Searching for Yiddish Land — Teachers, Students and Scholars Weigh the Value of Yiddish in the Modern Age

Source: City on a Hill Press, 5-12-11

Yet humans — at least Jewish humans — continue to learn it, as they have for the last thousand years. Originally the language of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, Yiddish spread across the globe on the tongues of Jewish immigrants, arriving in the United States in the 19th century as the spoken and written language of tens of thousands of Jews on the East Coast.

Following World War II, however, the Yiddish-speaking population of Europe was decimated. The adoption of Hebrew as the national language of the state of Israel dealt Yiddish a second deadly blow by denying it a homeland. In the United States, Jewish immigrants often neglected to teach their children Yiddish in an attempt to expedite assimilation, wiping out a pool of potential Yiddish-speakers in the course of a single generation.

Today, there is a popular misconception that because of all this, Yiddish is a dead language. While this statement is far from true, it is also not quite a lie.

Crippled by genocide and decades of bad luck, Yiddish survives in sizable pockets of speakers — mostly ultra-Orthodox communities of Jews and enclaves of aging native speakers in New York — but lacks the cohesion or popularity needed to regain its stature as a daily language used by Jews at home and in public.

In 1970, the U.S. Census found almost 1.6 million Jews who spoke Yiddish as a home language. By 1980, that number had dropped to 315,953. In 1990, it fell again to 213,054. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of Yiddish speakers in America fell to 158,991 — almost a 90 percent drop between 1970 and 2007.

Despite its wounds, Yiddish continues to thrive in some circles. More than a dozen Yiddish programs have sprouted up in American universities in the last 20 years, according to a 2010 study by Dr. Zachary Berger entitled, “The Popular Language That Few Bother to Learn.” In the midst of budget cuts and slashed language programs, Yiddish has managed to take root at UCSC with only a handful of students and educators.

Openly passionate about the language and the program, a small pocket of students and teachers are making a stand to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of a language they have come to love….

Professor Murray Baumgarten, co-founder of the Jewish studies program at UCSC, said knowledge of Yiddish also allows students to access thousands of texts accumulated over the centuries that would have been lost to the ages if not translated into Yiddish.

“One of the things that marks Yiddish is the numerous number of texts of world importance that were translated into Yiddish,” Baumgarten said. “I mean, political science, economics, literature — there was a great sense that Yiddish wanted to be connected to the larger world of Western culture.”…

Despite a rich literary tradition, some Yiddish scholars worry that even as the number of programs devoted to teaching Yiddish culture and literature at the university level increases, the actual number of speakers learning Yiddish outside of Hassidic or Charedi communities is dropping at an alarming rate.

A 2006 study by the Modern Language Association found 969 students enrolled at four-year colleges and graduate programs learning Yiddish. In 2009 (the most recent year available), that number dropped to 336. Although this drop is partly due to the drastic class reductions in one rabbinical academy and one state school, it still represents an enormous blow to the national Yiddish-speaking community.

Michael Wex, Yiddish scholar and New York Times best-selling author of “Born to Kvetch,” a humorous linguistic and sociological history of Yiddish and Jewish culture, said the plight of Yiddish is best reflected in the Jewish community’s sudden interest in preserving Yiddish.

“There’s a very positive attitude towards Yiddish these days, and has been for a couple decades now — and that worries me,” Wex said. “When Yiddish was healthy and flourishing, everyone was ashamed of it and trying to hide it. Now it’s not very healthy and it’s become our legacy.”

Wex said symptoms of Yiddish’s poor health are evident in the popularity of Yiddish phrase books that promise to teach readers exotic food words, cute endearments and juicy curses. Wex said these books promote a superficial knowledge of Yiddish that at best scratches the surface of Jewish culture, and at worst misinforms the reader.

“The interesting thing about Yiddish is that the number of people who know the difference between ‘fuck on’ and ‘fuck off’ is tiny and diminishing,” Wex said. “I’m not a prig, but the Yiddish is wrong — a book that tells you how to ‘fuck on’ is absolutely useless.”

One of the most basic problems obstructing Yiddish education is the lack of certified teachers. Berger cites the Yiddish Teacher’s Seminar in New York — which was closed in 1987 — as one of the last institutions to offer graduate students serious education as Yiddish instructors. Wex mentioned the article as he addressed pressing issues facing Yiddish advocates.

“Who is teaching the spoken language in universities? How many of these people are native speakers?” Wex asked. “It’s a big problem because you’ve got some relatively capable people who are trying to immerse themselves in the language, but it gets harder and harder because there are fewer places to go.”…READ MORE