews, their religion was Judaism,
and their language was Yiddish.
*When Yiddish began.* In the tenth century, (900s CE) Jews from France and Italy
migrated to the German Rhine Valley, and Yiddish began in an Ashkenazi
culture. The name came from the medieval Hebrew designation for the
territory and Ashkenazi Jews were literally "German Jews." The term,
My comment: (Note that the Jews came from France and Italy. They came from there as they had been ones to immigrate there from Judah when Jerusalem fell in 70CE. Ashkenazi Jews did not just pop up miraculously in Germany. They were the remnants from Judah which was the state created out of Israel. )
Nearly six million Jews were slaughtered during the horrific Nazi era, andHebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. It was
the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews.
By the late 1200s, Jews had created a language rooted in Jewish history
that they used in their daily lives and when they conducted business among
themselves. When they did business with Gentiles, Jews spoke the language
of their countrymen. Today In the United States, you could be greeted in
New Orleans with "How you all?" or in Brooklyn with a thickly accented "New
In earlier times, Yiddish evolved into four accents or dialects, also
depending on the locale. There was Eastern and Western Yiddish, and Eastern
Yiddish encompassed three distinct dialects. A Litvak spoke "Lithuanian
Yiddish" and lived in either in Lithuania, Belarus or northeastern Poland.
A "Polish" dialect speaker was known as a Galitzyaner and this dialect was
spoken in Poland and the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Those who
spoke "Ukrainian" Yiddish were from the Ukraine, Romania, southeastern
Poland and eastern Galicia. Western European Yiddish was closer to German
and its use began to decline in the eighteenth century.
Hebrew was the language of davening (praying) used in ritual and religion.
It became known as the loshn koydesh, the sacred language used exclusively
by men. In the Ashkenazi community women weren't considered holy enough for
Hebrew, but they learned to read and write in Yiddish the "mame loshn"––the
mother tongue. Men were able to read both.
*The Move Eastward. *Jews have been a convenient target for persecution,
expulsion and annihilation. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the first
crusade to take the Holy Land away from Muslim infidels. As some crusaders
marched through Germany, they sought out "infidel" Jews and offered them
the choice of death or conversion to Christianity. Thousands of Jews were
slaughtered when they refused to abandon their faith.
After the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews migrated eastward, forming
communities in non German-speaking areas, including Hungary, Poland,
Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Jews
were forced out of France in 1182 and twice in the fourteenth century, and
out of England in 1290
The oldest surviving literary document in Yiddish is a blessing in a Hebrew
prayer book from 1272, and the 1526 Prague Passover Haggadah contained the
first page printed in Yiddish. The advent of the printing press in the
sixteenth century resulted in an increase in the amount of Yiddish material
produced that has survived.
In the thirteenth century, Yiddish replaced both Hebrew and local languages
in conversation. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, songs and poems
were written in Yiddish, using Hebrew alphabet letters. During that time,
Jews were expelled from Hungary, Lithuania and Germany twice, and once each
from Austria, Spain and Portugal. The Jewish population moved further
eastward into Poland and Russia and in the late Middle Ages, Slavic
elements were incorporated into Yiddish. Jews further developed the
language and included elements of Hebrew, Jewish-French, Jewish-Italian,
and various German dialects.
In the fifteenth century, Poland's Jewish communities were the largest and
remained the heart of Ashkenazi Jewry until their demise in the Holocaust.
From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, Eastern European Jews
lived in shtetls––"small towns"––and in large cities.*
In 1792, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great created a "Pale of
Settlement" where Jews were forced to live in their shtetls within its
boundaries––boundaries they dared not cross. The "Pale" covered western
Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and eastern Hungary.
By the eighteenth century, the Yiddish language was between 10 and 20
percent Hebrew and Aramaic, and nearly 75 percent Germanic. A small percent
was based upon Romance words with Slavic words framing the rest.
