Oy Vey: Yiddish Has a Problem

The language is mostly spoken by Orthodox Jews who want to set themselves apart from the modern world. Is there a future for Yiddish in other communities?

Ai-yi-yi! Let's kvetch about the fact that you have to schlep all the way to Brooklyn to schmooze in Yiddish nowadays.

Chances are you understood that above paragraph perfectly, despite it being littered with Yiddish vocabulary. "Yinglish"—the marriage of Yiddish and English—is a pop-cultural standard: Girls' Shoshanna frequently sputters it, Jerry from the eponymous Seinfeld sprinkled his language with some choice vocabulary, and the late Joan Rivers joked about the inherent hilarity of Yiddish jokes, even when a person may not understand the punchline.

But while Yiddish words and phrases pepper modern American English, the future of the language is uncertain. The 2007 American Community Survey on Language Use counted just 158,991 people who spoke Yiddish at home in the United States, a drop of nearly 50 percent from 1980 to 2007; a 2011 update on the same report recorded 154,763 Yiddish speakers, a drop of approximately 1000 Yiddish speakers per year.

The data hints at a looming question that has troubled members of the Jewish community, anthropologists, demographers, and linguists alike: Is Yiddish—a language brought to American shores by Ashkenazic Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, whose origins remain hotly debated—a dying language?

Joseph Berger, a religion reporter for The New York Times, explores this topic in his book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, published Tuesday. In it, Berger recounts meeting Rabbi Hertz Frankel, the principal of a Satmar girl's school in Brooklyn, home to the largest concentration of Yiddish speakers in America, along with a large population of Orthodox Jews. Frankel comments on how secular Judaism has contributed to the death of Yiddish and a simultaneous loss of traditional Jewish identity:

The secular community is dead, dead, dead. There's no Yiddish press, no Yiddish theater [not quite accurate since there is one still-vibrant group, the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene]. Dead, dead, dead. There were hundreds of Sholem Aleichem schools, Peretz schools. Where are they? How many Yiddish books are being published? The secular people dominated everything and now they've lost. Hasidim are pushing everyone to be more religious, more Jewish.

Rabbi Frankel's bemoaning of the potential extinction of Yiddish illuminates a greater issue: The language has become synonymous with Orthodox Judaism and has lost its meaning within the secular parts of the faith. It's a dying language among mainstream Jewish Americans but a thriving one among the Hasidim, who speak the language almost exclusively.

Historically, American Jews have been more moderate and relaxed in following the tenets of Judaism, classifying themselves as "Reform" or "Conservative" more often than "Orthodox." In a study of Jewish Americans conducted in 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of Jews belonged to the Reform movement, 18 percent called themselves Conservative, and 30 percent did not identify with any denomination. In total, 83 percent of Jews in America did not consider themselves Orthodox, and even those raised Orthodox tend to switch over to the less traditional forms of Judaism at higher rates than those raised in other parts of the faith.

Berger experienced this switchover firsthand. "When I was growing up [in postwar America], by the time we went to college, many [people raised as Orthodox Jews] began to shed some of their Orthodox ways of life entirely," he recalled in an interview. "In the 50s and 60s, a lot of the kids I went to yeshiva with became fairly secular Jews. They might have gone to schul, but that's it."

But the Orthodox community's previous status as a reclusive community is changing—and rapidly. Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew, said that the growth of the Orthodox community is a story of demographics.

"The [Pew Research Center survey on American Jews] indicates there are very high fertility rates and large family sizes among the Orthodox," he said. "Overall, it appears that the Orthodox—and particularly the Haredi [an umbrella term for ultra-Orthodox Jews] community—is growing, not shrinking."

Berger pointed to mushrooming neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago, with "minivans full of Hasidic kids."

"Among the Hasidim, the growth has been spectacular," Berger noted. "In the 1950s, there were so few of them [in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in New York City's Brooklyn borough] there was only one school and you could fit an entire PTA meeting in a home. That's unthinkable now. There's 300,000 Hasidic Jews in New York alone, and they're growing fast."

The Census points to a curious pattern of aggregation of Yiddish speakers in four metropolitan areas, calling the Yiddish-speaking community "an extreme example of language concentration":

[Seventy-six] percent of all its speakers lived in the New York metro area, with another 6 percent in the Poughkeepsie metro area, 4 percent in the Miami metro area, and 2 percent in the Los Angeles metro area. This means that 88 percent of all Yiddish speakers lived in just one of these four metro areas.

"In the 1950s, there were so few Hasidim there was only one school in Williamsburg. That's unthinkable now."

The same report said that many Jewish American Baby Boomers grew up speaking Yiddish at home, but dropped it—along with an Orthodox lifestyle—when they reached adulthood. Berger hypothesized that today's secular Jews just aren't that interested in speaking Yiddish.

"Yiddish will continue to flourish under the Hasidim," he said. "[But] Yiddish as a language of writers will not because the Hasidim don't read those works. They use Yiddish as their lingua franca and to discuss the Torah. They don't read secular works."

The future of Yiddish is a mixed bag, he says: "There will be a substantial population of people speaking it, and they're going to increase. But besides that, not much else [will happen with Yiddish]."

But others in the Yiddish community have a different perspective.

"What we see ... is not nearly as bleak as some people make it out to be," says Jonathan Brent, the executive director of YIVO, which stands for Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or the Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO hosts a summer Yiddish-immersion program that has seen increasing interest in the language.

