In 1999, Yiddish was declared an official national minority language in Sweden, alongside Finnish, Romani, Meänkieli, and the Sami languages. There’s federal funding in Sweden for media produced in all its national minority languages—so Sweden, of all places, is now a major source of new Yiddish children’s books, TV cartoons, web media, and music videos.
How did Yiddish get this exalted status in Sweden? Especially when there are only 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in the country, less than 0.2% of the population?
To become an official minority language in Sweden, a language has to have been spoken in Sweden for hundreds of years. Yiddish fits the bill: The first official Jewish community was established near Goteborg in the 1770s; in 1782, the country passed legislation allowing Jews to live there without having to convert to Christianity. In 1832, Jews were permitted to become citizens. Jews turned out to be good for the economy, so the Swedish government encouraged the community’s growth, and its population skyrocketed between 1850 and 1920, as Jews fled pogroms and conscription in Russia and Poland. But from 1933 to 1939, Sweden limited Jewish immigration, fearing an influx of Jewish refugees.
The prohibitions were lifted in 1942, when it became clear to the Swedes that the Nazis were determined to exterminate the Jewish people. Over 8,000 Danish Jews—almost the entire population—were smuggled into Sweden in the dead of night in tiny fishing boats. (The details of this secret rescue mission figure in Lois Lowry’s classic, brilliant 1989 children’s book Number the Stars.) And Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg singlehandedly saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.
After WWII, Sweden continued to welcome Jewish displaced persons and refugees. Then it welcomed Jewish intellectuals fleeing Eastern European Communist witch hunts and persecution. Then it welcomed Soviet Jews. Today, Sweden has the largest Jewish population in Scandinavia; 70% of its Jews live in Stockholm, where there are several synagogues, a Chabad House, a Jewish day school, a Jewish library, a Jewish magazine, and a weekly Jewish radio show.
So yes, Yiddish has a long history in the country. But that’s not all. Another rule says that an official national minority language must be deemed to have benefit for the minority community (Yiddish is undeniably a marker of Jewish identity and history) and still another rule says that the language must be spoken—currently or in the past—by a significant number of people in the world (Yiddish once had 12 million speakers worldwide) and have a connection to Sweden.
Because there’s a government mandate in place, publishers, broadcasters, videographers, and animators now create media in the country’s minority languages. One such creator is Niklas Olniansky, who runs a Yiddish children’s publishing house. This is actually his third Yiddish-language venture; he and his wife, Ida, used to edit a popcult-y Yiddish magazine and founded a Yiddish heavy metal band called Dibbukim.
“It was totally by accident that I started learning Yiddish,” he told me. “I lived in a student apartment in central Lund, and I’d graduated and had a job but I wanted to keep that apartment. So I needed to take a class. Yiddish was then a new subject at the university, and the class was in the evening because it was mainly old people, and the first thing the teacher said was, ‘Yiddish is not an academic language,’ which meant he wasn’t picky when it came to grading. It sounded perfect! I enrolled the very same day!” He joked that studying Yiddish helped him cope with growing older. “I still get the young people’s discount in Yiddish,” he said.
Olniansky converted to Judaism after marrying Ida. He’s the one who pushed the couple, who now have a young son and two daughters, into the lucrative world of Yiddish publishing. (“Her life was much easier when she was married to a goy,” he said.) “Ida grew up hearing her grandfather sing her Yiddish bedtime songs,” he told me. “But she has the sad story that many Ashkenazi Jews have, that they had a vibrant community here where Yiddish was heard in the streets and the town squares, but somewhere down the line, it kind of fell away. There was no actively speaking community anymore.”
Now that’s changing.
Olniansky Tekst has published numerous Yiddish books for little kids, including three alphabet books starring characters named Alef and Beys, drawn by Niklas’ sister. The company just brought out its first classic, as well as its first book in translation: Der Hobit by J.R.R. Tolkien, translated by Barry Goldstein.
Tablet wrote about Goldstein’s translation in 2013, back when it was a self-published labor of love. “I had one of my grandkids scribble pictures of the dragon and Bilbo, and that was the cover,” Goldstein told me in a more recent interview. “I was flattered when Niki called—he proposed a hardbound, with Yiddish letters, not transliteration, with new cover art, very beautifully done.” Goldstein has also translated The Lord of the Rings and Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers into Yiddish and is pondering future projects. “There’s already a Yiddish translation of Winnie-the-Pooh, but I think The House at Pooh Corner hasn’t been done,” he said. “And I’d love to do The Wind in the Willows.” Olnianskys: Take note.
Before the Holocaust, tons of Western children’s classics were translated into Yiddish. Jews love to read, so it’s unsurprising that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were Yiddish bestsellers. Now that there’s a Yiddish renaissance among hipster and queer-identified Jews, there are once again wider markets for secular Yiddish children’s books.
Sam Zerin, a musicologist at Brown University, speaks exclusively Yiddish with his 3-year-old son. (A specialist in early 20th-century Jewish music, he’s also interested in contemporary Yiddish pop and the music of Disney; he has thoughts about “Let It Go,” which has naturally been translated into Yiddish.) Married to a Conservative rabbi, calling himself “halakhically observant but egalitarian,” he was dismayed to discover that contemporary Yiddish children’s books from Haredi publishers often depicted gender roles that didn’t square with his own values or family life. “In these books, boys are the ones who have adventures and girls stay home,” he told me. “Women do all the childcare, which contradicts my own lived experience. And non-Jews are often depicted as greedy, stupid, or immoral, a foil for the good Jewish characters. When I read books like that aloud to my son, I tend to change ‘der goy’ to ‘der gvir,’ which means the rich man.”
So Zerin was delighted to discover less problematic Yiddish children’s media from Sweden. His son loves the Swedish show Allti Kartong, which he watches online in its Yiddish incarnation, Alter Karton. Alter Karton is about the adventures of two robots, Alter Karton and Roytinker, low-budget Swedish educational ripoffs of C3P0 and R2D2. Zerin wrote about the show for his blog, Tate-loshn (“father language,” a play on mameloshn, which is Yiddish for mother language, meaning Yiddish). He noted with amusement that another Swedish children’s video depicts a little girl named Amanda longing for wintertime and Christmas cookies. Niklas Olniansky told me, “Some of the videos are very Swedish—the Swedish countryside, with pigs and people celebrating Christmas and eating ham. It is very goyish, but it’s still in Yiddish.”
Sweden isn’t the only place Yiddish kidlit (colloquially known as Yidkidlit) comes from. After the Jewish communities of Germany and Eastern Europe were destroyed, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, London, Montreal, Melbourne, Mexico City, and of course New York took up the slack. Tablet contributor Zackary Sholem Berger, a resident of Baltimore, has translated The Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and Curious George into Yiddish. As Isaac Bashevis Singer himself once said, “The Yiddish language has been dying for a thousand years and I’m sure it will go on dying for at least a thousand more.”
One must offer a caveat that Sweden is not entirely hunky-dory for the Jews. Kosher butchery was banned in the 1930s and remains illegal today; anti-Semitism has risen sharply in the country in recent years, particularly in Malmö. A 2013 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that nearly 60% of Swedish Jews are now afraid to openly identify as Jewish.
Yiddish, on the other hand, is thriving. Miriam Udel, professor of Yiddish at Emory University, told me, “I first learned about the Yidkidlit coming out of Sweden a few years back, when a dude from Swedish national radio got in touch with me about finding great Yidkidlit to read on the air, and to check the Yiddish in their first new children’s story in what was to be a series. I was kind of flabbergasted that Yiddish was an official language in such an unexpected place, but ‘Abi a prezhenitse’—‘As long as it’s an omelet …’” Your Tablet correspondent, a Yiddish imbecile, did not get this reference, so Udel explained: “A character in a Sholem Aleichem story tries to order an omelet and they’re out of all the things that constitute an omelet, but ‘Hey, as long as it’s an omelet.’ My feeling was, ‘They might not have a lot of yidn, but as long as Yiddish is getting some honor and respect somewhere, I’ll take it!’”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that only a medical doctor, not a mohel, can perform a circumcision in Sweden.)
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.