Linguists are still divided regarding the exact breakdown of the periods in the development of Yiddish, but this is generally sketched out as follows:
At the height of its geographic expansion, Yiddish was spoken from northern Italy to the Danish border and Holland, from Alsace to Ukraine, from the Balkans to the Baltic and from the Dnieper to the Carpathians. In the course of the migrations of the 19th century, the area in which Yiddish was spoken stretched to the West, reconquering Western Europe (where Yiddish was becoming extinct) and moving into Great Britain, North America, Palestine, Latin America and even Australia.
The earliest form of Yiddish emerged between the years 1000 and 1250. Its basic structure is that of Middle High German. From 1250 to 1500, Old Yiddish appeared and gradually became differentiated from the dialects of Lotharingia by adding remnants of vernacular languages used earlier in France and Italy. With Middle Yiddish, which corresponds to the period from 1500 to 1750, there was a shift in the centre of gravity of the Jewish population towards Poland. The birth of Modern Yiddish can be placed around 1750.
The Yiddish vocabulary has retained traces of these migrations: words such as "reden" (speak) and "gas" (street) or "haynt" (today) denote the influence of Austrian dialects, while "shver" (father-in-law) derives from Swiss German.
In many areas, the popular language also reflects the passage of a Yiddish-speaking population. This is the case of the German slang Rotwelsch, as well as the dialect of Amsterdam and Bargoens(the slang of the Dutch provinces of Holland), as reflected in the following expressions(TN): mazzel/mazel (luck), majim/mayim(water), bayis (prison), bolleboos/baleboss (owner of a house or shop, or an excellent, praiseworthy homemaker). Expressions like kvetch (someone who is always complaining), laks/lox (salmon) and yenta (a shrew or gossip) come from the Yiddish-speaking community in New York.
TN: Where there is a double entry, the first is the original German/Yiddish or Dutch/Yiddish spelling and the second in the English/Yiddish spelling.
The modulation of phrases, the interrogative tone and the intonation contribute much to the specific character of Yiddish and lend themselves well to parody or derision, as illustrated humorously by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish.
Some first names and Yiddish surnames bear traces of past migrations and perpetuate foreign lexical contributions: Shprintza (Esperanza), Shnaiur (se¤or), Yenta (Gente), Sender(Alexander) or Fayvel or Feivish (Phoebus).
Generally speaking, there is agreement in making a distinction between two major dialectal areas, Western Yiddish, and Eastern Yiddish. The first includes the languages specific to the Netherlands, Alsace, Switzerland and Germany, while the second includes those which were used in Poland, Lithuania, White Russia, Ukraine (Volhynia and Podolia), Romania (Valachia) and the Baltic States.
J. Baumgarten illustrates the dialectal variations using the following example: in Western Yiddish, buying meat is expressed as kafn flash, in the area where the two dialects converge as koyfn flaysh, in Lithuanian Yiddish as keyfn fleys and in Ukrainian Yiddish as koyfn fleysh.
Yiddish has always been used in active interplay with Hebrew, which explains certain lexical transfers and the adoption of particularities from the Hebrew syntax.
One sees a similar dynamic with the use of the local language. Despite the existence of ghettos or distinct residential neighbourhoods, there has never been a real partition between the Jewish and the outside worlds. In addition, social interaction with the outside world has always taken place in the vernacular language(s). This linguistic exchange continues into the present day.
This literary vein reached its height with the work of Elijah Bochur Levita - a poet, grammarian, philosopher, cabbalist and translator, in short a genuine Renaissance man - to whom we owe the Bove Bukh (Isny 1541), which was inspired by the Anglo-Norman epic poem Bove d'Antona (Bueve d'Hanstone).
We should also mention the translations of the Bible that were based on the Hebrew (just as Ladino is differentiated from Judeo-Spanish), known as the Teitch-Chumesh, of which the first versions - those of Augsburg and Constance - date back to 1544. Also of note are the supplicatory prayers for women, like those of Sarah Bas Tovim. Another example of women's contributions to Old Yiddish is the Memoirs of Glueckel Hameln (1629-1719).
Among the most popular works are story books (mayses bicher), collections of tales, legends and hagiographic narrations. The most famous, the Mayse Bukh (Basel 1602), which was republished 12 times up until 1763, contains 255 accounts. The Tseno-Ureno, by the itinerant preacher Jacob Ben Isaac Aschenazi of Janow (first edition, Hanau 1622), remains the masterpiece of homiletic literature for women.
