My love affair with the Yiddish language
I can no longer speak the language in which, according to my parents, I uttered my first words as a small child. The language is Yiddish, the native tongue of East European Jews.
Although I can no longer speak Yiddish, largely because of disuse, I can pretty much still understand the language, particularly if it is spoken with a "Litvak" accent. That's the accent characteristic of Jews from Lithuania, the northeastern tip of Poland, and Belarus. My mother's family migrated to the U.S. more than a century ago from the Belarussian province of Minsk.
Sadly, Yiddish is essentially a dying language. The Holocaust, combined with cultural assimilation by East European Jews and their descendants who have settled in new countries, have combined to make Yiddish almost as obsolete as Latin.
Yiddish is now the primary language only of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious sects like the Hasidim. Even in Israel, where Hebrew is the official language, the ultra-Orthodox Jews prefer to speak Yiddish. They regard Hebrew as a sacred language to be used only for religious study and worship.
Ironically, the insular ultra-Orthodox communities are indifferent to the vast secular world of Yiddish literature, music and theater. Yiddish art and intellectual endeavor are now the province solely of professional scholars and those who, like myself, still maintain strong emotional ties to the language.
My relationship with the Yiddish language is a matter of nostalgia. The very sound of Yiddish conversation or music links me to a cultural environment in which I was raised and which I have abandoned. I never fail to experience an odd blend of joy and sorrow on the rare occasions when I hear it. It is a love affair that will persist until I die.
Jews of eastern and central European origin are known as Ashkenazim. Ashkenaz is the ancient Hebrew word for the German-speaking territories from which their ancestors migrated eastward in Europe more than a thousand years ago. With them came the Yiddish language.
Yiddish is essentially a blend of other languages. I'm unaware of universally accepted estimates, but I would guess that about 75% of Yiddish is based on medieval German and 20% on Hebrew. The rest is composed of bits of Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Romanian or Czecho/Slovak, depending on where the speaker lived.
A century ago, East European Jewish immigrants to the U.S. began adding English to the linguistic mix. My maternal grandmother, who never learned to speak English, would casually ask me to "open der vinder," failing to realize that she had absorbed words from the language of her new homeland.
Linguistic migration, of course, is a two-way street. Yiddish has been slowly creeping into English. Many non-Jewish Americans may be unaware they are using Yiddish when they casually say words like "hutzpah," "meshugah," "shlep," "shlemiel," and "chochkeh." And if they are not concerned about being crude, they will call some one they dislike a "putz" or "schmuck."
Yiddish is one of about a half-dozen distinctive Jewish languages. Until the early 1900s, it was the world's most widely used, largely because Ashkenazi Jews outnumbered other Jewish communities before the Nazi Holocaust.
Descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries are known as Sephardim (from the ancient Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula). Their language is Ladino. It is largely medieval Spanish with heavy elements of Hebrew and the languages of the countries in which the Sephardim settled--e.g., Turkish, Greek, Bosnian, or Arabic.
The Sephardic Jews' new homelands, particularly in north Africa, Italy and Greece, contained tiny ancient Jewish communities (the last two called Romaniot) existing long before the Sephardim arrived. They spoke Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Greek. In most cases these Jews were culturally absorbed into the larger Sephardic community.
Still another Jewish community, the Mizrahim or Eastern Jews, lived in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Kurdistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. They speak Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic and other local languages that mix the native tongues with bits of Hebrew.
Aside from a common religion, what binds the three Jewish ethnic communities is Hebrew, the language of the Torah, used universally by all Jews for religious worship. Despite their different origins, each Jewish language is written in the Hebrew alphabet.
As the official language of Israel, now the home of about half the world's Jews, Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the world's most widely used Jewish language. And like Yiddish, Ladino and the Mizrahi languages are becoming obsolete.
I am confident that their devotees, even though they may no longer speak the languages, maintain the same strong emotional links to them that I do with Yiddish. They have linguistic love affairs of their own.