Monday, June 21, 2010

More on "Yiddish in 2010"

As if on cue in a follow-up to the post by "Chaverim kol Yisroel", here's an article on the Forward website corroborating  most of what he has written.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Yiddish is dead or dying. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yiddish lives and is thriving. The number of its speakers increases from year to year. Its speakers are proud of their language, and they identify strongly with it.

Of course, the Yiddish speakers of today look different and speak differently from the immigrant speakers of the turn of the 20th century. That is to be expected. Much has changed in the last century.

Today’s Yiddish speakers, the ones whose children converse among themselves in Yiddish, are overwhelmingly Hasidim. Yet the Yiddish spoken by Hasidim is not the same Yiddish that is studied and taught in academic settings and courses aimed at Yiddish learners.

Take, for example, Uriel Weinreich’s “College Yiddish,” which was first published in 1949 and today remains the standard textbook for the teaching of Yiddish. Weinreich’s book and other texts utilized in the academy use so-called “standard Yiddish,” a language artificially woven into a whole by influential scholars in the years before World War II as a compromise between what were then living dialects of the language. When “College Yiddish” was first published, there were still significant populations of native Yiddish speakers whose speech did, in fact, conform in large part to the language presented in Weinreich’s textbook.

Today, however, there are aspects of Yiddish taught in Weinreich’s book that have little or no relation to the Yiddish that is spoken as a first language by any sizable group of people. For instance, nouns, as spoken by Hasidic Jews, have only remnants of a gender system. While Hasidim do say der tate, (the father), di mame (the mother) and dos kind (the child), no one ascribees a gender to the words di tish (the table) or di benkl (the chair) — rendered as der tish and dos benkl in Weinreich’s textbook. For the most part, all their nouns take “di” equally. The falling away of grammatical gender is only one of several important language changes to have overtaken modern (i.e., Hasidic) Yiddish that the textbooks have largely ignored.

The dedication to Weinreich’s “College Yiddish” reads: “A matone di ale vos bay zeyere kinder in moyl vet yidish lebn” — A gift to all those in whose children’s mouths Yiddish will live. Now let us ask honestly: In whose mouths will Yiddish live? The answer, clearly, is in the mouths of Hasidic youngsters.

The time has come for the non-Hasidic Jewish world to face the facts: It makes no sense to teach learners of Yiddish that Yiddish has gender when the only communities of native speakers do not have gender in their language. To put this in a light more familiar to speakers of English, would it make sense for teachers of modern English to tell students that English nouns have gender just because English nouns once had gender? Clearly, when one teaches a living language, one looks to the living speakers as models of the standard language.

Non-Hasidic speakers of Yiddish may counter that it is difficult to know how Hasidic Yiddish is spoken. The community is impervious to outsiders, the argument goes.

But I have recorded the speech of Hasidic women and their daughters as well as the speech of Hasidic young men. I have found that Hasidim often are delighted to find that someone is interested in the way they speak. It is true that a language researcher needs to consider the sensibilities of his or her informants. This is equally true of all researchers dealing with any language. Non-Hasidic researchers who treat their informants with respect will find that Hasidic speakers are thrilled to find their language worthy of investigation.

The non-Hasidic Jewish world should invest some time, effort and funds in studying the living Yiddish language as it is developing among its native speakers. Linguists around the world go to extraordinary lengths to study the authentic dialects of a language in parts of the world that are difficult and dangerous to reach. Is the non-Hasidic Jewish world so apathetic to the fate of Yiddish that it will continue to ignore the language as it is continuing to develop in its midst?

Zelda Kahan Newman is an assistant professor of languages and literatures at the City University of New York’s Lehman College.

yunger-yidisher-yid •
I know Yiddish as it is spoken among the Hasidim and I know the literary klal Yiddish. But I speak Yiddish with three genders and I write it that way. As far as teaching Hasidic Yiddish first, most Yiddish students today don't learn the language for communication but learn it for reading literature or the Yiddish press of the interwar period. I use Yiddish to communicate with Hasidim, but also with elderly Jews in Eastern Europe, with Jewish people from around the world with whom I have no other common language, and even with non-Jewish Jewish scholars who speak it better than English. And for this reason it's essential to know standard Yiddish, especially the original European Yiddish words. I'm all for studying Hasidic Yiddish and am doing so but just speaking the Anglicized 21st century Yiddish of Brooklyn completely divorces oneself from all other Yiddish speakers (and there are still are many) and Yiddish literature which is written in a very different language. I had no problem learning Hasidic Yiddish as a secondary dialect and that's the best course of action for the serious Yiddish student who wants to approach it. As far as doing so, listening to radio programs like Kol-Mevaser is essential.

