Yiddish

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Yiddish is the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews. There were over 10 million speakers of Yiddish before the Holocaust; after the Shoah (catastrophe), use of the language vastly declined. Assimilation following World War II further decreased the use of Yiddish both among survivors and Yiddish-speakers from other countries.

Quotes

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  • Attempting to meet European standards, Jewish writers exerted tremendous efforts to develop and enrich the Jews' internal languages of Hebrew and Yiddish, all the while combating unfavorable ideas about each. Yiddish was a living language at the time, but even its leading writers Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz dubbed it jargon (slang). Hebrew, for its part, was considered a dead tongue in need of massive revision. Both languages were invigorated by the extensive enterprise of translation and the expansion of Jewish writing to areas like politics, art, and sciences, which, with rare exception, were not previously found within either canon.
    • Carole B. Balin, To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia (2000)
  • Hebrew was generally considered the province of men and became associated with the male scholarly elite, in contrast to Yiddish, which became linked with women, common folk, and daily routine.
    • Carole B. Balin, To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia (2000)
  • already by 1918, the Communists had created the Evsektsiia within its own structure to carry out party policy among the Jews. Regarding the values and institutions of the Jewish community as alien to Marxist ideology and to the new society that was to be based on it, the Evsektsiia took over local Jewish organizations and institutions and set out to eliminate not only the Zionist movement and Jewish religion but also the "bourgeois language" of Hebrew. Yiddish, meanwhile, was allowed to flourish, for it was deemed the language of the proletariat.
    • Carole B. Balin, To Reveal Our Hearts: Jewish Women Writers in Tsarist Russia (2000)
  • Ironically, in view of later events, the relationships between Germans and Jews in these borderlands were sometimes close to symbiotic. Both groups were more likely than Slavs to live in towns; they also spoke variations of the German language, since the Yiddish of the East European shtetl (literally, 'wee town', identical to the German Stàdtl) was essentially a German dialect, no further removed from High German than the language of the Transylvanian Saxons, even if in Galicia Yiddish signs were often written in Hebrew characters.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 38
  • [Yiddish is] a treasure trove for the study of language and culture in general: cultural interaction, semiotics of cultural history, and languages in contact.
    • Benjamin Harshav. The Meaning of Yiddish (1990), page xvexternal link
  • YIVO’s founding emboldened a highbrow Yiddish intellectual life that flourished between the world wars and soon used the new spelling as its hallmark. Of course, it was already too late. By 1945 the Nazis had killed the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers. YIVO itself survived only through the efforts of Jewish prisoners, including celebrated poets who were forced by the Germans to loot YIVO’s archives for a Nazi-created “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Members of this “paper brigade” risked their lives to smuggle out cultural treasures, including documents that scholars had painstakingly collected to record and standardize Yiddish spelling.
  • Yiddish was a rich, living language, the chattering tongue of an urban population. It had the limitations of its origins. There were few Yiddish words for animals and birds. It had virtually no military vocabulary. Such voids were filled by borrowing from German, Polish and Russian. Yiddish was particularly good at borrowing: from Arabic, from Hebrew, from Aramaic and from anything with which it intersected. On the other hand, it contributed: English - American. Its chief virtue lay in its internal subtlety, particularly in its characterization of human types and emotions. It was the language of street wisdom, of the clever underdog, of pathos, resignation and suffering, all of which it palliated by humor, intense irony and superstition. It has been said the Yiddish is the only language never spoken by anyone in power.
  • The use of Yiddish was an expression not only of love of a language, but of pride in ourselves as a people; it was an acknowledgement of a historical and cultural yerushe, heritage, a link to generations of Jews who came before and to the political activists of Eastern Europe. Above all it was the symbol of resistance to assimilation, an insistence on remaining who we were.
    • Irena Klepfisz "Secular Jewish Identity: Yidishkayt in America" (1986) in Dreams of an Insomniac (1990)
  • The survival of Yiddish and its culture does not rest on our ability to find the right term for "corn flakes" or "jet lag"; but rather on our ability to find a proper place for yidishe kultur in our lives, a place among other commitments; on our ability to infuse it with our contemporary values and politics learned outside of its boundaries...I want my Yiddish involvement to be rooted in my life, in the present, want it to be infused with my contemporary politics and concerns, with the special quality of Jewish American experience. Di yidishe svive in the American environment. One world, not two. That's what will keep Yiddish alive for me.
    • Irena Klepfisz "Secular Jewish Identity: Yidishkayt in America" (1986) in Dreams of an Insomniac (1990)
  • Emphasizing the seemingly more pious stories of Sholem Aleykhem and Peretz, stressing Jewish passivity over action, obedience to tradition over rebellion (and therefore upholding observance), many supporters of Yiddish and Yiddish culture have wrenched yidishkayt out of the active, political and radical context in which it flourished and thereby neutralized and depoliticized it.
    • Irena Klepfisz "Khaloymes/Dreams in Progress: Culture, Politics, and Jewish Identity" in Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes (1990)
  • Yiddish, the language which will ever bear witness to the violence and murder inflicted on us, bear the marks of our expulsions from land to land, the language which absorbed the wails of the fathers, the laments of the generations, the poison and bitterness of history, the language whose precious jewels are the undried, uncongealed Jewish tears.
  • To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God's plan for Creation is still at the very beginning. [...] 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 frightened and hopeful Humanity.
    • Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture. external link originally from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
  • People ask me often, 'Why do you write in a dying language?' [...] I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

    Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: "Is there any new Yiddish book to read?" For them Yiddish will not be dead. [...] Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.
  • The language's fate would be entangled with one of the world's most brutal tragedies—millions of those Yiddish speakers were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust during the Second World War—but it also flowered almost everywhere that Jews settled, before and after the war: Yiddish newspapers and books were published in Montreal and Montevideo, Cairo and Melbourne, Paris and Cape Town (not to mention Warsaw and New York)
    • Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert, "Preface: The Old in the New" in How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020)
  • Celebrated and marginalized, lionized and trivialized, Yiddish is so deeply woven into the fabric of the United States that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize how much it has transformed the world we live in today...... At the height of the language's American popularity in the 1920s, a handful of different Yiddish newspapers circulated hundreds of thousands of copies every day, and Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue, in Manhattan, seated thousands of spectators every night. Also, as the primary language of a vast immigrant community of poor laborers and their upwardly mobile children, Yiddish became a crucial part of American politics—at a moment when socialism, anarchism, and communism competed for Americans' votes with more familiar political orientations—and of American business, entertainment, cuisine, and speech. In short, America, famously a nation of immigrants, was the site of many of Yiddish's greatest triumphs—[[Isaac Bashevis Singer

|a Nobel prize]], bestsellers, and theatrical smashes, as well as political movements that changed the way people everywhere work.

    • Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert, "Preface: The Old in the New" in How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020)
  • For the most part, the histories of Yiddish and its literature seldom give space to its production in Latin America... this anthology documents that Yiddish—or, in one of its Spanish spellings, idish also flourished in Latin America, leaving behind powerfully artistic testaments.
    • Ilan Stavens. Introduction to Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing edited by Alan Astro (2003)
  • Yiddish is a relaxed language, extravagantly hospitable to Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German, and French, lush with a vocabulary full of love terms, diminutives, compounds, and neologisms.
    • Ruth Whitman. Translator's Note to An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry
  • At the beginning of the century the vast majority of Jews were Yiddish-speaking Europeans, with Yiddish the main vehicle of secularization, modernization, revolution, and reform. By the end of the century, Yiddish was in daily use only among the so-called ultraorthodox while the growing majority of Jews in Israel spoke Hebrew and the shrinking minority of Jews in America spoke English.
  • Yiddish was the European language most directly affected by Nazi rule. Although linguistic assimilation had become the norm by the 1930s among Jews in western Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States, it was slowed in Poland by some of the external and internal forces of exclusion and renaissance alluded to in the previous chapters. Thus, Yiddish was the main language of the ghettos, and of the majority of Jews targeted for annihilation, though most Jews also knew at least one coterritorial language.

See also

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