Monday, August 10, 2009

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.

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Blogger Sylvia K said...

A fascinating post today! I'm always delighted to see you have a new post because I know that I will learn something interesting, thought provoking or even funny -- and, yes Mort, you have a subtle and dry sense of humor that I do enjoy. This look at the different languages of the Jewish culture is very interesting and, as always, very informative. Hope all is going well for you and your family and that you've had a great summer so far.


Monday, August 10, 2009 4:14:00 PM  
Blogger Emma said...

Dear Mort, My mom reads your blog regularly, and she sent me a link to this post. I am doing research on the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece. More specifically, I am studying their language. You called it Ladino - this is now a widely-accepted name, but the technical name of the language would really be "djudeo-espanyol" (Judeo-Spanish). Judeo-Spanish is, as you said, a dying language, but your hopes that Sephardic Jews still foster that emotional connection are realized in the Thessaloniki community. The community there, now 1000 people strong, used to be one of the biggest Jewish communities in the world--and the majority of the city was Jewish for hundreds of years! This is a unique phenomenon for a diaspora city in modern history. However, over 95% of the Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis, leaving the small community that exists today.

I could go on for much longer about the history and the language, but I'll let you read my own blog if you're interested! I was in Thessaloniki for one month this summer and documented my research and adventures at the following URL: Thanks for the post - I enjoyed it!


P.S. My grandparents are friends of yours: Fagie and Seymour M.

Monday, August 10, 2009 6:56:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

Mort, here's a link for you. I had forgotten it until I read you post. I put up a post about it five years ago!

Monday, August 10, 2009 9:00:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

This is fascinating, Mort. Thank you for writing on a subject that most of us know nothing about.

This is off-subject, but it reminded me of a friend, a retired teacher, who did a study for her thesis on different cultures in regarding the importance placed on education. The two that rated the highest were the Sephardic Jews and the Cherokee Indians. The Jews would go without shoes or other necessities to make sure their children had a good education and the Cherokees would make their children sit in the cornfields to listen to the corn grow.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anne said...

Hello Mort,

I know of a few online Yiddish resources that you might enjoy:

The Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library provides digital copies or Yiddish books including novels, dramas and grammatical references. The works are available for download or to read online. The site also advertises used and out of print books for sale at a "nominal price," although I have not used this feature.

For audio archives there is the Yiddish Radio Program which includes a regular program and "Gems" which can be listened to online.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Vagabonde said...

This is a fascinating post and I learnt a lot. I understand when you say you have an attachment to the language of your youth. My language was French and I never speak it anymore because I don’t know any French people around here. The last time I spoke it was when I was in France in 2005. It is not a dying language, but what I mean is that for me, there are so many feelings that I can only express in French. So I have been going on French blogs so that I can write some comments in French! However it is so sad that so many languages are dying. For example I published a post about the Cherokee Indian Reservation on my blog and while I was researching it I did find that only the seniors are speaking it. The same is happening in many first nation communities in Alaska. This is life – nothing is permanent, languages included.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 11:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

Ah, Mort, my mother came from Slonim, which is nowadays in Belarus but she called herself a Litvak and did speak Yiddish. However, my father, a French Jew born in Bulgaria spoke Judeo Spanish (he said Ladino), which means that their common language was French and it's the language which was spoken at home. I can understand pretty much of the Ladino (also a dying idiom) because I used to speak fluent Spanish and there are very strong connections between the two languages, but I never learnt German, and Yiddish is ... Hebrew to me ;)
Which is really too bad, and I guess I am too lazy to take it up now. Also, I don't whom I would speak it with, if I did try to learn.
I love listening to songs in Yiddish and occasionally see a movie with someone who speaks French with a Yiddish accent. It reminds me of my Mom.

Sunday, August 23, 2009 4:07:00 PM  
Blogger Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

This is such a great blog that gives such interesting bits of information like this so often. Keep up the good work!

Here's a great site on Ladino for those who are interested in learning more about it: Ladino wiki browser

Thursday, August 27, 2009 9:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mort--You write, 'And if they are not concerned about being crude, they will call some one they dislike a "putz" or "schmuck."'

My guess: It is not that people have no concern for being "crude", but that they are ignorant of the true meaning of the Yiddish terms they use. You are giving some of us (I have no known Jewish heritage) more credit than is deserved.
Cop Car

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 4:14:00 AM  

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