The Jewish festival of Purim provided a starting point for the dramatic repertoire, the Purimshpil (first known manuscript: 1697). In the tradition of carnivalesque enjoyment, this work gave rise to improvisations and parodies similar to the commedia dell'arte.
Finally, we should mention the distant origins of the Yiddish press: the bi-weekly Kurantn (The News), published in Amsterdam starting in 1686.
The transformation of this vernacular language into the language of a modern culture is the result of an historical evolution:
At the end of the 18th century, the Hassidic movement emerged. This was a mystical and pietist movement based on the spontaneous unburdening of the believer who communicates directly with God. Hassidism enhanced the value of the popular language, as a vehicle for this spontaneous expression. As early as 1815, legends regarding its founder, Baal Shem Tov (the master of the good name), and the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav are written in Yiddish.
In reaction, members of a modernist movement known as the Maskilim (followers of the Haskala, or Enlightenment) favoured adopting the Western lifestyle and were against using the popular language. Paradoxically, the Maskilim were forced to use Yiddish to promote their ideas, hence laying, albeit unwillingly, the foundations for modern Yiddish literature. This can be dated from around 1864, with the publication of Dos klein menshele (The Little Man) by Mendele Moicher Sforim, which lays stress on the specific traits of Jewish identity.
However, this progress was limited to Eastern Europe and to emigre circles, particularly on the other side of the Atlantic. In Western and Central Europe, Yiddish began to decline at the end of the 18th century, and continued to thrive only in Alsace.
Mendele Moicher Sforim (1835-1917), Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) and Isaac Leibush Peretz (1851-1915) - who became classical authors during their lifetime. - Mendele (a pseudonym for S.J. Abramovitch) was known as the "grandfather" of Yiddish letters, as well as being one of the founders of modern Hebraic literature. His most important works include Fishke the Lame (1869), a picaresque novel drawing considerable inspiration from EugSne Sue. In addition to the conventional melodrama, the book offers gripping examples of the realism and empathy present in circles of down-and-outs and wandering Jews (which the author frequented during his youth) and almost clinical descriptions of the pitiless underworld of the Jewish ghetto as observed by the main characters, the vagabond Fishke and his companion. However, Mendele's masterpiece remains Benjamin the Third (1878), a version of the Don Quixote theme steeped in fierce irony. This satire on the blinkered provincialism of the Jewish village, the shtetl, with its hopeless wallowing in mediocrity and addiction to the past, contains both social criticism and an apology for the Haskala. And yet, the vehemence and sarcasm of this work do not preclude compassion or warmth. Sholem Aleichem (a pseudonym for Sholem Rabinovitch) was known as "the Jewish Mark Twain," his popularity eclipsing that of all other Yiddish authors. Aleichem excelled in the most diverse of genres: comedy, drama, the novel, the novella and journalism. No one could give life, with so much humour, to such a gallery of misfits or "Luftmenshen," those traders "who dealt in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits" (TN). According to J. Baumgarten, the unforgettable literary types Aleichem created constitute an "authentic Jewish human comedy," among them the familiar characters of Menahem Mendel, Motl the son of the singer and Tevye the dairyman. Aleichem's ironic humour is based on very astute observation of the conflict of values resulting from the secularisation of Jewish society. His deceptively affable humour is often grating, as the author is well aware of the tragedies of daily life. Of the three founders of contemporary iddish letters, Aleichem did most to shape the taste of his readership and to influence his fellow authors.
TN: Description from the Introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Eds., Schocken Books, New York, 1974, p.38.
The case of Peretz, who was influenced by new ideas and sympathised with the Jewish workers' movement, is more complex. He immediately made a name for himself by the ease with which he handled all styles: he was a poet as well as a dramatist, novelist and essayist. In Monish - a novel written in the form of a poem - he describes the ruin of the soul of a young Talmudic prodigy. The resolutely modern tone of this work expresses ancient wisdom: the seductive power of yetzer hara (or Evil Inclination). This rationalist is at home in the Hasidic world, describing its piety and fervour with rare felicity. And when he speaks about the unquestioning passivity of the simple folk, weighed down by the burdens of life and doomed to misery (as in his famous novella Bontsha the Silent), it is always with tenderness. His enigmatic masterpiece, the symbolic drama, A Night on the Old Market, takes characters from the shtetl through one frenzied night, during which the dead rise to join the living in a tragic yet carnivalesque parade. As this hallucinatory dance ends, the entranced viewer ponders the meaning of the metaphorical shipwreck of traditional Jewish life on the shoals of modernism. Indeed the stage directions call for the Buffoon's closing cry ("Everyone to the synagogue!") to be drowned out by the wail of the factory siren.
