The dispute over whether Yiddish will survive or not — and if so, in what guise — has lasted nearly as long as modern Yiddish itself.
Nearly 100 years ago, in l908, the question of what Yiddish is and what its future might hold was posed sharply at a conference held in Chernowitz, Romania (now in Ukraine), attended by some luminaries from the Jewish cultural world, among them Chaim Zhitlowsky, Y.L. Peretz, Avrom Reisen and Sholem Ash. In fact, the conference was held to determine whether Yiddish was indeed a legitimate language, “a national language” of the Jews or “the national language” of the Jews. (The second designation, after some passionate oratory, held sway.) The conference led to some remarkable results: It laid the groundwork for educational and academic institutions, established a basis for Yiddish linguistic and literary research, and formalized the growth of a rich, multifaceted Yiddish secular culture — belles-lettres, poetry, folklore and drama.
Yet despite these achievements, there is no evidence that the Chernowitz conference and other similar subsequent undertakings (including the formation of the remarkable institution YIVO [Jewish Scientific Institute] in l925) actually succeeded in boosting the number of Yiddish speakers in the region, and thus perhaps clarifying the knotty problem of the future of Yiddish. In Poland, to cite one major example, theaters, newspapers, journals and book publishing all expanded, but the number of children in exclusively Yiddish-speaking (and generally excellent) schools was small compared with those who attended Hebrew or Polish-language schools. Various surveys carried out in the l930s — for instance, one cited by Miriam Eisenstein in “Jewish Schools in Poland” — showed that among children and young adults, Polish, rather than Yiddish, was most frequently spoken.
By the mid l930s, any sober, nonsentimental assessment about the future of Yiddish would have to acknowledge — painfully — that it was experiencing a marked decline, despite Yiddish schools, camps, libraries, theaters, newspapers and a thriving modern literature. More than twice as many students in Poland attended the Tarbut Hebrew schools than chose Yiddish institutions, and even more attended the other non-Yiddish schools available to the community.
A large segment of the Jewish population spoke Yiddish (including Tarbut school pupils, who among themselves spoke either Yiddish or Polish), and a panoply of organizations and institutions — indeed a whole way of life — sustained the language and provided a barrier against assimilationist pressures. In public, expressions of pessimism aroused bitter protests. Heartfelt discussions and conferences were held about the future of Yiddish, and “official” — that is, optimistic — ideology prevailed. To say that Yiddish might disappear was tantamount to disloyalty, perhaps even to treason (a tendency, incidentally, that persists, bizarrely, to this day). In private, however, many champions of Yiddish were profoundly worried about its ability to survive.
The Holocaust put an end to the dispute. The statistics are grim and familiar. Several generations of Yiddish speakers were annihilated along with their institutions in Eastern Europe. But the impact of “the final solution” in Eastern Europe also affected Argentina, Mexico, Canada and, above all, the United States. Yiddish life went into a decline as the source of Yiddish speakers — new émigrés — virtually disappeared.
Most important, the Yiddish intelligentsia in America was waning, too. Its ranks — individuals born mostly in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania — had produced the schoolteachers and the journalists, the poetry movements and the literary/political journals. Hundreds if not thousands of children attended afternoon schools in Yiddish, Hebrew or both languages. Decades later, however, few remember their Yiddish, and memories of the schools that these men and women had once attended amount to little more than nostalgia: The intelligentsia that had sustained the educational institutions was disappearing; their students barely spoke Yiddish and, with a few exceptions, they certainly lacked the wherewithal to become teachers of Yiddish and Yiddish culture.
My own experiences are relevant. I grew up speaking Yiddish and was educated at Yiddish schools until leaving Europe for the United States in 1941. I subsequently wrote Yiddish poetry and journalism — even for Yiddish-language publications — performed Yiddish songs in concert, and produced a recording of Yiddish folksongs and another of Yiddish poetry. I also acted in and directed Yiddish plays. From my point of view, and given current circumstances, I am bound to ask, “How can one talk seriously about the future of Yiddish?” Can one make any reasonable predictions, or even assumptions? Can a l,000-year-old culture that has been so effectively obliterated in the last half a century genuinely be revived?
Yes, say the optimists. Yiddish will survive as a result of the efforts of a host of undergraduate and graduate students who have carried on studying Yiddish and Yiddish linguistics and literature as an academic subject. They publish papers and books, often of a consistently high quality; I have attended scholarly conferences, often impressive ones. But while such blossoming of scholarship is a good and welcome phenomenon, and might indeed ensure the survival of Yiddish as a subject in universities and among small groups of determined Yiddish lovers, as well as a form of ethnic/cultural identification for many Jews, it hardly guarantees the future of Yiddish as a dynamic living language.
What about the “Yiddish festivals” taking place in one or another part of the American continent, often attracting large crowds? Can they possibly contribute to the survival of Yiddish? Hardly. The Yiddish that one hears at these gatherings is, with some exceptions, embarrassingly primitive. Furthermore, the criterion of success is often how many klezmer bands can be gathered under one roof to entertain a not very demanding audience.
What about the survival of Yiddish in two other areas where it had been widely spoken, the former Soviet Union and Israel? I am of course reducing an extremely complex issue to oversimplifications. However, Yiddish has little future in the former Soviet Union because Russian (and Ukrainian) Jews did not perceive Yiddish to be crucial to the future of their children and because Yiddish was persecuted as a “nationalist” and a “Zionist” tool, a campaign that eventually shaded off into pure antisemitism. In Israel, most Zionist thinkers and authorities disliked Yiddish as a natural adversary of Hebrew and (in some minds) an accursed form of the detestable “galut mentality.” This attitude, though now much attenuated, still persists.
Yiddish as a secular subculture is everywhere either moribund or already dead. According to some scholars, Yiddish as the living expression of a secular culture in any country is now being supplanted, reshaped and developed by an altogether different breed of Jews, members of ultra-Orthodox groups, in particular the Hasidim of one or another court. Many Hasidim, reserving loshn koydesh for communicating with God, use Yiddish in mundane intercourse, and some may raise their children in Yiddish. But it is more often than not a Yiddish completely divorced from the rich body of secular Yiddish culture, Yiddish literature and Yiddish academic pursuits that nourished Yiddish for so long. Peretz — despite his love of Hasidism — and Sholem Ash and Moyshe Leyb Halpern have about as much in common with Hasidic Yiddish as modern Lithuanian does with Sanskrit, supposedly its distant forbear.
Yet it is precisely in the development of Hasidic Yiddish, says scholar and linguist Dovid Katz in his fascinating new book, “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish,” that both the pathos and the great hope for Yiddish reside. He writes:
“… Around 2006, the international number of full Yiddish speakers in the secular world who actually make significant use of the language in daily life drops to about a million for the first time, and the figure will soon collapse altogether. In other words, the naturally rising figure of Hasidic Yiddish speakers is ‘crossing’ the demographically plummeting figure of aging secular speakers. In the unfolding story of Yiddish, it is a moment of profound sadness and, at the same time, a moment of exceptionally promising vistas for the coming centuries.”
For myself, no champion of Hasidism, a man whose life has been intricately bound up with Yiddish in so many forms and so many gilgulim, I am afraid the sadness of this moment substantially outweighs the hope of new vistas. For my vibrant and richly nuanced Yiddish world, its only future is, alas, its past.
Abraham Brumberg has written frequently on Jewish and East European subjects. His autobiography, “Journeys Through Vanishing Worlds,” will appear in print next year.