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A Yiddish revival

by Alfred Esch

Once a language spoken by millions of Jews; now a language hardly heard. On many fronts people fight for keeping that old language alive: Yiddish.

Where was the Yiddish cradle?

About the tenth century Jews settled down along the Rhine. They came from (the present) North of France, spoke French and Hebrew, but had to clearly express themselves in ‘German’. In their new places of residence they wrote German phonetic, but with Hebrew characters. And, as they were used to, they wrote from right to left. Only after the fifteenth century Yiddish was really getting somewhere, when the ‘German’ Jews went to Eastern Europe. There, in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia, Jewish mothers made Yiddish into the common every-day language. Unlike the men, the women had no share in religious teaching in Hebrew. So Yiddish was for centuries pre-eminently the ‘language of the Jews’.

Abused and pushed aside

Although Yiddish was born out of a German/Hebrew marriage, German Jews were the ones who looked down on it. They considered Yiddish to be a barbarian dialect, an uncivilized ‘ghetto-language’.

The Shoa (Holocaust) put a drastic end to the flourishing Jewish culture in Europe and so Yiddish was hardly heard anymore. Of course the Jews who could escape from the Nazi’s hung on to their familiar mother tongue when they found shelter elsewhere. On the contrary the Zionists strived for the revival of Hebrew. Hebrew had to be the ‘language of the Jews’ in the future homeland. Orthodox Jews wanted to keep to Yiddish, because Hebrew was ‘too holy’ for every day use. Nevertheless, Yiddish was soon beaten by the modern Hebrew. Before the war Yiddish was the spoken language of eleven million people, but nowadays only a fraction of them use it as their medium of communication.

Rescue operations

The ‘Golden Age’ of the Yiddish literature (about 1850-1930) provided a treasure of novels, stories, plays, poems and journalistic contributions. Especially now all over the world people are looking for ways to preserve this Jewish inheritance. The colourful ‘language of the Jews’ needs to be saved!

- Courses are held and even at school Jewish children can learn Yiddish.

- New words are invented: an email is called a blitzbrivke and the Yiddish word for mobile phone is zellke.

- The vocabulary of the last (very old) Yiddish-speaking people is laid down in writing.

- Israeli children want to get to know the language of their grandparents.

- Yiddish literature can be asked for digitally. On www.yiddishbooks.org one can choose from 12.000 titles, published since 1864. These titles can, on order, be reprinted.

- The ‘National Yiddish Book Centre’ (US) cherishes one and a half million books.

- People are translating Yiddish prose and poetry in many languages.

And so we can see in our days the remarkable revival of a wonderful old Jewish language.