In fact, Brent said, the students that come to YIVO to study Yiddish break two stereotypes of students associated with learning the language: They "don't seem terribly religious" (although the organization does not gather data on religiosity), and very few claim Jewish heritage. "Our students come from all over the world: Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Germany … they are studying Yiddish because they want contact with this culture that once flourished in their land and are trying to retrieve it."

Yiddish also seems "cool" and involves an element of hipsterism—it's a return to a culture that is at once marginalized but also familiar, says Brent.

"Eastern Europeans and Judaism were marginalized in America by the dominant Christian culture," he said. "But it also entered the mainstream because of media: movies by Groucho Marx, fashion by Levi Strauss … it creates a tension that's exotic but familiar at the same time."

Michael Wex, the author of the surprise 2005 bestseller Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods, thinks a younger generation of secular Jews is seeking a connection to a culture and time they feel removed from.

"The American Jewish middle class is well entrenched and the culture and stigma attached to Yiddish have gone and vanished," he said, referring to a post-Holocaust disassociation of postwar Jews from their culture in an effort to become Americanized. "The vast population of Jews have the vaguest idea of what their religion is: They know about the Holocaust, Israel, holidays, and foods, but beyond that, people don't know that much. [Speaking Yiddish] is a way to assert and flaunt Jewish identity publicly without necessarily connecting yourself with religious beliefs. Yiddish rises above denominations."

Wex agrees that Yiddish possesses a sense of retro cool that may save it yet. He points to pop culture and social media as keepers—and encouragers—of Yiddish, arguing that Yinglish is a good first step in provoking the curiosity of potential Yiddish speakers, whether they are Jewish or not.

In a Tablet article surveying the scholarly disagreement over the mysterious origins of the language earlier this year, Batya Ungar-Sargon writes that part of the inherent quirky appeal of Yiddish in linguistic pop culture is its ability to provoke modern sensibilities while also being traditional:

Yiddish, it is an understatement to say, is not simply a language. It's a culture, an identity, a past both comic and tragic—one that continues to inspire feelings as diverse as shame and pride, loathing and longing, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, and accusations of both.

But what will ultimately save Yiddish from becoming a "dead" language is a renewed interest in the rich arts and culture of Yiddish. Shane Baker is a non-Jewish actor—an Episopalian, in fact, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and is normally the only non-Jew in the theater troupes he belongs to. He has devoted his life to the pursuit of the Yiddish arts and is a member of both remaining Yiddish theater companies in New York: the New Yiddish Repertory Company, with whom he is performing a Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and The National Yiddish TheatreFolksbiene.

Baker also moonlights as the head of the Congress for Jewish Culture, which recently had to close its physical offices due to lack of funding. He says the setback "doesn't mean that we're not going forward."

In fact, Baker has found some of Yiddish theater's most enthusiastic audiences in Ireland, where he traveled the day he closed the Congress for Jewish Culture to perform Waiting for Godot at a Samuel Beckett festival.

"There were only two people who understood Yiddish [in the audience], but they ate it up," he said. "By the third day, we were sold out. There is interest. These Irish festivals are proving you don't have to be Jewish."

Baker is passionate about Yiddish, despite his non-Jewish status. He feels like it is a language that literally and figuratively speaks across cultures. "When I came into the Yiddish world the only qualification I had was how serious are you, are you rolling up your sleeves and joining us in the fight [to save the language]," he said. "When they saw that I was earnest and speaking Yiddish, that was the only qualification the community needed."

"Yiddish is a way to assert and flaunt Jewish identity without connecting with religion. Yiddish rises above denominations."

It's that "fight" to save Yiddish that continues today and one that faces an uncertain future, particularly among youth. Jordan Kutzik is a 26-year-old writer for The Yiddish Daily Forward, a newspaper founded in 1897 written exclusively for Yiddish readers. The newspaper has seen its audience decline significantly in recent years. Kutzik is also the chairman of Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish, a youth group advocating the study of Yiddish.

A lifelong atheist brought up in a secular family, Kutzik thinks Yiddish's problem lies in how it is taught, even within the Jewish community.

"The general Jewish community is ignorant of Yiddish," Kutzik told me in an email. "They don't understand its importance and they don't take it seriously. Despite having been spoken by more Jews than any other language in history Yiddish isn't taught in a single non-Hasidic Jewish day-school as a mandatory subject and very few schools have it as a subject at all.

"The vast majority of Jewish newspapers published in Europe and America were in Yiddish," he continued. "And yet a lot of people write histories just citing materials in Hebrew, Polish, Russian, German or English. [It's] like studying France and only consulting texts written in Latin or English."

Another problem plaguing Yiddish is its lack of modernization. Berger called the language "stuck": It hasn't evolved from when it first arrived in America over a century ago. YIVO made attempts in the 1920s to modernize the language by translating science and math textbooks and creating words for previously undefined terms. But World War II and the Holocaust abruptly ended these efforts.

So why should we care about reviving Yiddish? After all, many languages have gone extinct, and at least Yiddish is being preserved to some extent by the Hasidim, arts communities, and digitization of literary records. But Kutzik, the Daily Forward writer, sees the language as a symbol of a culture that is at once an integral part of the American experience and the vernacular of Jews. To him, losing that connection to a culture is dangerous.

"Language is the lifeblood of a people and the body through which ideas are transmitted across the generations," he said. "Without knowing the language, you can't know the culture."