Yiddish getting a new hearing as American Jews reclaim roots

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Sep 3 14:37:47 UTC 2004

Posted on Sun, Aug. 29, 2004

Yiddish getting a new hearing as American Jews reclaim roots


South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - (KRT) - Decades after fading around the dinner
table, Yiddish is rising as a language of the lectern.

It's no secret that interest in Yiddish - the venerable, evocative tongue
once spoken by millions of European Jews - is blossoming among American
Jews eager to reclaim their roots. But Yiddish is growing as a subject of
academic inquiry, as well as personal interest.

Classes are sprouting not only in synagogues and community centers, but on
college campuses nationwide. Enrollment in U.S. college Yiddish courses
rose between 1998 and 2002 by 30 percent, almost twice the overall rate of
growth in foreign-language study, according to the Modern Language
Association's federally sponsored surveys.

The total is small - only 440 students nationwide as of fall 2002 - but
there's enough interest to support full-fledged programs in Yiddish and
related studies at Harvard, Columbia and Ohio State universities, among

In Florida, Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University is offering its
first for-credit Yiddish class this fall, and University of Florida
professors are talking about doing the same.

Miami-based Florida International University offered online and live
Yiddish classes in 2001, in conjunction with the Pinecrest, Fla.-based
Dora Teitelboim Institute for Yiddish Education.

Many students may well be spurred by their heritage, but colleges and
universities see Yiddish as more than a means to self-discovery.
Increasingly, scholars consider the language an important avenue to
exploring Jewish culture in Eastern Europe and the United States.

"The study of the Yiddish language and the Yiddish culture is really
bringing itself now into the central questions of the study of Jewish
history," says Jeremy Dauber, the director of Columbia's Yiddish studies
program. The university has long offered a Ph.D. in the field, started an
undergraduate major last year and counts about 70 students per year in
Yiddish language classes, he said.

For Holocaust scholars, the lifting of the Iron Curtain has brought to
light survivors' testimonies, memorial books and other documents in
Yiddish and other Eastern European languages, explains University of
Florida Jewish Studies director Kenneth Wald.

"There's a sense that if you're really going to understand the Holocaust
... you need to have a capacity in (those) languages," he said.

The language also offers the prospect of unlocking segments of
intellectual and cultural history.

Scholars say reams of Yiddish-language material is newly accessible in the
archives of the former Soviet Union, and U.S. universities and other
institutions have taken pains to collect Yiddish works in recent years, in
part out of fear they would be lost as use of the language dwindled.

Florida Atlantic University, for instance, has one of the Southeast's
largest collections of Yiddish publications, as well as sheet music and
recordings of Yiddish songs.

"It makes sense that, along with books that we have rescued ... we rescue
the most obvious component of Yiddish culture, which is the Yiddish
language," says FAU languages and linguistics chief Myriam Ruthenberg.

"We want to develop a readership for that collection and for other
collections ... to provide access to a body of knowledge that needs to be

And to some enthusiasts, teaching Yiddish in college classrooms confers
esteem rightly due the 1,000-year-old language. They note a distinguished
literature that includes works by Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, as
well as an audible impact on American culture. It is the origin of
schmoozing and shlepping, of kibitzers and klutzes, of bagels and lox.

"It deserves to have the same respect and credibility as every other
language," says David Weintraub of the Dora Teitelboim Institute, Florida
International University's former partner in Yiddish classes. Weintraub
says FIU budget cuts ended the arrangement. FIU officials familiar with
the program couldn't be reached.

The Teitelboim Institute still offers several levels of Yiddish online.

Yiddish is a mix of German, Hebrew and other languages. It once was spoken
by about 75 percent of Jews worldwide, according to the Yiddish Book
Center in Massachusetts. On the eve of World War II, the language was
spoken by an estimated 11 million and could boast a vibrant body of
literature, theater and film.

The Holocaust killed half the world's Yiddish speakers. After the war, the
language was suppressed in Stalinist Russia and passed over as Israel's
official language in favor of Judaism's universal Hebrew. It also was put
aside by many Jews who immigrated to the United States and were eager to

Some Orthodox Jewish communities around the world still use Yiddish as a
day-to-day language. The 2000 Census counted almost 179,000 Yiddish
speakers, and some longtime U.S. Yiddish publications, theaters and radio
shows have survived.

Revived interest in the language has spawned CDs, translations of Seuss
classics and other Yiddish innovations - there's even a Yiddish Google at

Ari Anconina is taking Yiddish this fall at FAU for a combination of
personal and academic reasons. The 21-year-old criminal justice major
likes languages - he's studied French, Italian and Hebrew - and he's
living with a grandmother interested in rediscovering her childhood

"I thought it would just be a neat experience," said Anconina, who lives
in Fort Lauderdale. "Yiddish would be something that my grandma could help
me with, and we could learn it together."

FAU is set to offer two semesters' worth of Yiddish this year, though
Ruthenberg hopes to raise money to add more advanced classes in the

Yiddish instructor Riva Rittberg, who previously taught at New York's
Binghamton University, raised $11,000 for the FAU program from Binghamton
residents Lawrence and Jennifer Schorr and Lillian Levy, Ruthenberg said.

The Schorrs' gift was a tribute to Lawrence Schorr's parents, part-time
Delray Beach, Fla., residents Max and Sarah Schorr.

Rittberg was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany, both of her
parents having survived the Holocaust. She teaches Yiddish to help ensure
"the preservation of what was (threatened with) being destroyed."

"People say to me, `You're a Yiddish instructor? That's a dead language,""
she said. "Well, it's not dead yet ... and people like me are going to
keep it alive."

For information on Florida Atlantic University's for-credit Yiddish class,
call 561-297-3860. For information on the Dora Teitelboim Institute for
Yiddish Education's online Yiddish courses, see www.yiddishculture.org or
call 305-774-9244.


 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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