elyeh •

Chasidishe Yiddish is the primary spoken Yiddish throughout the world - in Brooklyn, but also in upstate NY, in Canada, in Europe, in Israel, and elsewhere. And it is the source of most written material in Yiddish currently being produced.
So, while the so-called standard Yiddish, which is an artificial construct of 20th Century literary groups is important for reading pre-WWII literature, it is the archaic and secondary dialect of Yiddish now. Chasidishe Yiddish is the primary live form of Yiddish now.

Gershon Benyamin •

I actually took the Yiddish I and Yiddish II courses at Lehman College with Dr. Beer. I had a maternal Litvak grandmother who was alive and well while I was mastering the cases and the suffixes of strong and weak declensions. I disagree with the notion that the current, dominant speaking faction is the one that determines in which direction the grammar must change. On the contrary, I believe it is important that the standard texts be kept in place so that if and when the current speakers choose to communicate via their Mameloshn in the written form, they will have a solid standard basis from which to edit.

I was born and grew up in New York City. I can assure you, there are many aspects of native New York City pronunciation that would never make it into a textbook. I still retain much of the dialect sound of my upbringing, but I know the difference between a subject and an object.

Jewish Daily Report Yiddish lebt.

You are so right. The majority of today's Yiddish speakers never heard of Weinreich or YIVO. If you speak with them, as I have, you will learn that they are not interested in Yiddish per se. It is simply the only language that they know in their community and feel comfortable in speaking.

Forget the classroom. Go to Brooklyn or Bnei Brak if you want the Yiddish of the future.

Jack •\

After suffering years of English grammar education, mostly in the Appalachian borders of central Kentucky, I tend to align with descriptive grammarians more the proscriptive ones. [“Never end a sentence with a preposition,” indeed!] Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that normalizing Khasidic Yiddish as the standard form is a mistake.

For example, what is the source of the apparent paring away of gender in Khasidic Yiddish? It would be truly astounding if it were a compromise between the three gender Poylish/Unkraynish dialect and the two gender Litvish dialect, as Poylish and Litvish have yet to compromise on anything linguistically. Besides, Khasidic enclaves tend to coalesce around rabbinic dynasties, resulting in segregation by regional origin, so what is the likelihood of households —the cradles of a mother tongue— forming with both Poylish and Litvish speakers? Mebbe the loss of grammatical gender is more the influence of the non-Yiddish “secondary” languages adopted from the surrounding countries of residence? Since the Khasidic marriage pool is effectively transnational, it seems possible that the loss of gender in Khasidic Yiddish is driven more by the contact of these “secondary” languages. The same process may be producing the increased use of periphrastic verbs in Khasidic Yiddish. If this is the case, perhaps we should examine whether Yiddish is truly more of a mother tongue among the Khasidim than it is among secularly educated Yiddishists.

Leaving aside the grammatical issues, the contemporary Yiddish fiction written for Khasidic and haredi readers is not much to base a literature upon. This has been addressed already in the FORWARD [Gennady Estraikh (02 March 2007) and Benjamin Weiner (22 May 2009)]. Modern Khasidic/haredi fiction is predominately a pale imitation of popular forms found in secular bestseller lists, and an even paler heir to the modern Yiddish literature of Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleykhem, I.J. Schwartz, the Brothers Singer and Abraham Sutzkever. More worthy contemporary Yiddish literature —possibly in smaller volume— is still available from secular writers and publishers.


Yes, Chasidim do not value fiction and therefore their fiction only exists to serve other purposes. So it is not developed.

Instead of fiction look at the Yiddish output in the Chasidishe press, in the newspapers, journals and even in the religious material written in Yiddish (most of the religious material is not in Yiddish). That is where the live Yiddish written language will be found.

Jack •

Stating that Khasidic Yiddish fiction is undeveloped because non-religious pursuits are not valued only sidesteps the problem. Newspapers and journals also get short shrift —except for the religious content— and so the Yiddish writing in them is undeveloped. What little I’ve seen of religious literature in Khasidic Yiddish suggests that the writing gets a pass so long as the content is kosher. The problem is not the quantity, but the quality of writing.

