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.