“Yiddish may be a dying language, but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language, and a mother is never really dead,” said celebrated Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer as he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
Rae Schultz has personally experienced Singer’s wisdom each time she leads a monthly Yiddish conversation group at the Harriett and Ralph Kaplan Estates assisted living facility in Peabody. “Initially people will say, ‘Well, I heard it from my bubbe, I heard it from my mother, but I really can’t speak it, I forgot,” said Schultz, a Malden native who grew up surrounded by family speaking Yiddish. “I’ll pick up a conversation and see how much they’re going to go into it, and before you know it, all the words come out, and they’re amazed that they remember.”
Schultz finds great joy in reuniting Jews with Yiddish. But all of these Jews, including Schultz herself, are elderly, and she is rueful about the future of a language that once helped unite millions of Ashkenazi Jews across the globe.
“It’s shameful – it is such a lovely language, the language of our parents and grandparents, and I just feel bad that hardly anybody has an interest in it,” she said. “It’s just plain dying.”
Yet Yiddish is still spoken by over a million religious Jews a day in the US, Europe, and Israel, according to published studies. So is it really dying?
As usual, it depends on who you ask. It seems that many of the North Shore’s Yiddish heritage speakers (people who learned Yiddish from hearing it at home as children, though often lacking any formal instruction in it), believe that its future isn’t particularly bright.
“It did make me feel sad, because something is dying out, and it’s something from your past you knew existed,” said Betty Gordon, a Kaplan Estates resident who attends Schultz’s conversation groups, where she plays Yiddish tunes with a harmonica. “How many people in the world still speak Latin?”
But unlike Latin, Yiddish is still spoken and/or understood by a sizable religious group using it in daily life. Hasidic Jews, determined to preserve the ancestral traditions of the Old Country, continue to read, write, and speak Yiddish. Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore counts both Yiddish and English as his first language, and still speaks to his father in both languages. He also noted that at yeshiva, he studied many Yiddish texts, and many classes were conducted exclusively in Yiddish.
“The Hasidic community that I grew up in has a very vibrant and robust Yiddish component to it,” said Lipsker. “There’s something about saying something in Yiddish that resonates with a very powerful authenticity.”
But even in the most isolated Orthodox communities, successive generations are more assimilated than previous ones.
“As soon as kids need to be on the web, English is the international language, so here in America, who is luckier than people who already live surrounded by English, and you have access to it without even trying?” asked Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University.
Members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement often settle in places where there are no Orthodox populations. “Chabad in America is about assimilating into the culture in ways that other groups are not committed to, so I think that Yiddish simply becomes not as relevant,” said Yaakov Lipsker, the son of Rabbi Lipsker, a doctoral student in modern Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Yaakov said that his Swampscott childhood was peppered with Yiddish phrases, but he did not become fully proficient in the language until yeshiva.
One summer in college, Yaakov studied at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, one of the country’s foremost centers of Yiddish preservation, translation, and scholarship. Yaakov attended as part of the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, which provides a free week of courses to select students between the ages of 18 and 26.
“There’s undeniably an interest among younger people in Yiddish – the evidence is all these summer programs keep bringing in business,” said Yaakov. “Within that demographic, there’s a lot of motivations – some of them are political, some of them are personal and family-based, and another category are academics interested in Jewish history who need that language to do their work properly.”
While increasing numbers of young people – often secular, liberal, and politically active, according to Asya Vaisman Schulman, director of the Yiddish Language Institute in Amherst – are learning Yiddish, there is talk of renewed interest among all backgrounds.
Harriet Moldau, a Peabody resident who grew up speaking Yiddish and now leads conversation groups in Florida, noted how many prestigious universities all over the world now have Yiddish language departments. She described attending a Yiddish course at Vilnius University in Lithuania. “To my surprise, the whole place was filled with college-age students, not all of them Jewish, either,” said Moldau. “There is an interest all over the world in studying Yiddish and studying our literature. It’s not dying out the way some people think it is.”
Betty Gordon brings us music from her “Sweet childhood years” spent speaking Yiddish with her family
Click on these links to hear Betty Gordon sing: