Yiddish was at one time the international language of Ashkenazic Jews (the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe). A hybrid of Hebrew and medieval German, Yiddish takes a good portion of its vocabulary from German. It borrows words liberally from Hebrew and many other languages from the many lands where Jews have lived. It has a grammatical structure all its own, and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters.
It was only less than a century ago that Yiddish was understood by the vast majority of the Ashkenazic Jewish population as their primary language. Yiddish has vanished largely from our Jewish cultural life as a victim of both assimilation and murder. Nonetheless in recent years, Yiddish has experienced a resurgence and is now being taught at many universities. There are serious Yiddish Study departments at major universities. Many Jews today want to regain touch with their heritage through this nearly-lost language.
Yiddish is also referred to as “Mame Losh’n” which means “mother tongue,” a very affectionate term of endearment loaded with nostalgic memories of an almost lost culture. In fact this was the language of women and children, to be contrasted with “Loshn Koydesh”, the “Holy Tongue of Hebrew” that was studied only by men. The word “Yiddish” is the word for the “Jewish language”.
The History of Yiddish
It is generally believed that Yiddish became a language of its own sometime between 900 and 1100 C.E., but it is difficult to be certain because in its early days, Yiddish was primarily an oral language rather than a written language. It is clear, however, that at this time even great biblical scholars like Rashi were using words from local languages written in Hebrew letters to fill in the gaps when the Hebrew language lacked a suitable term or when the reader might not be familiar with the Hebrew term.
It is believed that Yiddish began similarly, by writing the local languages in the Hebrew characters that were more familiar to Yiddish speakers, just as we today often write Hebrew in Roman characters. We refer to this as transliteration.
The Yiddish language thrived for many centuries and grew farther away from German, developing its own unique rules and pronunciations. Yiddish also developed a rich vocabulary of terms for the human condition, expressing our strengths and frailties, our hopes and fears and longings. Many of these terms have found their way into English because there is no English word that can convey the depth and precision of meaning that the Yiddish word can.
Yiddish is a language full of humour and irony, expressing subtle distinctions of human character that other cultures can barely recognize. For example: What other language distinguishes between a shlemiel (a person who suffers due to his own poor choices or actions), a shlimazl (a person who suffers through no fault of his own) and a nebech (a person who suffers because he makes other people’s problems his own). An old joke explains the distinction: a shlemiel spills his soup, it falls on the shlimazl, and the nebech cleans it up!
As Jews became assimilated into the local culture, particularly in Germany in the late 1700s and 1800s, the Yiddish language was criticized as a barbarous, mutilated ghetto jargon that was a barrier to Jewish acceptance in German society and would have to be abandoned if we hoped for emancipation. Ironically enough we witness that at the same time that German Jews were rejecting the language, Yiddish was beginning to develop a rich body of literature, theatre and music.
Yiddish Literature and Yiddish Theatre
Both of these elements created a rich body of the highest artistic level and contributed greatly to the American and world culture.
From the earliest days of the language, there were a few siddurim (prayer books) for women written in Yiddish, but these were mostly just translations of existing Hebrew prayer books.
The first major work written originally in Yiddish was Tsena uRena (Come Out and See), more commonly known by a slurring of the name as Tsenerena. Written in the early 1600s, Tsenerena is a collection of traditional biblical commentary and folklore tied to the weekly Torah readings. It was written for women, who generally did not read Hebrew and were not as well-versed in biblical commentary, so it is an easier read than some of the Hebrew commentaries written for men.
1800s, Yiddish newspapers began to appear, such as Kol meVaser (Voice of the People), Der Hoyzfraynd (The Home Companion), Der Yid (The Jew), Di Velt (The World) and Der Fraynd (The Friend), as well as socialist publications like Der Yidisher Arbeter (The Jewish Worker) and Arbeter-Shtime (Workers’ Voice). Some Yiddish language newspapers exist to this day, including Forverts (the Yiddish Forward), founded in 1897 and still in print, both in English and Yiddish versions.
At about the same time, secular Jewish fiction began to emerge. The religious authorities of that time did not approve of these irreverent Yiddish writings dealing with modern secular and frivolous themes.
The first of the great Yiddish writers of this period was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch, known by the pen name Mendele Moykher Sforim (little Mendel, the bookseller). He wrote stories that were deeply rooted in folk tradition but focused on modern characters. Perhaps his greatest work is his tale of Benjamin the Third, which is thematically similar to Don Quixote. Mendele’s works gave Yiddish a literary legitimacy and respectability that it was lacking before that time.
The next of the great Yiddish writers was Yitzhak Leib Peretz. (I.L. Peretz). Like Mendele, his stories often had roots in Jewish folk tradition, but favored a modern viewpoint. He seemed to view tradition with irony bordering on condescension.
Perhaps the Yiddish writer best known to Americans is Solomon Rabinovitch, who wrote under the name Sholem Aleichem (a Yiddish greeting meaning, “peace be upon you!”). Sholem Aleichem was a contemporary of Mark Twain and is often referred to as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” From here to the Yiddish theatre is a small detour and we can well understand the folk tale of Tevye the milkman and his daughters which was adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
One last Yiddish writer deserves special note: Isaac Bashevis Singer, who in 1978 won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings in Yiddish. He gave his acceptance speech in both Yiddish and expresses the vast and wide gamut in English, and spoke with great affection of the vitality of the Yiddish language. Singer was born in Poland, the son of a Chasidic rabbi. He wrote under his full name, Isaac Bashevis Singer. His stories tended to deal with the tension between traditional views and modern times. Perhaps the best known of his many writings is Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, which was adapted into a stage play in 1974 and later loosely adapted into a movie starring Barbara Streisand.
The Yiddish Theatre is largely responsible and had a major influence on the American musical theatre. Musical Motifs of Second Avenue steeped deeply in synagogue tradition, is clearly woven into the Broadway musical fabric of the American musical theatre.
Yiddish is a treasured commodity of our people and expresses the vast and wide gamut and richness of Jewish life.