*The People's Language.* During the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, secular Yiddish literature flourished and much of its original
growth was attributed to the writing of three major authors. The
"grandfather of Yiddish literature" was Sholem Abramovich (1835-1917), who
wrote under the name Mendele Mocher Sforim.* *Isaac Leib Peretz**
(1852-1915), better known as I. L. Peretz, was a writer of social
criticism, plays and short stories. Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916) was a
Yiddish author and playwright who wrote under the name, Sholem Aleichem.
His stories about Tevye, the dairyman, were the basis for the twentieth
century play and movie, "Fiddler on the Roof.
In the 1897 and 1917 census, more than 95 percent of Russia's Jews who were
mainly poor, listed Yiddish as their native tongue, and for many it was
their only language. Jews were subjected to more frequent
pogroms––terrifying acts of destruction. The increase in their usage and
severity ordered by tsarist edicts between 1877 and 1917 caused further
Between 1870 and 1914, some two million Eastern European Jews came to
America. They had the foresight and the mazl to escape the upcoming rampant
waves of anti-Semitism in Europe. Many brought little more than their
Yiddish language with them, and the majority who settled in New York
considered Yiddish their native language.
Jews who had been known as "the people of the book," became the people of
the press. The first Yiddish-language newspaper was published in New York
in 1870, and in 1875 the Judisches Tageblatt ("Jewish Daily News") was the
first Yiddish daily to survive. Its circulation reached 100,000 by 1900
but it was being challenged by the Forverts ("The Jewish Daily Forward"),
whose circulation peaked at 250,00 in 1929. The Forverts helped to
Americanize immigrants by offering a popular Bintel Brief advice column, a
variety of human-interest stories, and highbrow and lowbrow literature.
By 1914 there were ten Yiddish daily newspapers with a combined circulation
of more than 750,000. Parties and interest groups across the spectrum
started their own papers, including the socialists, communists, centrists,
labor workers and Orthodox Jews.*
Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer (1901-1991) was on staff as a journalist
and a columnist for the Forverts from the 1930s into the 1960s. He was also
a leading figure in the Yiddish literary genre, writing short stories and
novels, first in Yiddish, and then translating them into English. In 1978,
Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
During the 1920s, Yiddish was emerging as a major Eastern European
language. Its rich literature was widely published, Yiddish theater and
Yiddish film prospered, and it even achieved status as one of the official
languages of both the Belarusian and the short-lived Galician Soviet
Socialist Republics. In 1925, YIVO was founded in Wilno, Poland, now
Vilnius, Lithuania, as the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute, the Yiddish
Scientific Institute. It was the pre-eminent repository and publisher of
When Poland's 1931 population was just under 32 million, nearly one in ten
of its citizens were Jewish, and more than 87 percent of them spoke
Yiddish. In 1937, there were 150 Yiddish newspapers and journals with a
combined circulation of more than 500,000.
*Almost Its Demise: *The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 curtailed large
numbers of Eastern European Jews and others from coming to America. In May
1939, Great Britain produced a White Paper that restricted Jewish
migrations to Palestine to 75,000 in the coming four-year period. The
actions of both governments helped to bring about the decimation of
Europe's Yiddish-speaking Jewish population by the Nazis. The Act also
eliminated a vital source of new readers and the Yiddish press circulation
in America began its decline. Children of immigrants actively strove for
cultural assimilation and they were more likely to read an English-language
newspaper than the Yiddish Forverts.
Before the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 and World War II began,
there were more than nine million Jews in Europe. In the eastern European
countries of Poland, Russia, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia, there were a
combined total of 7.3 million Jews, and almost 75 percent of them spoke
The word "bagel" is a Yiddish word. a ring-shaped bread roll that looks like a donut made by boiling, then baking, the dough (from בײגלbeygl) is but one example.two-thirds of them were Yiddish speakers. A Lithuanian rabbi in Kovno,
Lithuania, wrote that "the bandit Hitler" not only killed a people, but
also tried to kill a culture and a language. The Nazis destroyed schools,
shuls, books, Yiddish theaters, movies, and radio programs, and the
Holocaust led to a dramatic decline in the use of Yiddish.
