How Yiddish Survived

Suddenly, Yiddish is no longer the archetype of a dying language but is transformed, growing, and built to withstand the rigors of the 21st century. What happened?

An actor behind a canvas during a play in the Yiddish Summer festival in Germany in July 2015. Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty Images.

An actor behind a canvas during a play in the Yiddish Summer festival in Germany in July 2015. Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Eli Spitzer
COLUMN
May 24 2021
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

With over 300 million users worldwide, there is no doubt that the Duolingo language app’s blend of puzzles, humor, and 2D graphics has struck a chord with language learners. It is no small matter, then, for the Jewish world that this April Yiddish was added to the 39 languages which users around the world can now learn by merrily tapping away at their smartphones. While the list of Duolingo languages is eclectic—spanning the full range from global heavyweights like Chinese and Spanish to struggling languages such as Scottish Gaelic and Hawaiian, not to mention Klingon and something called High Valarian—the announcement nevertheless marked one more indication of a quiet revolution brewing in world Jewry for decades: the transformation of Yiddish from an archetype of a dying language into a revivified and growing one.

The victim of state neglect, assimilation, mass murder, and ruthless competition from Hebrew, Yiddish was for decades the language of ghosts, doomed to live on only in phrases imported into English when no existing words could express the wry humor and ironic sensibility that Jews contributed to the literary and cultural life of the United States. However, while the absolute number of Yiddish speakers has steadily declined for decades, in New York and in other ḥasidic centers, the Yiddish-speaking community has been quietly expanding until the point where, each year, tens of thousands of children are born for whom Yiddish will not be an additional language, or something they use to communicate with grandparents, but the linguistic environment in which they lead their lives. Yiddish once again has a bright demographic future; those who learn it acquire the ability not just to read old books or watch plays but to communicate with hundreds of thousands of people in rapidly growing communities.

In that context, Duolingo’s new Yiddish course is interesting not just as a marker of an exceptional demographic turnaround, but for what it reveals about the outcome of ideological wars that once raged between Yiddish speakers, and about the Yiddish language itself. In formulating the content for any course, creators have to make a large number of decisions about what form of the language to teach—decisions that inevitably are culturally and politically loaded. The inclusion or omission of this or that idiom, accent, or grammatical rule always represents a statement about which variant of the language deserves to be taught. While pre-war Yiddish had at least five major dialects, the creators of the Duolingo course had two viable options to choose from, each one representing a wider set of assumptions and beliefs about what Yiddish really is.

 

Option one was contemporary ḥasidic Yiddish, a dialect developed by speakers of Hungarian (strictly speaking, Transylvanian) Yiddish who came to America following World War II, which is notable both for the prevalence of Aramaic or rabbinic Hebrew idioms, and the high proportion of English words it has absorbed (a parallel version with a high modern-Hebrew content also exists in Israel). The second was what you might call YIVO Yiddish, a dialect designed to be a synthesis of the different dialects of East European Yiddish (though based primarily on Lithuanian Yiddish). The Duolingo creators chose to split the difference. For pronunciation they plumped for ḥasidic Yiddish, the dialect used by almost all first-language speakers. For grammar and orthography, they chose YIVO Yiddish. (Established in 1925, YIVO is an organization that studies and promotes the cultural history of East European Jewry and serves as the de-facto regulator of the Yiddish language).

There are a number of reasons for the latter decision, but the most important one is very simple: the absence of a ḥasidic Yiddish grammar to draw from. Of course, anyone who has taken a linguistics course will immediately object that all languages do in fact have a grammar, which native speakers learn not through formal instruction but spontaneously. What ḥasidic Yiddish does lack, however, is a set of prescriptive rules formulated by grammarians that can serve as the basis for systematic educational instruction. This absence is not the result of mere oversight, but rather holds the key to understanding why ḥasidic and YIVO Yiddish are not mere variants of the same language but emblems of competing cultural visions.

YIVO Yiddish is the product of a century of work by Yiddishists—in Europe at first and then mostly in America—to modernize Yiddish in order to, in the words of YIVO itself, “meet the requirements of modern European civilization.” This process was modeled on a well-established formula developed by advocates of East European nationalism, and carried out on languages such as Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian in the 18th and 19th centuries, consisting of three components. The first was to develop a set of prescriptive standards for orthography and grammar, and an apparatus of textbooks and educational resources which could be used to teach them. The second was to generate a new set of words from within the language that could be used in the fields of law, commerce, philosophy, high culture, and other areas that in East Europe had traditionally been reserved for German and other elite languages. The third was to develop a new literature, expressing the soul of the nation, but at the same time utilizing Western models of composition and taste.

On every single one of these points, the promoters of ḥasidic Yiddish, chief among them Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum who campaigned ceaselessly for Yiddish education in post-war America, pursued the opposite course. Grammar as a subject has for two centuries been associated in the ultra-Orthodox mind with heresy and modernism, a result of the emphasis advocates of the Jewish Enlightenment placed on reviving the study of Hebrew grammar as part of their reform program. The ideal of a Yiddish literature was rejected by the post-war ḥasidic pioneers, partly because much of it was considered theologically or ethically repellent, but also because high culture (which here principally means ḥasidic theology and talmudic novellae) was conducted in the heavily Aramaicized Hebrew of European rabbinic discourse, while Yiddish was the language of everyday speech. Yiddish literature for the religious audience, which traditionally had been considered principally the domain of women, became in America, at least until recently, the domain of children’s stories, as well as newspapers, polemic, and light reading for adults.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, in light of the ḥasidic emphasis on preserving the mame loshen (mother tongue) and resisting contamination by American society, American ḥasidic leaders were relaxed about the wholesale importation of thousands of English words into the ancestral tongue. Not only did Ḥasidim adopt words that had no Yiddish equivalent, but hundreds of Yiddish words used in Europe were forgotten and replaced with English ones that, for whatever reason, were considered preferable.

