Efforts to Save Yiddish

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Nov 28 14:18:03 UTC 2002

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Nov. 28, 2002:

An effort to save Yiddish is gaining.  Books and recordings are being
salvaged. More ultra-Orthodox are using it in schools and daily life.

By Evan Osnos, Knight Ridder News Service

NEW YORK - Time has not been kind to Yiddish. But for the first time in
decades, the language that launched a thousand shticks may have a future.
For a century, the effects of war and assimilation had eroded the usage
and culture of the language once spoken by millions of Jews from Vilnius
to New York to Chicago. With only an estimated 500,000 speakers remaining
today worldwide, the vivid and wry blend of German and Hebrew that gave
English klutzes and chutzpah has long been predicted to share the fate of
Catskills comics.

Now, spurred by renewed interest in ethnic Jewish identity and a fear of
losing the language entirely, a small corps of preservationists is making
vast strides in salvaging Yiddish books and recordings. University
language programs in Yiddish are thriving, while growing communities of
ultra-Orthodox Jews around the world are putting the language to use in
grade schools and daily life. These seeds of a modest Yiddish revival
offer a rare bright spot in the winnowing of the world's tongues.
Linguists expect half of the world's 6,000 existing languages to disappear
within a century.

"Twenty years ago, the idea that third- or fourth-generation [U.S.] Jews
would be reclaiming the language was unheard of," said David Roskies,
professor of Jewish literature at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary.
Most Yiddish preservationists have no fantasy of the language returning to
its heyday at the turn of the 19th century, when New York City alone
boasted seven Yiddish daily newspapers. Instead, they hope that saving
once-imperiled literature and recordings will encourage future generations
to maintain a thread of Jewish identity and culture that many had
consigned to history.

The effort to save Yiddish has made particular progress in the last year,
led by the completion in May of a four-year project to digitize thousands
of books on the verge of disintegration. Created by the National Yiddish
Book Center in Amherst, Mass., the $3.5 million project allows users who
visit www.yiddishbooks.org to order any of 12,000 titles published since
1864. The project, which is named for its lead sponsor, film director
Steven Spielberg, has achieved what many scholars thought was impossible:
preserved three-quarters of all Yiddish titles ever published.

"One is tempted to use the word miraculous," said Ruth Wisse, a Harvard
University professor of Yiddish and comparative literature. Dating to the
10th century, Yiddish fuses Germanic dialects and Hebrew script in what
became the leading vernacular of European Jews. During World War II, half
of the world's 11 million Yiddish speakers were killed by the Nazis and
their allies. Among Jews who settled in the United States and Western
Europe, Yiddish faded fast in the mill of assimilation.

Yiddish has always maintained a foothold in ultra-Orthodox communities,
mostly in New York, Chicago and Jerusalem - and today, some of those
communities are growing fast. Enrollment in Yiddish-language programs has
grown steadily over the last two decades at many secular universities,
including Columbia and Oxford, said professor Jeremy Dauber, director of
Columbia's Yiddish Studies Program.

"These young people... are doing it because it is a way of getting in
touch with a culture that they are a part of but... has rapidly
disappeared," he said.

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