Yiddish Revival

Jun 2, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I mentioned Norn, a now-extinct Germanic language that a group of enthusiasts is trying to revive. Another Germanic language that has been seeing a revival lately is Yiddish.

Once the language of the European (Ashkenazi) Jews, Yiddish has gone nearly extinct as a result of World War II, which decimated the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, and — ironically! — the founding of the State of Israel. Even before the founding of the state, Hebrew was touted as the language of the new, strong Israeli Jew, while Yiddish represented the defeated world of Europe’s destroyed Jewish civilization. It was perceived as the language of the ghettos, of “the sheep going to slaughter”. After the Israeli independence this contrast between the strong, Hebrew-speaking Israeli and a weak, bespectacled Yiddish-speaking Jew from mestechko grew only stronger. Consequently, Yiddish did not enjoy popular respect in Israel: according to Professor Yechiel Szeintuch of Hebrew University, “people would throw bricks at gatherings of Yiddish speakers” adn Israel’s 300,000 Holocaust survivors refrained from speaking Yiddish in public. Until recently, only people in the Chassidic (ultra-Orthodox) world and the very elderly spoke Yiddish as their first language — or at all!

Today, the situation in Israel and worldwide is changing. According to a JTA report, a growing number of young Israelis are joining the revival of Yiddish, looking for their roots. They view Yiddish not as a symbol of weakness but as a hidden treasure. In recognition of this steadily growing interest, Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva has recently opened the Center for Yiddish Studies, joining the ranks of Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University and Tel-Aviv University. The goal of this program is to create a circle of scholars working on Yiddish and to reach out to larger audiences through conferences, publications and Yiddish theater performances. And so far, this program has been quite successful: in the first week after its opening, 90 students have signed up for an elective course on the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem.

But as successful as this program is, its achievements are a far cry from a true language revival because a language is considered living only if it has native speakers — people who acquire it as babies from their parents. It is this intergenerational transmission that keeps a language alive. And it is this chain that has been broken for Yiddish two generations ago.

Two morals of this story: (1) it is always easier to keep a language alive than to revive it from the dead, and (2) attitudes very much matter to a language survival. And these morals can be applied to any language’s life-and-death story around the globe.

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