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Amid Dying Languages, Yiddish Lives On

Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

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He speaks Yiddish.(CBC)

There are, the New York Times reported yesterday, a “remarkable trove of endangered tongues that have taken root in New York—languages born in every corner of the globe and now more commonly heard in various corners of New York than anywhere else.” The City University of New York is sponsoring an endangered-languages program, and a group has sprung up to record these languages before they go extinct. And among this “Babel in reverse” are several languages of Jewish interest: The Semitic tongues of Aramaic, Chaldic, and Mandaic; Bukhari, a specifically Jewish Persian dialect, which originated in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, but today “has more speakers in Queens”; and, of course, Yiddish.

Yiddish is like many of these languages in that it is spoken more in New York City than in its historic areas—central and eastern Europe, and Russia. But unlike, say, the Istro-Romanian language of Vlashki, or Chamorro of the Mariana Islands (who knew they existed?), Yiddish is actually thriving in New York City, and elsewhere—among ultra-Orthodox communities. CUNY Professor David Kaufman, prominently featured in the article, told me yesterday, “I mentioned Yiddish as an example of a language spoken more in New York than in its places of origin—that’s all I meant by putting Yiddish in there.” He added, “It used to be a language of literature, but now it’s being kept alive by the Hasidic community—which views literature as competition to Torah.” In other words, fear not: Yiddish is nowhere near extinction. For the record, he said, his Endangered Language Alliance has not worked with Yiddish yet.

Hebrew Union College Professor Sarah Bunin Benor agreed that, whatever the status of some of the languages mentioned in the article, Yiddish, while certainly diminished from its heyday, is not going to disappear any time soon. “I think there is a sense that it’s diminishing because a lot of the speakers were killed in the Holocaust, and others moved to America and Israel and assimilated to the local languages,” she explained. But, directing me to the Modern Language Association’s interactive language map—warning, it has massive time-suck potential—she pointed out that “Yiddish is alive and well.” In fact, she added, “It’s changing. It’s becoming Americanized. It’s picking up words and grammatical structures.” Which is kind of cool, especially when you consider that American English has adopted certain aspects of Yiddish.

What, I should have to give an example?

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages [NYT]

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Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by Ayala Fader, is an interesting discussion of Yiddish, the ways it is learned in the Chassidic community, the different forms for girls and boys and how they incorporate English and “loshen hakodesh” (Classical Hebrew, with some Talmudic Aramaic). As a native speaker of Yiddish in this tradition (not learning English until I was 5 years old), I agree that Yiddish literature and all the related culture are viewed as “unkosher” and as competition to Torah. The Yiddish world of the Chassidic community is very much segregated from the rest of American culture, and the non-ultra-Orthodox and non-Chassidic culture, except as necessary for work, and financial and legal functioning.

In Hassidic communities where Yiddush thrives, English grammar lacks. It can be a problem of communication between those in the business world or for social purposes with outsiders. Contrarily, Yiddush has become a cool trend among young ba’al tishuvim with a taste of Chassidism. But at least they know from grammar.

Plaut says:

“Yiddish is actually thriving in New York City, and elsewhere—among ultra-Orthodox communities.”

Who cares, the language isn’t thriving.

When a new Sholem Aleichem appears in Yiddish thne you can talk about the languge thriving.

Jews these days like to portray everything in some kind of positive light.

Even antisemitism which to these silly people isn’t really antisemitism, it’s just another form of free expression.

Gai kakn oyfn yam.

levine says:

Plaut, You wouldn’t know “a new Sholem Aleykhem” if he was staring you in the face. Your last line is I am afraid an accurate reflection not just of your level of Yiddish knowledge, but your cultural level in general. But instead of following my first instinct, which woiuld be to respond to your grossness with an equally gross expression, I will simply ask whether you have ever read any Yiddish author beyond SA. He is far from the end of Yiddish lit, on the contrary he is considered the beginning. Are you familiar with such fine modern authors as Karpinovitch, Rozenfarb, Sutzkever, Manger, Ayzenberg, Grade, Glatshteyn…? Instead of throwing your weight around and putting every one else down, try a little modesty. Think, if necessary research, before you speak.

I’ve said that least 1841498 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Thank you this great piece of writing!

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Amid Dying Languages, Yiddish Lives On

Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

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