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Stop Kvetching: Yiddish Isn’t Dying

YIVO director of education says the language is still very much alive

Stephanie Butnick
September 16, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)

Enough already with the Yiddish death knell. Yiddish isn’t dead. It’s not even dying, according to Jennifer Young, director of education at YIVO. She writes that the trend stories that get published every now and then proclaiming the death of Yiddish are actually misguided attempts to categorize a changing language that remains very much alive, at least in the United States. While those stories may get clicks and pageviews, Young says they’re obscuring the reality of Yiddish today.

The latest offender in the Yiddish trend piece cycle, to which Young seems to be responding directly, is an article published in the Atlantic last week titled, “Oy Vey: Yiddish Has a Problem.”

“According to some estimates,” Young writes. “Yiddish is the fifth most commonly spoken language in Brooklyn, behind English, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park alone, the number of Hasidic Jews, for whom Yiddish is the primary language, is well over 150,000.”

That those speakers are primarily Hasidic Jews, Young argues, is not the divisive culture crisis it’s been portrayed as. In fact, it’s merely the latest evolution of a language that has for centuries morphed to fit the needs of a changing Jewish population. She also cites the growing group of young Jews who have embraced Yiddish as a way of engaging with their Jewish identity outside ‘traditional’ channels.

“While Yiddish is no longer the language of secular mass culture, its current “post-vernacular” status among non-Hasidic Jews means that the people who engage with Yiddish do so not as passive consumers, but as active builders of their own communities,” Young writes.

Plus, Yiddish has always been more a mystery than a monolith. There’s an entire field of Yiddish scholars who can’t agree on the language’s origins, and who probably never will. It’s why the question of ‘where did Yiddish come from?‘ remains so fascinating—and so contentious. For a ‘dead’ language, there sure are a lot of smart people arguing about it.

So, Young pleads, enough with the ‘death of Yiddish’ trend stories. The language—and its cultural continuity—is alive and well, and perhaps even thriving.

It is for the sake of these larger goals that it is worth trying to move beyond the discussion of the Yiddish “revival,” and to instead insist on talking about Yiddish as a living language and culture. The journalists who continue to “discover” the Yiddish revival year after year are certainly well-intentioned, but the overall effect of their stories is ultimately pernicious: until we can address Yiddish on its own terms and begin a new conversation without cliches, we will continue to lose ground.

Just please don’t call it a revival.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.