Until the Holocaust, Yiddish was the most spoken language by Jews – mostly spoken in Europe and the US. It is estimated to have had about 11-13 million speakers on the eve of the Holocaust in the late 1930s.
Then, the tragedy of the Holocaust wiped out most of the European Jewish community and along with most of their deep-rooted culture in the region, their language dwindled.
The survivors underwent what linguists called ‘Language shift’ in the post-war order that ensued. Those who moved to Israel switched to Hebrew. In the US, Russia and the rest of the West, language shift to English, Russian and local vernaculars happened.
A once thriving community was forced to make a drastic cultural shift. The thriving neighbourhoods and communities had to redefine and rebuild their reality in a blink of an eye as tragedy struck. Today, the descendants of Yiddish speakers are more likely to speak English, Russian, Hebrew or French than Yiddish.
In the US today, the country with most Jews of Ashkenazi descent, the majority of young Jews speak English at home. Ashkenazic Jews hail from Western, Central and Eastern Europe, and traditionally they spoke this language – which is Germanic in origin. Its exact origins are shrouded in mystery, although DNA studies suggest that a group of 350 people were amongst the progenitors of this Ashkenazi language and culture that would redefine post Second-Temple diaspora Judaism. The oldest known Yiddish writing is a 1272 prayer manuscript. The Jewish community in modern day France/Germany where it evolved would have encountered the many dialects from which today’s Standard German would emerge a few centuries later – they probably intermarried and pidginized several contact languages before Yiddish-proper emerged.
Even though most Jews in Israel today are of Ashkenazi descent, as were early Zionists who helped create the state, they felt that switching to Hebrew would be more practical to their cause – given that non-Ashkenazi Jews from the diaspora (Middle East, India and Africa) would be unfamiliar with Yiddish. Hebrew lived on as a liturgical language (used for religious ceremonies) for Jews everywhere – akin to Latin for Catholics or Sanskrit for Hindus. Therefore, they felt that Hebrew would be a better ‘uniting language’.
Revived Modern Hebrew is the first example of a dead language being revived as a spoken language and sustained. However, this added to a decline in Yiddish.
While Yiddish words pickle American English, the future of the language itself is uncertain – in the country with the largest Jewish population. In 2011, around 160 000 people over the age of 5 spoke Yiddish at home in the United States. A language is said to be dying when less youth are speaking it. For example Greenlandic with 50 000 speakers definitely has less people talking it than say Cajun French in Louisiana with 200 000 speakers, but it’s not considered dying because most Greenlandic youth are speaking it, unlike most Cajun youth who are fast switching to English.
As a cultural language it lives on. In New York, Montreal and other places with a big Ashkenazi Jewish community, Yiddish theatres are very popular.
As Yiddish names of bagel joints, kosher restaurants and delis continue to be in popular usage on the East coast. Also, many Ashkenazi Jewish names sound more ‘German’ than ‘Middle-Eastern’ – Spielberg, Friedman, Horowitz, Schulman etc. This legacy remains no matter what language they speak. The Netflix TV series Shitsel is partly in Yiddish. It is common to meet young Jews across denominations who will tell you that their grandparents spoke Yiddish, but they do not. This is probably because most American Jews study in English medium schools and universities nowadays.
I interviewed Motl Didner, Associate Artistic Director of New York’s Folksbiene Yiddish theatre who believes that Yiddish is very much alive in art and literary form. Folksbiene’s musical ‘The Fiddler on the roof’ was a huge success – always sold out and ended up being constantly extended due to popular demand. According to Didner, over a 100 000 people have seen the play already – with English and Russian supertitles – and they expect more to view it in the years to come. It used to draw in a huge crowd when it was shown in 2018 at the Museim of Jewish History – A living memorial to the Holocaust. They do have other plays and musicals in Yiddish as well. Didner did not speak Yiddish growing up, but is among many Jewish cultural enthusiasts who studied Yiddish later in life – he feels optimistic about the legacy of Yiddish. Most of the audience to Yiddish theater do not understand Yiddish, but neither do most of the actors. While we cry when we see Hollywood films with an actor doing a terrible version of a certain ‘English accent’ because of the difficulty involved, one admires how the performers are able to succeed and sell out after performing a play in a language they do not understand.
At least 20 colleges in the US and Canada have Yiddish programs – often part of their ‘European languages programs’. In addition, there is a program, in a college in Lithuania that teaches it. Vernacular Yiddish continues to thrive: amongst the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim. Mostly in Borough park, Brooklyn, Kiryas Joel in New York among other neighbourhoods in the North-Eastern part of the country. Even in Europe, Australia and other Western countries, their birth rates remain higher than that of other Jews. Even in Israel, many of them abhor Hebrew and use Yiddish at home.
Rejecting Modern Hebrew as a perversion of the liturgical language, they continue to speak the Yiddish language in increasing numbers.
With a fertility rate of 11 kids per woman and an immersive education system where they use it as the predominant language, they have become the guardians of a dying language. As it is spoken by children, it seems that there is hope for this language.
Across Hasidic sects, Satmar, Bobov 45, Ger-Sanz, Chabad Lubavitch to name a few, many youth speak Yiddish. In fact, it is very common to meet young Hasidim in the US who aren’t functionally fluent in English because they live such an insular lifestyle. But, while many Jews go secular, assimilate or have few kids, even in Israel, the US and the rest of the diaspora – notably the UK, Hasidic births are higher than average – giving hope for their language.
The Yiddish book center was formed in 1980 in Amherst, Massachusetts, at a time when it was feared that Yiddish would die out. Subsequently, Yiddish book centres opened in many other parts of the world too. However, the language took an interesting twist attesting to its survival through the same resilience as the people who spoke it…
If current fads are to continue, Yiddish will die out (as the language at home) in some cohorts (Non-Hasidim) but thrive in others.
Yiddish will remain in cultural circles like theatres and names of establishments – and probably grow in popularity in this niche. However, it will most likely remain the spoken language of Hasidic Jews. Even if it’s not the mainstream language of Jewish culture, its legacy and cultural memory among non-speakers will live on. And as long as the Orthodox Jewish birth rate remains high and they continue their way of life, it will live on – as the spoken language of the Hasidic community.