After one Shabbat dinner this semester, a few of us gathered in Hillel’s common area for the traditional Friday night activity of singing zemirot —Jewish songs composed in Hebrew. Out of the blue, a visiting prospective student began to intone a lyrical Yiddish zemirah. Nobody was familiar with it, but we cut our teeth on it with captivated enthusiasm.
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I’ve been in Jewish schools my entire life, and not once have I ever heard Yiddish used for anything but expressive slang. Not to kvetch about it, but this seems like a shame because just 70 or so years ago it was the dominant language of American-Jewry. At Brown, one of my friends told me he picked up some limited Yiddish during a flight of fancy and short-term romance with the language. He even proved it to me by deciphering a short headline in the Yiddish version of The Forward. That was the most Yiddish I had heard from anyone born after the Silent Generation.
It seems like it would be worthwhile for me to know at least a bissel of Yiddish, especially when some precincts of American Jewry still proudly conduct their lives almost exclusively in the Eastern European tongue. Most prominent among them is the growing Hasidic community, whose members use Yiddish as a native tongue.
Hebrew is taught in Jewish day schools because it is the language of modern Israel and Jewish scholarship. In the Jewish state, Yiddish was forgotten because it is not common to all Jews (Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews don’t speak Yiddish) and was viewed as a relic of Diaspora life—not relevant to the Zionist future. Indeed, Ben-Gurion actively sought to stamp it out and replace it with Hebrew. In the United States, Jews were lost from their Yiddish roots as successive generations shed the non-Anglo idiosyncrasies of the old world. Hebrew’s evolutionary advantage over Yiddish was presumably that it is the language of liturgy.
But while Hebrew has become a language that is practical for young Jews to learn – both for understanding prayer and conversing in the modern Jewish state – Yiddish offers a powerful way to celebrate and connect to Jewish history. Yiddish connects people to their grandparents and to the flourishing Ashkenazi-Jewish culture that the United States was home to decades ago, as well as the bustling Jewish life of pre-Holocaust Europe.
There is no better way to rekindle awareness of American-Jewish culture than to rediscover the expressive language that sustained it. How many younger Jews are aware of the Singer brothers or "The Brothers Ashkenazi," a Yiddish novel that once made it into the New York Times bestseller list? How many older Jews?
Some scoff that Yiddish is a dying language and therefore not worth learning. Yet, it has in fact been making a remarkable comeback in the past few years. December was an auspicious month. Seth Rogovoy at The Forward pointed out ten different ways in 2015 that Yiddish made an appearance in American life. New York City recently inaugurated the festival Yiddish New York. And the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene managed to secure a permanent home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
Yiddish studies programs are also cropping up throughout North America—at Columbia, Rutgers, UCLA, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Toronto, for example. With these universities recognizing the value in teaching Yiddish in modern times, it makes sense that our Jewish schools would do the same. It need not be taught as frequently as Hebrew – Yiddish is, after all, for cultural edification, while Hebrew is for practical life – but with a couple of Yiddish classes being incorporated into elementary school curriculums, it could enhance the Jewish learning of the young members of our tribe.
As the American-Jewish community becomes more and more American and less and less Jewish, it is more important than ever to latch onto those cultural peculiarities that offer some basis for togetherness. Indeed, it couldn't hurt to teach our community's children – and remind ourselves, the adults – of those aspects of Jewish life that existed before the State of Israel.
In a short essay from 2013, Jordan Kutzik, then a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, wrote, “Despite having a bar mitzvah, I never felt particularly Jewish or connected to the religion I was, in short, at risk of becoming the wicked son of the Passover Seder. The son who felt he understood his obligations but felt no duty to fulfill them or even to justify his lack of participation in the ceremonies. Then I learned Yiddish.” Kutzik found that Yiddish itself was Jewish education. Yiddish phrases draw inspiration from Jewish religious practices. “Learning Yiddish was, for me, a better course in Jewish history, culture, philosophy and, yes, religion, than I would have ever received in most Jewish day schools.”
Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.