Millions of Yiddish speakers survived the war, including those living in
America, yet further assimilation in the United States and the Soviet Union
diminished the daily use of Yiddish. In Russia, Stalin was suspicious of
Jews and their "secret language," and Yiddish culture became a prime
target. Jewish institutions were suppressed and its leaders, actors,
writers and poets were arrested, and in August ,1952, thirteen prominent
Yiddish writers were executed.
*Yiddish Barely Survives.* Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors sought
refuge where anti-Semitism wasn't overt, including the United States and
Israel. The latter seemed to be a promised, egalitarian land for Yiddish
speakers. Unfortunately, its leaders feared that if the seeds of Yiddish
was allowed to be planted, then both the country's new identity as a
special haven for Jews and its lingua franca, Hebrew, might not flourish.
To counteract an unwritten law of what was acceptable, those in power
curtailed a nascent Yiddish theater. It had been created by survivors as a
dedication to and a remembrance of the way things were. It was a
shandea––shame––but an understandable one for a new nation. Then and now,
Yiddish was spoken on a daily basis primarily in Jerusalem's religious
neighborhoods. A tale is told about an American grandmother who was
visiting Israel and was overheard on a bus teaching her ten year-old
grandson a few words in Yiddish. A man sitting across the aisle said, "Tell
me why you are teaching your grandson Yiddish. You know that Israel's
national language is Hebrew." She looked at the man and said, "Because I
want him to remember he's a Jew."
Until Israel was established in 1948, Jews were a people without a country,
a government, or a military, and their Yiddish language was one fragile
connection between them. After World War II, Jews in the United States
sought to live in an assimilated society. They encouraged their children to
become even more American and in doing so, discouraged them from learning
Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors also wanted their children to have a
better opportunity to become successful, and they also equated success to
becoming more Americanized. One requisite was to speak "perfect" English
and Jewish children learned to read Hebrew, the language that represented
Israel. With Yiddish slowly being silenced, the old country and its rich
culture was becoming a fading memory. Parents of baby boomers viewed
Yiddish as the language of their parents and grandparents. By 1960, only
three percent of American children enrolled in Jewish education learned
Yiddish. At the same time, Yiddish newspaper circulation continued to
In 1999, the Minority Language Committee of Sweden formally declared
Yiddish as one of its country's five minority languages. In its latest
Atlas of the World's Languages, UNESCO, the United Nations World Heritage
organization, referred to Yiddish, as a "definitely endangered" language.
That foreboding term means, "children no longer learn the language as
mother tongue in the home." What would become of the mame, loshn, if it
were no longer the mother tongue?
The U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 survey of language use revealed that only
158,991 people spoke Yiddish at home, and that figure had declined in every
census since 1980. The major exception is found in the more closely-knit,
ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) communities, yet there are many modern Orthodox
Jews who do not know Yiddish. However, there has been resurgence in Yiddish
learning and the language, with many Jews embracing "Yiddishkeyt."
*Yiddish in America. * Yiddishkeyt reflects a person's "Jewishness." It is
an eclectic "mish mash" of mannerisms, speech and a cultural and emotional
connectivity to things Jewish. It could involve attending Jewish movies and
plays, enjoying Jewish humor, books, periodicals, music, and associating
with and supporting Jewish organizations. You don't have to speak Yiddish
to be part of Yiddishkeyt, but if you are of Ashkenazi descent, it helps.
When Yiddish theater was banned in Russia in 1883, some of its troupes
first went to London and then came to New York City. Today, Yiddish theater
is doing well in New York and The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene
produces both Yiddish plays and plays translated into Yiddish. Folksbiene
began in 1915 when there were fifteen Yiddish theater companies in New York
alone, and others throughout the world.
Between 1936 and 1939, "The Golden Age of Yiddish Film," there were
seventeen Yiddish sound films produced in the United States, and many
reflected the immigrant experience in America. The National Center for
Jewish Film at Brandeis University has restored thirty-eight Yiddish
feature films, and some are shown at international film festivals.
If you want to "lernen a bisl" Yiddish today, you can do so in a university
classroom, a shul, Jewish community centers, in small study groups, on your
own, or on line. The academic study of Yiddish received a boost in 1949
with the publishing of Uriel Weinreich's* College Yiddish: An Introduction
to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture. *Yiddish is taught
in universities across the United States, and a graduate program in Yiddish
Studies at Columbia University began in 1952 under Weinreich's leadership.
The prestigious Oxford University in England offers an MSt in Yiddish
Studies and there are intensive summer study programs offered in the United
States, Canada, Israel, Poland, Lithuania and Germany.
There are also classes available on line from the Yiddish Book Center that
was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky. The Center has helped rescue more than
one million Yiddish volumes and has diligently worked to preserve the
Yiddish language. Since 1998, it has digitalized the full texts of more
than eleven thousand Yiddish books that can be downloaded at no charge. The
Center has helped establish Yiddish collections at the Library of Congress,
the British Library, and more than 600 libraries around the world,
including national libraries in Australia, China and Japan. In 2010, a
Yiddish-Japanese dictionary was published.
In 1981, The Yiddish Book Center began publishing Pakn Treger–– the Book
Peddler. It is written in English with some Yiddish, and looks at
contemporary Jewish life and its Yiddish roots. In 1983, the
Yiddish-language Forverts became a weekly newspaper, and now has a
circulation of 5,000. In 1990, the Forward began as the English-language
weekly version and its circulation has now grown to 26,000. The Forward
went online in 1998, followed by the Forverts, which tries to reach a
younger, worldwide audience of Yiddish speakers.*
Today, there are Yiddish-language newspapers, magazines, as well as Yiddish
radio programing with one station each in Boston and New York, and others
around the world. Highly spirited klezmer music emanated in the Hasidic
culture of Eastern Europe in the 1700s. The name comes from the Hebrew
words, klei andzemer, and literally means "vessels of song." It was played
at joyful celebrations such as weddings, and that tradition continues in
America where its melodic and somewhat soulful sounds have helped spur
interest in all things Yiddish. There are more than two hundred klezmer
groups found in thirty-six states.*
Yiddish melodies were sung and played by an array of artists, including the
Andrew Sisters recording, "Bei Mir Bistu Shein" in 1937, Cab Calloway's
"Utt Da Zoy" in 1939, and Billie Holiday's rendition of "My Yiddishe Momme"
in 1956. Many organizations in the United States and around the world work
to preserve and promulgate Yiddish. In its world headquarters in New York
City, YIVO's library has more than 385,000 volumes and its archives contain
more than 24 million pieces, including manuscripts, documents, and
photographs. YIVO offers cultural events and films, adult education and
Yiddish language classes, as well as a six-week intensive summer program.*
The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring is a Yiddish language-oriented, American
Jewish fraternal organization committed to social justice, the Jewish
community, and Ashkenazic culture. To perpetuate the Yiddish language and
culture, its extensive online Jewish Book Center offers songbooks, CDs,
klezmer CDs, textbooks, instruction books, and dictionaries, as well as
books of Yiddish literature.
The International Association of Yiddish Clubs (IAYC) helps unify Yiddish
activities and events, holds international conferences, and strives to keep
the Yiddish language, literature and culture alive. Information on these
and other Yiddish-focused organizations can be found on
*Yiddish Lives On.* The Yiddish language has survived centuries of fervent
anti-Semitism, planned and executed pogroms in Eastern Europe, and man's
ultimate evil personified by the calculated, calamitous atrocities
committed by the Nazis. Yet the Third Reich was destroyed while the
remnants of European Jews and their coveted Yiddish language still survive.
Today, many Holocaust survivors relish conversing in Yiddish whenever and
wherever they get together.
On December 8, 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in
Literature and delivered his acceptance lecture in both Yiddish and
English. He concluded by saying, "Yiddish has not yet said its last word.
It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the
world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and
cabalists--rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In
a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the
idiom of the frightened and hopeful humanity.
The vulnerable Yiddish language could have languished and died but instead
it has become a venerable part of our society. The one-thousand-year-old
story of Yiddish is not over. It may not be as richly told as before, but
it would be a mistake to write it off. Now is the time to continue writing
the current chapter that begins with, "Once upon another time in the
Resource: forwarded to me by the sister of Marvin Slifman who sent it to her.