A maskil once asked a gadol, who spent the majority of his time studying halacha, how he knew so much Hebrew grammar. After all, the maskil devoted most of his time to dikduk and did not know it half as well. The gadol explained that Hashem had given him his dikduk gratis, as part of his Torah package, and compared the maskil to a stranger who walked into a warehouse demanding free wrapping paper and string.
“Why should we give you anything for free?” the warehouse manager demanded.
“Don’t you wrap up all your customers’ goods without charge?” asked the freeloader, in surprise.
“People who buy goods get free paper and string,” retorted the manager. “People like you have to pay in full.”
“In the same way,” said the gadol, “I get Hebrew grammar for ‘free’ when I study the other parts of the Torah.”
The same can be said of Yiddish. Secular Jews have fought mightily to save it from extinction for its own sake but its continued existence is guaranteed by Chareidi Jews who have long used it to enhance their Yiddishkeit.
DID YIDDISH START OUT AS FRENCH?
Yiddish was developed by Ashkenazi Jews in Western Europe and existed in an early form by the 13th century. The oldest surviving Yiddish text is a little poem found in a Machzor produced around 5032/1272 that reads:
“Gut tak im betage,
Se waer dis Machsor in beis hakenesses trage!”
(May he be granted a good day, whoever carries this Machzor into shul!”
Typically, the sentence is a mixture of German and Hebrew. Although Yiddish is largely based on German, some people did not like this idea, especially after the Holocaust, and claimed that it really started in France as a Jewish-French dialect, known as Laaz. To back up this theory, they pointed out that Yiddish contains many words of Old French, such as bentshn (bless), which is based on the Old French word, benediction. Two similar examples are leynen (read) and cholent. However, some Old French words could have found their way into Yiddish from the writings of Rashi and the baalei Tosfos.
As Jews spread into Slavic countries like Poland or Russia, Slavic words crept into Yiddish. For example, the Yiddish tactic of tacking nik to the end of a word is borrowed from the Slavs. Thus nudne means boring while nudnik refers to a persistently boring person.
As a result of all these permutations, the simplest Yiddish sentence is often an amalgamation of several languages. If someone says, for example, “Der zeyde hot gebentsht Chanike licht,” (the grandfather
lit Chanukah candles), the basic grammar is German, while zeyde is Slavic (so is bobe, grandmother), bentsh is from Old French, and Chanukah is Hebrew.
Yiddish became the mama lashon (spoken language) of Ashkenazi Jews and was used to print books for women who were ignorant of Hebrew. These included Chas- sidishe tales, the medrashim in Tzenah Ur’enah, and Yiddish prayers known as Techines. As Jews migrated eastward, Yiddish split into two types, Western Yiddish and Eastern Yiddish, but after the Enlightenment, Western Yiddish became virtually extinct and was supplanted by German. The claim of one maskil embodies the prevailing attitude: “Yiddish grates on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable, in fact, of expressing sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a heritage of the dark Middle Ages.”
There were three chief dialects of Yiddish in the East: “Lithuanian,” “Polish” and “Ukranian.” These were split up into dozens of sub-dialects and, at present, Columbia University is hard at work mapping the precise locations of them all. After decades of work, the university published Volume One of their investigations, entitled “The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry.” This volume, which was published in 5752/1992, is expected to be the first of many. To produce the Atlas, elderly Jews were subjected to interviews of up to fifteen hours in total, and barraged with over 3,000 questions.
The Atlas discusses not only language differentiations but also cultural curiosities, such as the exact geographical line that separates those Jews who sugared their gefilte fish and those who did not, and the locale of Jews who ate tomatoes and of those who did not, considering them unsuitable to eat because of their blood-red juice.