With their new school of writing, these masters inspired many other writers, who distinguished themselves in all literary genres. This second generation put a new twist on traditional themes in order to deal with universal subjects: urban life, nature, solitude, revolt and love. This literature embraces all contemporary literary schools, trends and styles, and the following subjective list only scratches the surface. In the field of drama, Anski's The Dybbuk transposes the themes of eternal love and demonic possession into the world of the Hasidim (admirably filmed by Waszynski in 1937, thus bringing recognition to the Yiddish film). The field of poetry includes the proletarian and nationalistic lyricism of M. Rosenfeld, the exuberant and spirited expressionism of P. Markish, the delicate intimacy of Mani Leib, the nostalgic troubadour ballads of Itsik Manger, the apocalyptic stanzas of H. Leivik, the songs of absolute despair of J. Glatstein and the provocative verses of A. Sutzkever. Leading writers of fiction include D. Bergelson and I.J. Singer, with their sweeping, historic family sagas, and the subtle Der Nister (a pseudonym for P. Kahanovitch), whose fascinating parables are impregnated with bits of Jewish mysticism. In 1978, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to the novelist and storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, in his own inimitable way, described the presence of demoniacal influences in everyday life.
With the rise of nationalism and the appearance of modern anti -Semitism, a collective Jewish consciousness emerged, notably via the demand for cultural autonomy, with Yiddish as its vehicle. This Yiddish current became an influential factor in Jewish life.
The same nationalistic aspirations inspired the work of the main Jewish workers' party, the Bund. Thus, the attempt to substitute Yiddish for a territory.
During the first years of the Soviet regime, the authorities encouraged the use of Yiddish, which was presented as a popular or proletarian language, in contrast to Hebrew. Hence the development of a network of various Yiddish language institutions - schools, research centres and academies - especially in Byelorussia and Ukraine. At the end of the 1920s, Moscow even recommended setting up a Yiddish-speaking "Autonomous Jewish Republic," Birobidjan, on the banks of the Amur River.
In Poland, the Baltic States, Romania and in the Diaspora, the period between the two World Wars witnessed a flowering of Yiddish secular culture, which lent dynamism to Jewish society. However, starting in the mid-1930s, the use of Yiddish declined everywhere, as the majority of Jewish parents wished to raise their children using the language of the country in which they lived.
Nevertheless, like all languages, Yiddish is much more than a simple means of expression. It should also be seen as the material manifestation of a particular culture - "yiddishkeit"or Yiddishness - a term designating the specificity, conviviality and values of an endangered way of life, those of "Yiddishland," which are rooted in the transmission, via the language, of a whole constellation of religious, communal, cultural, folkloric, culinary, literary and artistic references. Marshall McLuhan's aphorism "the medium is the message" is confirmed here, as this evanescent language fleetingly evokes a disappearing world whose colours, odours and sounds continue to permeate the present.
Thus, along with traditional Yiddish music - in its religious, secular or classical forms (even operas have been composed in and translated into Yiddish) - "klezmer" orchestras are currently very popular. "Klezmer," a traditional form of musical expression in Eastern Europe, has experienced a real renaissance in the United States, Israel and Europe that reaches far beyond Jewish circles. These Yiddish vocal and instrumental musical ensembles draw their inspiration from a tradition that has been deeply influenced by Balkan sources ("fraylekhs, "doinas" and bulgars"), but enriched with themes and rhythmic influences borrowed from jazz. Dave Tarras, Naftule Brantwein and Abe Schwartz are just a few of the leading composers and musicians working in the "klezmer" genre.
However, it is the various socio-cultural networks that have been most instrumental in disseminating YIVO's work, creating scholastic and pedagogical networks, libraries, theatre troops and literary reviews. These networks include most notably emigre mutual assistance organisations called landmanshaftn and mutual assistance societies like the Arbeter Ring (or Workmen's Circle). This support system developed a veritable living space for Yiddish, propagating a new Jewish secular culture in tune with contemporary artistic, cultural and literary currents.