Phil Fink’s perspective below confirms what I have long suspected. An issue of the Forverts from the 1930s or the works of I. B. Singer are just as comprehensible to a Yiddish speaker who has learned mameloshn outside the Khasidic/haredi sphere, as today’s issue of the i>Forverts or a short story from Pakn Treger. The test would be whether a speaker of khasidish yidish could do the the same.

Phil Fink

Being a native born American from native born American parents ... who spoke Yiddish while I was growing in our house to my maternal grandparents who resided with us... learned mamiloshen . That's the good news. Ted news was that they never taught em grammar. The Yiddish had :Americaner" sound to it... what my "bobbe" didn't say in Yiddish she yiddishsized the English. And she was not alone. Today I speak Yiddish to my friends fluently... but not "chassidishe' Yiddish... I still can't understand "cain ein vort voz zeh redden"

For my age (65) I'm content. Oh, and by the way Yiddish has helped me in my professional live and when I travel and I always get as little something extra should the merchant or worker understand a "vort' or two.

Yiddish is not dead... It isn't even resting... Zi Leibt.

Bernard Yablin

12 years ago,I had the pleasure of spending 6 weeks with the Satmar kids in Kiryas Joel. I had to "transpose" my Litvisher version of Yiddish They did not speak much English until they started Kindergarden in the local public school district.My most common Yiddish phrases were"Please take off your shirt"and "get on the examining table"


the author must specify exactly which hasidim she has in mind and after that explain whether these particular hasidim would want to say even one word in yiddish to non-hasidim. also in my rather limited experience with hasidic yiddish - it seems pretty basic and crippled to say the least. yes it lives, sure it will continue. is it a rich and colorful language (as spoken by the hasidim) - I think not.


Yiddish does not have as may "rules" as college couses would have us believe. It was created just to insulate jews from their gentile neighbors and it served that purpose all along.

Ask the editor of the yiddish forward, how many simple and basic errors his writers and corepondents — who have earned their Yiddish doctoral degrees in the most famous universities — make in each and every piece they submit.

Long live plain and simples Yiddish. No grammer rules need apply. My mother, who speaks yiddish to five generations (including my own great grand children) knows of no rules.

Yunger Yidisher Yid

What a moronic statement. Can you speak any Yiddish? No language, in any form can exist without rules and grammar. Otherwise its speakers would not understand one another. Think about it. If I wrote the above as "?moronic a what stament, ken u yidish speak" would you understand me as readily? Yiddish had a very complicated grammar in Europe in its written form, a lot more complicated than English (three genders, four cases). The American Yiddish of Hasidim has a simpler grammar but the grammar is still completely distinct from English (although there are a few influences) and has hundreds of rules, just like languages or dialects of any other languages. 95% of the grammatical rules of Yiddish haven't changed at all in any place in the past 600 years (word order, word endings other than cases, etc).

le newyorkais •

Kharedi Yiddish is adequate for only 1 function----the daily and religious needs of Kharedim. It is useless for communicating literature, poetry, art, film, non-religious philosophy, and science/nature. That is why academic Yiddish was first developed and needs to flourish (if it can). Besides the awful grammar, Kharedi vocabulary is non-existent, relying on English or Modern Hebrew to fill the gaps (quick, say "cable TV," "hummingbird," or "Labor and Delivery Suite" in Kharedi). Fine study, Kharedi Yiddish as a subset of Yiddish, as you might study hip-hop as a subset of English. But if all Yiddish can do is help me converse with Kharedim, I for one, do not need it.


Yiddish as any other langauge does have rules, common patterns etc...

The question I would like to ask is: what is the fate of Yiddish? if it is in the hands of the Khereidim and Khsidim, I am sure that in so many generations that Yiddish will cease being yiddish and kholileh become merely a dialect of English like Yeshivish. But what about the veltlekhe, secular Yidn? I do not know of any "young" people especially in England who speak Yiddish, or who pass it on to their children, so surely in that sphere Yiddish will remain the language of an intellectual class just used for "reading literature" etc... then it is a dead language. One must speak to children in it, swear, pray etc... Someone tell me that the future of proper non American Yiddish is bright?

1 comment:

  1. Did you notice that the Jewish news has this week published the same story.
    A bit slow of the mark - compared to this blog


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