Against the odds, devotees in US fight to save Yiddish

"You can't possibly see a future Jewish life with the disappearance of a 1,000-year-old language and with it a 1,000-year-old culture."

yiddish 88 (photo credit: )
yiddish 88
(photo credit: )
Itche Goldberg and Jason Rubin are separated in age by 82 years, but they're linked by a common passion for an ancient Jewish language that threatens to slip into obscurity. The life of 102-year-old Goldberg spans the recent decline of Yiddish to its heyday early last century when about 13 million Jews - or some 70 percent of Jews worldwide - spoke the lilting language that gave English words such as "chutzpah" and "schmo." Rubin, a 20-year-old student of Yiddish, embodies the hope that somehow, some way, the language can survive now that there are fewer than 2 million speakers. "You can't possibly see a future Jewish life with the disappearance of a 1,000-year-old language and with it a 1,000-year-old culture," Goldberg, a top Yiddish scholar since the 1930s, says by phone from his New York home. "Somehow it has to be there." Ensuring the language and culture Jews brought from Eastern Europe is there for posterity is the goal of devotees across the nation, some of whom hold summer camps while others stage theatrical shows in a bid to turn people on to Yiddish. Revival bands perform traditional Yiddish klezmer music - a kind of Jewish jazz - with the same aim. And one New York group trying to pique interest among children recently published "Di Kats Der Payats" - better known as Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat." Others, like Rubin, contribute to the cause by putting in hard hours to learn the hybrid of German and Hebrew. After two years studying it at the University of Chicago, Rubin, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, is now close to fluent. "I almost felt I was cheated by not knowing Yiddish growing up," says Rubin, who squeezes in Yiddish studies between premed classes. "My appreciation of Jewish culture has increased tenfold by learning it." From Jake Morowitz's downtown office atop the Board of Trade building, he can see what's been lost in Chicago, which once boasted 200,000 Yiddish speakers. In clear view to the southwest is Maxwell Street, where shoppers still haggled in Yiddish over unfixed prices in the street's open-air market until 40 years ago. Today, there's virtually nothing left: Most original Jewish families have long since moved to the suburbs, and large swaths of the district were bulldozed in the 1960s to make room for a new University of Illinois campus. No more than 5,000 Jews still speak Yiddish in and around Chicago today, says Morowitz, head of the YIVO Society, which promotes Yiddish in the area. Yiddish has lost ground in New York, too. After World War II, several hundred thousand people spoke Yiddish in the city. Now, around 100,000 do. New York's Yiddish-language Forward newspaper reflects the decline. Its circulation was around 275,000 before the war; today, it's around 3,000. And where there were scores of Yiddish theaters in New York, just one is left - the Folksbiene. These days, it displays subtitles in English at most performances. One last bastion of Yiddish is the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community, which employs the language to insulate members from outside influences and hedge against assimilation. So numerous are the ultra-orthodox in parts of Brooklyn that some ATMs offer the option of conducting transactions in Yiddish. "In our world, Yiddish is flourishing," says Rabbi Moshe Unger, the dean of a Yiddish-language Hasidic school in Chicago. But there's a catch: Since Hasidics tend to shun the secular world, their affection doesn't extend to nonreligious Yiddish literature, theater and music. "We don't have time for that," Unger says, adding flatly that "the loss of Yiddish outside the orthodox community is not a concern of ours." Morowitz says Yiddish was once associated with bitter memories of the Holocaust, whose victims were mostly Yiddish speakers. Israel's decision to adopt Hebrew as its state language also caused many Jews to shirk from Yiddish. "When Jewish immigrants came here, they wanted to put that old ghetto life behind them," Morowitz says. "But young Jews today are no longer embarrassed by the language. There is a new influx of Jews wanting to learn Yiddish." Despite his optimism, Morowitz strikes a realistic note about the language's future. "We don't have any illusions about Jewish people starting to speak Yiddish to each other again," he says. "But young Jews can learn something of the language and learn to appreciate it more, and so appreciate why we are who we are."