Why Did Yiddish Survive in Eastern Europe (for as Long as It Did)?

Nov 23, 2015 by

[Thanks to Martin Lewis, Michael Nosonovsky, Katya Shilova, and Elena Zusmanovich for insightful conversations that led to certain points in this post.]


In his essay “Yiddish? Why Don’t We Speak Judeo-French?”, George Jochnowitz considers the questions of why Yiddish survived a transplantation from German-speaking lands to Slavic-speaking Eastern Europe, why it finally gave way to Slavic languages there in the mid-20th century, and why it survives among the Hassidic communities in New York. According to Jochnowitz,

“A determining factor […] is whether or not the language spoken by the local population and the official language of the country are the same. In a country where most people speak the official language of the country in their homes, Jews speak the official language or a Jewish variety of that language. Thus, Jews speak English—or Jewish English—in America, French in France, Hungarian in Hungary, etc.”

Indeed, as I argued in my recent post, the degree of linguistic russification in different parts of the Russian Empire and later of the Soviet Union played an important role in whether Jews retained their language, Yiddish. Similarly, other modern states with a strong agenda of cultural and linguistic uniformity, like France, have managed to eliminate—or almost eliminate—indigenous linguistic varieties including those of the Jews.

400px-Jewish_population_in_the_USA_in_2000.svgAs for United States, Jochnowitz’ other example, it is not clear whether his correlation actually holds: by and large, American Jews live in large cities and their suburbs (New York City, South Florida, San Francisco, Los Angeles), which are also among the least English-speaking in the country, as can be seen from a comparison of the two maps on the left: the first map depicts the percentage of Jewish population by county and the second map — the percentage of speakers of heritage languages (i.e. language other than English). HeritageLanguages_USAYet, as Jochnowitz points out, American-born Jews by and large speak English, regardless of their parents’ mother tongue (with the exception of Hassidic communities in New York City).

However, I do not think that Jochnowitz is correct in applying the same “rule of thumb” everywhere, especially when considering historical cases. When considering historical periods before the emergence of a modern nation-state model, it is hard to see what “official language” might even mean. For example, Jochnowitz mentions Judeo-French, which was spoken in France before the 1394 expulsion of the Jews. However, at that point there was no official language in France, in the modern sense of the expression. In fact, non-Jewish population spoke many regional varieties across what is today France, and Jews spoke several regional varieties as well. Judeo-French was spoken in northern France, but Jews living in the papal lands near Avignon, for instance, spoke Judeo-Comtadine (see chapter 12 of Languages of the World: An Introduction for more details).

One of Jochnowitz’ own examples contradicts his claim—Ladino. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some of them resettled in the Balkans, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, and some others resettled in Italy. However, what happened to Ladino in these two areas is completely different: in the Balkans it survived into the 20th century, whereas in Italy, it disappeared, its speakers having shifted to the pre-existing Judeo-Italian. Jochnowitz explains these developments by the same factor, namely whether the official language was also the one spoken locally. In the Balkans, Ladino survived, Jochnowitz claims, because “the Ottoman Empire, like Poland-Lithuania and the Russian Empire, was a multi-lingual country. Ladino coexisted with Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and a number of other languages”. In contrast, in Italy Ladino did not survive (despite the obvious similarities between it and the local languages, one might add). All that Jochnowitz says in this connection is that “since Italy already had a Jewish population that spoke Judeo-Italian, Ladino and Portuguese speakers switched languages”. However, similarly to Italy, Greece already had a Jewish population that spoke Judeo-Greek (aka Yevanic), but there Ladino speakers did not switch. Although he does not say so explicitly, Jochnowitz implies that it is linguistic uniformity of Italy—people actually speaking the official Italian language—that is to blame for the replacement of Ladino with Judeo-Italian. But in the late 15th century, Italy was not a modern monolingual (or close to it) nation state that Jochnowitz makes it sound like. Italy’s geopolitical unification was still over 350 years away, and although Dante’s Divine Comedy was circulating all over the peninsula, not till the 19th century can one speak of just one official language in Italy. When Sephardic Jews arrived to Livorno, Ancona, and elsewhere in Italy, local inhabitants—including the Jews—spoke related yet quite distinctive linguistic varieties there.

Moreover, Jewish Diaspora features a number of mixed Jewish languages based on local language that that were never an official language of any country or state. Two of my favorite examples are Judeo-Berber and Judeo-Tat. Neither Berber languages nor Tat were official languages of any state where Jewish population might have been led to speak them under the linguistic acculturation pressure that Jochnowitz claims to be the decisive factor. Berber languages survived under the Phoenicians and the Romans, and later the Arabs. Standard Moroccan Berber has only recently been recognized as an official language of Morocco, and no other Berber language served as an official language in Morocco at the time when Jewish communities who speak Judeo-Berber might have first encountered it. Similarly, Tat is a local but not an official language. It is an Iranian language that is spoken in the mountainous areas of the Eastern Caucasus, geopolitically divided between Azerbaijan and Russia. It has never been a lingua franca in the region (a role played by Lezgin, a Nakh-Dagestanian language), let alone an official language. Yet Jews that settled in the region adopted the language.

