New Internationalist

Can a language without a home survive?

Yiddish alphabet [Related Image]
Letters of the Yiddish alphabet Paul Dooley under a Creative Commons Licence

For an endangered language with an estimated 2 million speakers, Yiddish seems to have a disproportionate influence on the English language and Anglophone culture. Words like putz (meaning penis) schmuck (penis) and schlong (penis again) have entered US popular culture. The rambling monologues of Woody Allen are taken to be an Anglophone expression of Yiddish culture, peppered with comedic neurosis and self-evaluation characteristic of a mentality somehow engrained in the Yiddish language. Stephen Fry, in his BBC Two series Fry’s Planet Word, went so far as to cite Yiddish as evidence that ‘Some languages are intrinsically funnier than others’, arguing that ‘it’s more of a mindset than a language […] a joke can be Yiddish even when it’s told in English.’

Fry seems uncharacteristically confused. Yiddish, for all the tropes about its jokes, humour and insults, is a language like any other. It is way of communicating cultural concepts rather than a vessel containing them. Telling off a dog, debating the merits of Thatcher’s economic policy or soliciting the services of a prostitute are much the same whether you do them in English or Yiddish.

Then why bother protecting any endangered language, why not let Yiddish die? After all, Yiddish does not contain the essence of Jewish culture encoded within its structure. David Schneider, a comedian and playwright who has studied Yiddish theatre, told me that ‘Yiddish has lots of words for God and fool. The language itself is full of irony and dark humour, this is because of the crucible in which it was formed.’

This crucible, of persecution and hardship in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, has now largely vanished. There is no ‘Yiddishland’, no Yiddish state. Barry Davis, a lecturer in Jewish History and Yiddish literature at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, remarks that this is something which makes Yiddish rather unique: ‘With other immigrant languages there’s always a place where you can speak, say, Ukrainian, there’s always a homeland… Yiddishland doesn’t exist anymore, it’s imagined.’

The development of Modern Hebrew as a ‘national’ Jewish language is indicative of the cultural crucible in which Yiddish was formed and developed. Davis remarks that ‘Jews themselves who spoke Yiddish had this kind of self-hatred, and a desire to speak a cultivated language, because Yiddish was associated with lack of privilege. It goes deep into the psyche of people that they hated something which was a part of themselves.’ The historical low-status of Yiddish, its perception as a dirty patois spoken by servant girls and manual labourers, was thought to necessitate a ‘national’ Jewish language removed from such negative associations.

Strangely, this is the present importance of Yiddish. Once stigmatized due to the internalization of oppression by more dominant ethnic groups, its status has been somewhat inverted. The loss of an enormous number of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Holocaust and the resulting decimation of the language has elevated Yiddish to a sacred status once afforded to the solemnity of Hebrew. For many secular Jews, it now serves as the language of memory and identity, a relic of what was lost amidst the brutality of the 20th century.

Yiddish is something to be treasured, not because it is intrinsically funny, or contains within it the secret to Jewishness. It forms a part of a wider Jewish culture, one that existed for half a millennium in the shtetls and yeshivas of Eastern Europe. This is symbolic, and the promotion and extension of Yiddish culture is an act of rebellion. Karolina Szymaniak, of the Centre for Yiddish Studies in Warsaw, reflects that ‘by learning it, you’re doing something against history; this heritage does not deserve to be lost’. The promotion of Yiddish isn’t a sentimental exercise, but can be an act of defiance.

The future of Yiddish is uncertain. It will undoubtedly continue to be spoken and studied by British, US, Polish and Lithuanian secular Jews. It is considerably less likely that it will ever regain its pre-war status as a widely spoken vernacular among Ashkenazi Jews. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the cultural situation from which it emerged. This academic Yiddish perhaps seems a little more clipped and artificial than the vernacular that was once so dominant among European Jews, and it is tempting to conclude that something has been irretrievably lost in the process of this transition.

However, there is one place where vernacular Yiddish continues to thrive: amongst the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim of Stamford Hill, Brooklyn and Beit Shemesh. Rejecting Modern Hebrew as a profane corruption of the liturgical language, they continue to speak the language in ever-increasing numbers. David Schneider concludes that this is where the language belongs: ‘In the 1980s we worried that the language would die and felt the need to reclaim it as a language of secular Jews. But now it’s clear that the language is safe with the Hasidim. Yiddish belongs to them now.’

Alex Hacillo is a writer and labourer living in London. His interests include minority languages, labour relations and Eastern European culture. 

Coming soon: the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist focuses on the theme of endangered languages: Speak up, speak out for a multilingual world.

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