[lg policy] Atlanta: Oy vey! Yiddish makes a comeback

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 14 18:56:01 UTC 2012

Oy vey! Yiddish makes a comeback: Young people using language of Old World

By Dorie Turner

Associated Press

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

 "The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are
treasures that need to be preserved because we'll lose access to them
if we let Yiddish die," she says. (Associated Press)Miriam Udel leads
a song in Yiddish at Emory University in Atlanta. “The generation that
passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to
be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die,”
she says. (Associated Press)

ATLANTA — A group of American college students stands in a semicircle,
clapping and hopping on one foot as they sing in Yiddish: "Az der rebe
tantst, tantsn ale khsidim!" In English, the lyrics mean: "When the
rebbe dances, so do all the Hasidim." This isn't music appreciation or
even a class at a synagogue. It's the first semester of Yiddish at
Emory University in Atlanta — one of a handful of college programs
across the country studying the Germanic-based language of Eastern
European Jews.

The language came close to dying out after the Holocaust as millions
of Yiddish speakers either perished in Nazi concentration camps or
fled to other countries where their native tongue was not welcome.
Emory and other universities such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and
McGill in Montreal are working to bring the language back, and with
it, an appreciation for the rich history of European Jewish culture
and art.

"If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and
consciously," said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Emory who uses
song to teach the language. "The generation that passively knows
Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved
because we'll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die."

Experts estimate there are between 1 million and 2 million native
Yiddish speakers in the world, but only about 500,000 speak it in the
home — mostly Orthodox Jews. When YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
in New York City began offering summer programs in Yiddish in 1968,
they were the only such program in the world.

Now, they compete with summer intensive Yiddish programs in Tel Aviv,
Ottawa, Indiana and Arizona, said YIVO's dean, Paul Glasser. About 20
colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada now offer some
Yiddish courses, though just a few of them have degrees in the

The interest has grown because of the younger Jewish generation, which
doesn't feel their parents' embarrassment that their family spoke
Yiddish rather than English, Mr. Glasser said.

"Eighteen-year-olds today don't have that," he said. "There's nothing
to be embarrassed about. No one can question their American-ness."

Emory junior Matthew Birnbaum said he took Ms. Udel's Yiddish class
because he feels a personal connection to the language: his
grandparents still speak it.

"It's taught me a lot about my own roots and where my people have come
from," he said. "It's been a really interesting learning experience,
not just from the language perspective but also from the historical

It's not just college classes where the interest in Yiddish has grown.

Klezmer music has made a comeback with young musicians like Canadian
Yiddish hip-hop artist Socalled — whose real name is Josh Dolgin — and
Daniel Kahn, a New York-based folk singer who is recording with some
of the most popular Yiddish performers in the world.

At the Folksbiene national Yiddish theater and the New Yiddish Rep
theater company, both in New York City, young actors flood auditions
for "Gimpl Tam" and "The Learning Play of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, Son of
Sara, of Berditchev." The Congress for Jewish Culture holds coffee
houses monthly where young Yiddish musicians perform and bring in
guest speakers like graphic novel artist Ben Katchor, hoping to appeal
to a younger audience.

A search for Yiddish on Facebook produces dozens of links to groups
like "Di Kats der Payats (The Cat in the Hat in Yiddish)" and "Yiddish
Slang Dictionary."

"This is what everyone in Yiddish is trying to do: to get to the
younger generations and show people what's out there," said Shane
Baker, president of the congress and a non-Jewish actor who appears in
Yiddish productions at Folksbiene and New Yiddish Rep. "They used to
say in the family: 'Speak Yiddish so the children don't understand if
you're talking about something serious or arguing.' Now a hook is:
'Speak Yiddish so your parents won't know what you're saying.' "



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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