While I do not think that Jochnowitz is correct in his formulation of the chief criterion that determines whether a particular Jewish language survives or is replaced by another local tongue, I think he is close: it is not about whether the local language of the non-Jewish population enjoys the status of an official language, but whether the newcomer Jewish language enjoys a certain level of above-average prestige. Moreover, I believe that the question that Jochnowitz tries to answer is wrong: we should be asking ourselves not what prevented a given Jewish language from surviving (as Jochnowitz does in the subtitle of his essay, “Why Don’t We Speak Judeo-French?”), but what allowed a few exceptional Jewish languages to survive being transplanted into a new environment. As a rule, wherever Jews settled throughout the Diaspora, they picked up a local language—from Spanish to Malayalam, from Berber to Persian, and scores of others in between—as the most useful language that allowed them to create economic links with the local non-Jewish populations. Jews have never wielded the power to subjugate indigenous groups politically, culturally, or linguistically. Instead, Jews have always adapted.

This is true almost everywhere, but with two notable examples of Jewish languages that survived a move to a new land: Yiddish and Ladino. As mentioned above, Ladino survived in the Balkans, and the crucial factor, I think, was not the multi-lingual nature of the Ottoman Empire (although that might have played a role as well), but the high prestige that the Sephardic Jews enjoyed among the local Balkan Jews and more generally among the Gentile population as well. Their high social status among the Jews derives in part from the fact that Jews in Spain had experienced a lengthy period of relative stability and cultural heyday, first under the Muslim rulers and then under some of the Christian kings. Although the situation soured for the Spanish Jews in the 13th century, some of the later Spanish kings, such as Peter I, were relatively favorably disposed toward the Jews. Even during the later period, the Jewish community in Spain produced such influential figures as Nahmanides (1194-1270) and Abraham Zacuto (1452-1515). The prestige of the newly-arrived Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire, among both Jews and non-Jews alike, was bolstered by the support of the Sultan who made them the exclusive tailors for the Ottoman Janissaries; as the Wikipedia states, the Sephardic Jews of Thessaloniki “enjoyed economic prosperity through commercial trading in the Balkans”.

Similarly, when Ashkenazi Jews moved into what is now Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, they rode a wave of prestige. Pervasive anti-Semitism was not yet part of life in those areas, which was one of the chief reasons Ashkenazi Jews moved there in the first place. Moreover, Jews settled mostly in cities and town which already had a substantial German-speaking population. A great example of that is Lviv (German name: Lemberg; presently in western Ukraine), which had one of the earliest documented Jewish communities and was also home to a substantial German-speaking population. These German speakers, and to some extent the Ashkenazi Jews as well, were relatively well-off and educated merchants brought there by the trade privileges granted by King Casimir III, Queen Jadwiga, and the subsequent Polish monarchs. In fact, Yiddish retained its prestige by association with German, of which it was perceived to be a mere dialect, even when most Yiddish-speaking Jews became poor working-class inhabitants of shtetls in the Pale of Settlement. The massive shift from Yiddish to Russian, which happened not only in Russia proper or in chiefly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, but across the Soviet Union, had as much to do with the shift in Soviet policies towards Yiddish (and other ethnic languages, including German) as it did with the movement of Jews to monolingual Russian-speaking areas. By the end of the Soviet period, even in western Ukraine, which remained de facto multilingual, the majority of the Jews no longer spoke Yiddish. And those that still did, like my maternal grandparents, virtually never did so in public. Speaking Yiddish was not only “not cool”, it was outright dangerous.

The survival of Yiddish among certain ultra-Orthodox communities, both in New York and in Jerusalem, has in my opinion little to do with whether the surrounding populations speak the official language (English or Hebrew), but a lot to do with the structure of the communities and their interactions with the outside world, as well as with their attitudes towards Hebrew (particularly relevant in Israel). Whether in Williamsburg or in Me’a She’arim, these are tight-knit communities that provide support needed for continuation of the Yiddish tradition. The self-segregation, especially among (male) Yeshiva students, diminishes the pressure to use to the language of the outside world. (In fact, Jochnowitz recognizes that the higher degree of interaction with the outside world among the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights, NY explains the broader use of English in this community.) Finally, their belief that Hebrew is a “holy language”, to be kept away from everyday use, means that these ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel have little choice but to keep Yiddish going.

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