The Mameloshn Is Still a Mother Tongue

Yiddish Lives!

Speaking Yiddish: Hasidic Jews celebrate Purim in Brooklyn in 2007.
GETTY IMAGES
Speaking Yiddish: Hasidic Jews celebrate Purim in Brooklyn in 2007.

By Zelda Kahan Newman

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.