In short, ḥasidic Yiddish broke every rule about how to adapt a language to modernity and triumphed, whereas the labors of Yiddishists have created rich resources for intellectuals and antiquarians, but no sustainable living community of Yiddish speakers.

 

The failure of the Yiddishist project calls for no explanation and does not reflect badly on those who worked towards it. Except for a few brief episodes in some of the more remote Soviet republics, Yiddish never enjoyed the backing of a state apparatus that was crucial to the success of Hungarian or Romanian. The Yiddishists, moreover, were competing with the new Zionist language of Hebrew, which had as its vehicle one of the most remarkable examples of successful state building in history. To top it all off, the majority of Yiddish speakers were murdered by the Germans, and its remaining speakers were thrust into new environments where linguistic assimilation was the norm. The Yiddishists faced impossible odds, and failed. However, the success of ḥasidim in the face of no less difficult odds does require explanation.

Without doubt, the principal reason for the survival of Yiddish in ḥasidic communities has been the extent to which Ḥasidim are separated from the world around them. No degree of ideological fervor or cultural pride can substitute for the simple reality of a separate community where there is daily communication with people who speak principally or exclusively Yiddish. There is an obvious lesson for language-preservation advocates around the world: for a language to grow, it’s not enough to have people who can talk the talk, they need to walk the walk too.

Languages are tools of communication, but they are not just that. They also impede communication and delimit the boundaries of different groups. The sobering truth for linguists is that the survival or demise of the languages they wish to preserve is primarily in the hands of those for whom the fine matters of syntax and morphology are of little interest or none.

While the survival and eventual thriving of Yiddish in ḥasidic communities is primarily a matter for sociological rather than linguistic study, it is perhaps also possible that a contributing factor was the ḥasidic rejection of models of language preservation designed for different languages in a different political setting—models that the Yiddishists tried to follow assiduously. The flexibility that comes with disregard for linguistic purity and grammatical correctness may have helped ḥasidic Yiddish survive the upheaval to the new world and adapt to meet new circumstances.

Indeed, there is an even more profound sense in which rejecting the Yiddishist model may have been a necessary condition for the survival of Yiddish.

Before the rise of Yiddishism in the latter half of the 19th century, Yiddish had been the target of hundreds of years of scorn from modernizers and reformers, both inside and outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy. Whether advocates of German, Hebrew, or other languages of renewal and reform, enlightened Jews saw the Yiddish spoken by Ostjuden as a jargon, a degenerate dialect of German, the language of golus (exile), an ungainly Babel of tongues, or simply as a language of primitive boorishness, unfit for great rhetoric, high culture, or serious thought. While rejecting outright the conclusion that Yiddish was to be thrown upon the scrapheap of history, the Yiddishists accepted much of the critics’ premise; that is in part why they sought to fix Yiddish through linguistic reform. The extraordinarily acrimonious feuds among Yiddish scholars about the origins of Yiddish sprang from a nervous fascination with discovering what an “uncorrupted” Yiddish was in order to reveal what kind of language it could and should be.

By contrast, the Ḥasidim who arrived in New York in the wake of World War II, relatively unexposed to the Yiddish print culture of Lithuania and Poland, cherished Yiddish not for its unrealized potential but for what it already was. It didn’t need a treasure of literary classics because that role was reserved for rabbinic Hebrew. Since it was already a hodgepodge of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and various Slavic words it could absorb English ones too. Everything that the Enlighteners hated about Yiddish, including its very crudity in the eyes of the more refined, was what made Ḥasidim love it even more. In many respects, the secret of ḥasidic success has been the result of cutting the cord of hundreds of years of painful Jewish anguish and philosophizing about whether and how much to assimilate into advanced Western culture, achieved by sanctifying not just the mundane, but the uncouth. Nothing illustrates this better than the demographic revival of Yiddish in precisely its least enlightened and least “modern” form.

Here too, there may be wider lessons. Nineteenth-century linguistic reform movements, of which Yiddishism was one, were designed to meet the needs of an emerging modern era based on the nation state, where language combined with race, land, and history is the basis of the socio-economic order. In our day, as modernity has given way to post-modernity, a very different linguistic reality has emerged. In language after language, as commerce, academia, and high culture fall under domination by English, the carefully designed vocabularies of modernity have become ever more the subjects of neglect. In Israel, home of Yiddish’s one-time linguistic rival, ambitious members of the elite work on perfecting their American accent, while the masses merrily natter away in demotic Hebrew. The Hebrew of the street, not dying but as lively as ever, is characterized by its disregard for academia’s grammatical rules, and by liberal adoption of English and Arabic vocabulary. In short, that Hebrew looks a lot less like the language written and envisioned by S.Y. Agnon and A.B. Yehoshua and a lot more like the Yiddish of R. Joel Teitelbaum. As it turns out, the design features of a language built to withstand the 21st century are very different from one built to “meet the requirements of modern European civilization.”

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register