Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Jew & A – Yiddish

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On May 1, 2008
At 12:15 pm
Comments : 9

Even though I only need to apologize to IrishCardinal on this one, I’m going to apologize to everyone. Because I swear it won’t take me this long to answer your Jew & A question. It’s just that I knew very little about this topic and so I had to research it. And by that I mean ask a couple of people I know. We’re very scientific in our approach here. Anyway, finally the question. I mean, finally, the answer. Because I’ve had the question a while now.

IrishCardinal asks:

Is there still Yiddish theater, newspapers, etc in NYC? Is Yiddish a single language, or are the dialects from country to country different enough that a Russian Jew couldn’t understand a Hungarian Jew if both were speaking Yiddish? Or is it more like a person from Brooklyn speaking American-English with a person from West Memphis–close enough but a few words you aren’t so sure about?

First off, some education for the rest of you not as involved with languages as I know Irish is. Yiddish (or Jewish – Yid means Jew in Yiddish) is a language which is a combination of German, Hebrew, Russian, and several other things, spoken primarily by the Jews of Eastern Europe over the last few centuries of diaspora living. Anyone who has eaten Jewish food (gefilte means filled or stuffed) or practiced modern Judaism (aufruf, to be called to the Torah before your wedding, comes from “call up” in German – I know this because I saw it on an unemployment poster in Berlin) knows some Yiddish.

When the large influx of Jews from that area started coming to America in the late 19th century, Yiddish was hugely prevalent in New York with many newspapers (in 1915 there were 5 dailies here) and a thriving cultural scene. These days, not so much. More on that in a minute. But these days, Yiddish is mostly kept alive by force of will and lots of effort. The only community here which regularly speaks Yiddish is the Hassidic one. I’ve often sat on the train or in a shop on the Lower East Side overhearing a conversation between folks speaking in Yiddish. These sects came over together from Europe and still speak that language to this day. Unlike the secular folks who wanted to shed the vestiges of the old country ASAP, the Hassidim didn’t really assimilate and thus, Hassidic kids probably aren’t snickering at their parents’ accents as my Grandma did. Well, I assume, I can’t really ask her.

Yiddish Theater was large and active in New York at the turn of the century and probably through the 30’s. It had many stars, including the one you’ve all seen playing Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, Molly Picon. My source tells me there is still one Yiddish Theater in New York, the Foksbiene. Hassidim don’t go to the theater, which is too bad.

As for newspapers, I was really interested in this question myself, because one of my favorite books for ages has been A Bintel Brief which is a selection from the advice column of the Forverts, or Jewish Daily Forward, a paper that exists to this day. But way back when, it had a no-nonsense advice column for new immigrants confusedly trying to navigate Die Goldene Medina, the golden land, i.e., here. Anyway, the situations ranged from the mundane (“my boss docks two cents from my wages when I’m late”) to the religious (“I’m a free-thinker but I have a sweet voice – am I permitted to take a job as a Cantor?”) to the poignant (“My husband said he’d send for me in Russia when he had enough money saved but he never did and now I came on my own with my poor children and found he had married someone else.”). And they are all translated from Yiddish and preserved the flavor and phrasing of the original, (“Well, dear editor, I ran from that situation as if from a fire!”).

I knew The Forward was still around but it turns out they only put a weekend edition out in Yiddish, the rest is English. There are several other papers which also put out a once-a-week edition, including one by the Satmar, a large Hassidic sect.

As for dialects, this was harder to get an answer on. As far as I know, there were differences in the Yiddish spoken by the Jews of different areas of Europe coming to New York in the big immigration wave, but not enough to keep them from understanding each other. Plus, most of the immigrants came from areas of Eastern Europe which had the dialect closest to each other (as opposed to German and then Western European communities). And like everything else, when they all got mixed here, things became more standardized. I’m not sure whether the different Hassidic sects, which are the folks mostly using Yiddish today, have different dialects from each other. Since none of them will really talk to me, that answer will have to wait, unless any of my readers know. But they all seem to be able to argue with each other just fine, so there must be some understanding there.

For further research, the biggest archive and library of Yiddish is the YIVO Institute, which started out in Vilna (then Poland, now Vilnius, Lithiuania) in 1925 but is alive and kicking.

So now you all know why we refer to kipah (yarmulke)-wearing Jews as Yids With Lids. And as always, thanks for writing!