Magic Jewball

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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!


9 Comments for this post

  1. Julia says:

    Interesting! It had never occurred to me before that Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters, I suppose because I see words transliterated (?) so often.

    !אַ שיינעם דאַנק

  2. Alex says:

    Well done, Becca! That was a really great answer.

    As to dialects, I suspect it is somewhat as Irish describes: the difference between Brooklyn English and New Orleans English, or Brooklyn English and Australian English. I had a neighbor once who wanted to please her elderly mother, who had come from Germany (maybe?) as a girl, so my neighbor went to take a Yiddish class at the Jewish Community Center. After some time, my neighbor went to visit her mother in the home and spoke to her in Yiddish. The mother snapped back, disdainfully, “Stop that! You sound like a Galitz!” (“Galitz,” short for Galitzianer–a Jew from Galicia, a little area in eastern-central Europe that sometimes was in Ukraine, sometimes in Poland…it all kind of depended on whose army was strongest at the time.)

    Becca probably gets the humor. Apologies to everyone else.

  3. Irishcardinal says:

    I get it too, Alex. One of Russian my co-workers always made fun of our student assistant when he tried to speak Russian to her. She said he spoke with a Ukrainian accent [big rivals in East Slavic-dom], though he was Scottish-American. He learned from a Ukrainian-born language teacher.
    Fascinating answer, Becca. Thanks for your in-depth research. Most of my knowledge of NYC comes from watching 1930s movies and reading All of a Kind Family books. I’m just a little behind the times.

  4. Alex says:

    Ah, Irish, that’s a little like the excuse I use for my poor spoken French. My first French teacher, Mme. Gonzales, had come to this country to get away from Castro. My second French teacher, Mme. Rogers, was from Tennessee. During her class I always wondered, maybe this is what French sounds like in the South of France? But I don’t think it was.

  5. sarpon says:

    Another All-of-a-Kind Family fan! We should have a sign, like a secret handshake, but I don’t know how well that would work on the internets. Maybe we should sign every post with “I’m a friend of Henny” or “Don’t lose your library books!”

    This is my unresearched, off the cuff opinion, but I think Yiddish is the language the bound the Jews together before the creation of Israel after WWII. European Jews didn’t converse in Hebrew. My mother’s mother emigrated to the US from Russia when she 16 and of course she spoke Russian, but her every day language was Yiddish. She got along fine in Brooklyn because the Jews in her neighborhood in in the early 1900’s had come from Russia, Germany, Poland, Austria, etc., but all spoke Yiddish. English was her third language and she never mastered it because she never had to.

  6. Becca says:

    Julia, you’re welcome! My Yiddish is too poor to know how to answer you in kind. But yes, I love the photos of old street signs from the Lower East Side with all the Yiddish. It takes a lot of letters to make Yiddish words versus Hebrew which says things in much shorter ways.

    Alex, this was one of the themes of a Bintel Brief. “I overheard some Russian Jews saying Galicians were worthless… esteemed editor, do you agree?”

    Irish & Sarpon, I also loved AoaKF! I always wanted to dye my dress in tea and see how it came out…

  7. Alex says:

    Nu? How did the Esteemed Editor answer?

  8. Becca says:

    [edited to keep Becca from having to transcribe a whole long letter at 1am]

    Dated 1906

    Dear Editor,

    I am a girl from Galicia and in the shop where I work I sit near a Russian Jew with whom I was always on good terms. Why should one worker resent another?

    But once, in a short debate, he stated that all Galicians were no good. When I asked him to repeat it, he answered that he wouldn’t retract a word, and that he wished all Galician Jews dead.

    Dear editor, does he really have the right to say this? As a reader of your worthy newspaper, I hope you will print my letter and give your opinion.

    With thanks in advance,


    The Galician Jews are just as good and bad as people from other lands. If the Galicians must be ashamed of the foolish and evil ones among them, then the Russians, too, must hide their heads in shame because among them there is such an idiot as the acquaintance of our letter writer.

  9. JF says:

    well said, editor.

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