Thus, in 1937 Poland alone had 27 daily papers, 100 weekly papers and 58 monthly periodicals in Yiddish. In 1916 in New York, the Yiddish-speaking daily press had a circulation of 537,000, of which nearly 250,000 were accounted for by Forverts alone.
The first is, of course, the Shoah (or Holocaust): the Nazi genocide wiped out nearly all of Europe's Jewish population, especially in the East, where the largest number of Yiddish-speakers had been found. The second is the Stalinist purges, which totally suppressed Yiddish cultural life starting in 1948. In the years that followed, all of the Soviet Yiddish cultural institutions - newspapers, magazines, theatres, institutes - were closed down, while many of the leading Yiddish writers and authors were executed on 12 August 1952. Although not as tragic, another fact has contributed to the atrophy of Yiddish culture, which was already greatly compromised by the two above-mentioned disasters: Yiddish-speaking parents have not succeeded in passing on their language, and their children have, at best, only passive knowledge of it. Without the home as a place where this culture can flourish, Yiddish has gradually become "a language spoken by grandmothers" (to quote a little Belgian girl) and will ultimately be "no one's language" (as so aptly put by Rachel Ertel).
One notable exception is the city of Antwerp, where the majority of the Jewish population is concentrated in a distinct neighbourhood and has preserved its uniqueness. This is reinforced by the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox sector - notably the Hassidim, who have a high birth rate - which continues to use Yiddish as its vernacular. Thus, this large Flemish port city has become one of the most important world centres for Yiddish, although its Jewish population numbers only about 17,000. Nearly 2,500 students there attend schools where the religion courses are given in Yiddish, and more than 1,300 are enroled in Talmudic academies (yeshivot) in which Yiddish is the language of instruction.
This last Yiddish-speaking bastion reflects the singularity of the former Eastern European communities. Only a few groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews in London (Clapton and Stamford Hill), in New York (Brooklyn and Williamsburg), in Israel (Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and Bnai-Brak near Tel Aviv) and in certain neighbourhoods of Paris are comparable.
However, in this environment, the language survives in an impoverished form because those who speak it have little interest in modern Yiddish culture, causing the level of the popular idiom to regress. The use of Yiddish may stabilise in this residual form, with its use being limited to Orthodox or ultra-religious circles. Thus, in Amsterdam, where the local Yiddish had not been spoken since the end of the 19th century, a traditional, ultra-Orthodox, Yiddish-language school (cheder) opened in 1974 and currently has 230 pupils.
This vitality is also reflected by the founding of two new magazines in Paris, one of which, Der yidisher tam-tam, targets beginners. Other periodicals are published in Oxford, Vilnius, Kharkov and Moscow, while the two main centres of activity are still the United States and Israel.
As Régine Robin, a professor at the University of Montreal specialising in Yiddish litterature, particularly in the former Soviet Union, said with reference to the Kaddish (the age-old Jewish prayer for the dead): Let there be no Kaddish for Yiddish!
Jean Baumgarten, Le yiddish, "Que sais-je?" collection, P.U.F., Paris 1990 Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish, University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles - Oxford, 1990 Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974 Otto F. Best, Mameloschen. Yiddish, Eine Sprache und ihre Literatur, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt 1973 Encyclopedia Judaica (under the heading "Yiddish"), Jerusalem 1971
The largest collection of Yiddish works in Europe is found in the Bibliothèque Medem (Paris), which has more than 25,000 titles, in addition to 6,000 reference works in Hebrew and in the main European languages. Brussels (the Yikult theatre), Warsaw, Bucharest and Kiev have Yiddish language theatre troops.
Association pour l'Etude et la Diffusion de la Culture Yiddish(AEDCY), B.P. 2356, 75122 Paris Cedex 03, Tel./Fax: 01 42 71 30 07 (organises correspondence courses) Centre Medem pour le Yiddish, 52, rue Ren, Boulanger, 75010 Paris, Tel.: 01 42 02 17 08, Fax: 01 42 02 17 04 Institut d'Etudes du Judaisme (Inst. Martin Buber), Ave. F.D. Roosevelt, 1050 Brussels, Tel: 02 650.33.48, Fax: 02 650.33.47 Friends of Yiddish, 9 Croft Street, London E1 8LU (Tel.: 0171-488.3092 Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies, Golden Cross Court, 4 Cornmarket, Oxford OX1 3EX, Tel.: 01865-798989, Fax: 01865-798987
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