Nowadays, there are two major varieties of Yiddish, “Litvish” (Russian) and “Galitzianish,” (Polish) that have differing modes of pronunciation. Litvaks will say zun (sun), zayn (to be), zogn (to say), while Galitzianers will say zin, zan, and zugn.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF SECULAR YIDDISH
By the late 19th and early 20th century, maskilim in Eastern Europe developed what is known as the Golden Age of secular Yiddish literature. Its infamous authors included Mendele Mocher Sforim and the humorist, Sholom Ale- ichem (Solomon Rabinowitz), who is regarded as the Yiddish equivalent of American author, Mark Twain. Thousands of Yiddish books were published, including translations of European classics. This was when the scourges of Yiddish theatre and cinema had their heyday. Yiddish became one of the official languages of Belarusian SSR (a Soviet republic) and, in 5685/1925, the Yiddish Scientific Institute (later YIVO) was founded by members of the Yid- dishist movement, who rejected both Zionism and Judaism, and dreamt of uniting Jews through a secular Yiddish culture. New York had seven Yiddish-language papers in 5685/1925.
By World War Two, Yiddish had never been spoken by more people. It is estimated that between ten and eleven million Jews were fluent Yiddish speakers, making it the widest spoken Jewish language in the world. Three factors irredeemably reversed the situation.
First, Russia reversed its policies and discouraged the official use of Yiddish. In 5712/1952, almost all of Russia’s leading writers and poets were killed or exiled.
Second, during the Holocaust most Yiddish speakers in Europe were murdered. Although millions survived, many of them went to places like America where secular Jews were anxious to shake off the trappings of Eastern Europe. Thus, although Yiddish was the mother tongue of about 35 percent of the Jews of America in 5700/1940, by 5720/1960, the number had dropped to 17 percent.
Third, in Israel, Yiddish had lost the fight to become the country’s national language, largely because of the efforts of Eliezer ben Yehudah to revive Hebrew as a national tongue. Gedolim, such as Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, opposed Hebrew. “I write in Yiddish,” he once said, “because one of the most destructive aspects of the secular schools is that they have made the Hebrew language into a cardinal principle of Judaism.”
Palestine became a lingual battlefield. In the 5680s/1920s and 5690s/1930s, a group existed, called the “Battalion for the Defense of the Language,” whose slogan was: “Jew, speak Hebrew!” Members of this organization threatened to boycott shops that did not write their signs in Hebrew and disrupted Yiddish cultural activities, sometimes by throwing eggs and ink at the participants.
Nevertheless, although resisted by official philologers such as the members of “The Academy for the Hebrew Language,” a lot of Yiddish has crept into modern Hebrew. For example, the common greeting “Mah nishma?” (“What is new?” lit., “What is heard?”) comes from the Yiddish expression, “ Voz hert Zich?”
Although the mass immigration from Eastern Europe has made Yiddish a common language in the streets of Israel, the tens-of-thousands of Yiddish-speaking newcomers are generally in their sixties, and no one is picking it up from them.
However, a remnant of Yiddish has crept into the English language, including such common words as glitch, bagel, blintz, chutzpah, kibitz, kvetch, lox, maven, nosh, schlep and spiel.
Common English idioms derived from Yiddish include, “Enough already!” “OK by me,” and “I need this like a hole in the head.”
WHERE HAS YIDDISH SURVIVED?
It is estimated that, nowadays, there are probably fewer than two million Yiddish speakers worldwide.
Over the past decade or so, there has been an increased interest in Yiddish through misdirected Jews searching for their roots and hoping to find something in the remnants of the Yiddishist camp. Yiddish courses are offered by many universities and Jewish cultural organizations. In the 5740s/1980s, an American Jew, Aaron Lansky, created the “National Yiddish Book Center” whose ambition it was to rescue Yiddish
books from their aging owners before they were lost forever. Based on his experiences, he wrote the book, Outwitting History: the Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.
However, it is unlikely that anyone will ever read most of these books because Yiddish is thriving in a society where such works are generally taboo. Hundreds of thousands of Jews still speak Yiddish in Chareidi communities, such as in Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak, Boro Park, Williamsburg, London and Montreal, and teach it to their children. Hundreds of thousands of children are still taught Chu- mash with Yiddish teitch (a word, by the way, which is a derivative of Deutch – German). A large proportion of Ashkenazi high-level shiurim and mussar shmuessen are given in Yiddish and many Rebbes generally deliver their discourses in Yiddish.
Yiddish remains firmly entrenched in the minds and hearts of those who love it best.