As I boy I had this deep misunderstanding of Yiddish as this weird Hebrew-like language that my grandparents spoke, that was spoken by the old folks at my family’s synagogue, that was sprinkled into conversations without our awareness (“Gut-yontif” – happy holiday, “That’s so ongepatchka” – overdecorated, “enough mishegas” – nonsense, “kaynehorah” – heaven forbid, etc.). In Hebrew school we learned, well, Hebrew. At least how to read it. Not to really understand it. Enough so I could read my Haftarah (sections from the Prophets) for my Bar Mitzvah.
Skip forward about two decades when I have about two dozen short stories under my belt, a few trunked novels and one novel based on a Jewish myth. In my research I delved into the stories of demons and spirits and angels and folklore, which led me into the European shtetls (small, mostly Jewish towns) of the past millennium, which led me to: Yiddish. I began to see the language not as a religious one, as Hebrew was presented to me (though Yiddish is rife with words and meanings taken directly from the ancient Hebrew & Aramaic texts), but as a cultural language. This was the language spoken in the home for tens of millions of Jews throughout Europe for 1000 years.
As the Enlightenment entered into these shtetls in the form of Haskalah (loosely, Jewish Enlightenment), Yiddish translations of great classics of literature began to permeate the ideas of these small towns. The cloistered rabbinical exegesis of ancient texts was now applied to contemporary literature. What emerged then, especially at the end of the 19th century, was a growing body of Yiddish literature flowing out of the shtetls and shots (cities). Secular Yiddish literature was born. This is not to say that these stories did not have religious themes — many of them did — but that their production was not meant for religious study.
Yet half a century after this explosion of art from a deeply creative and imaginative people, who expressed themselves beautifully in a language well suited to the operations of the human heart and the frustrations therein, millions of Yiddish speakers were killed in the Holocaust. Those who emigrated to the United States and elsewhere felt that Yiddish was the language of the Old Country. It was a language of exile and suffering and these bright-eyed immigrants wanted to be part of the new America. They shed their old language, not teaching it to their children, like discarding one way of dress for another. And thus now, 150 years after the emergence of a new great body of literature, we are at a crossroads. Except for the ultra-orthodox Jews, who have little interest in the secular literature of now or the past, Yiddish is spoken by very few.
It is estimated that as much as 98% of all Yiddish literature remains untranslated. Because of this, bodies such as The Yiddish Book Center and Taytsh.org are working hard to train a new generation of Yiddish writers, people who might translate these works into English so that more people can read and appreciate their power and expressiveness. For example, I recently read a story called “The Strike of the Vilna Street-Walkers” by Avrom Karpinovitsh (translated by Shimon Joffee) about a man who tries to unionize the prostitutes in Vilna. I would venture a guess and say this is probably not the first thing that came to mind when you heard the term “Yiddish literature.” You were probably thinking more along the lines of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, who inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
This is what I mean when I say Yiddish is a literature. It is rich and full of surprises. For example, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” was recently translated into Yiddish by Shane Baker, who is not Jewish but an Episcopalian. I’m not sure about the religious affiliation of the boy in this video, but I also think you probably didn’t expect Yiddish would be spoken by an African-American either.
My point is that, though Yiddish may seem to be in abeyance, what I sense from my limited vantage point is a renewal of sorts. Gone are the days where one could walk down 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and hear only Yiddish and see only Yiddish signs on some corners (this was long before my time). But now we have entered into a period where people are turning to the language and its culture (the two cannot be separated) because inside are treasures that have yet to be explored.
I myself have been studying Yiddish, and while it will be several years before I might achieve any kind of proficiency, I already know that at some point in my future I too will be delving into one of those 98% of books not yet translated into English and working hard so that others may appreciate the gems that I see in the language.