WHAT IS YIDDISH?
Yiddish is the language traditionally spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. It is a fusion of Middle High German, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with elements borrowed from other languages depending on the specific Yiddish dialect in question.
Like other Jewish languages, Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet. Why? Well, at a time in history when literacy wasn’t widespread, literacy amongst Jews, particularly Jewish males, was widespread, as Jewish boys start learning Torah at age six. So while most Jews might not have been familiar with the Latin alphabet, they were familiar with the Hebrew alphabet from a young age.
“Yiddish” quite literally means “Jewish.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
To look at the origins of Yiddish, we must first examine the origins of Ashkenazi Jews.
The ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews arrived to what is now Italy sometime during the first century, likely around the period of the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-135 CE), when Jews in the Land of Israel revolted against the occupation of the Roman Empire. The revolts were overall disastrous for the Jews, with the Romans murdering and enslaving over one million Jews. It’s probable that many of these Jews arrived to Italy as Roman slaves. At this time, Jews predominantly spoke Aramaic, with Hebrew elements. During the revolts, there was also an active Jewish movement to revitalize the Hebrew language, which had been in decline as an everyday tongue since the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE.
Eventually the Jewish slaves in Rome bought their freedom. At some point before the tenth century, Jews migrated northward toward Central Europe, specifically Germany. It’s likely that they still spoke Aramaic with some Hebrew at this time.
The predominant theory is that once in Central Europe, these Jews came into contact with Middle High German, particularly when they engaged with outsiders in business or other matters. Thus, they Judaized Middle High German by fusing it with Aramaic and Hebrew.
By the thirteenth century, a distinct Yiddish writing system, with grammatical rules, had emerged. Because Jews in Europe lived in segregation well into the nineteenth century, they continued speaking this language with each other, even after many had migrated elsewhere.
Thanks to a number of expulsions — that is, ethnic cleansing — during the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews spread far and wide across Europe, generally migrating eastward toward Eastern Europe. Because of the sheer distance between communities, different dialects of Yiddish formed: Eastern Yiddish and Western Yiddish.
Eastern Yiddish can further be divided into northeastern (known also as Lithuanian Yiddish), mid-eastern (known also as Polish Yiddish), and southeastern Yiddish (known also as Ukrainian Yiddish).
Meanwhile, Western Yiddish can be divided into northwestern Yiddish, mid-western Yiddish, and southwestern Yiddish. Antisemites in Germany sometimes pejoratively called Western Yiddish “Moses German.”
Many more sub-varieties of Yiddish exist.
For a number of reasons, Western Yiddish virtually became extinct in the nineteenth century, primarily due to Jewish assimilation, especially after Jews were emancipated and were finally granted citizenship in Central and Western European countries. Eastern Yiddish, however, continued to play a major role in Jewish cultural life until it was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust.
DECLINE OF YIDDISH
Yiddish use sharply plummeted because of the Holocaust. The Holocaust killed 66 percent of Jews in Europe, and 85 percent of Holocaust victims were Yiddish speakers. In many Eastern European countries, where Jewish communities still predominantly spoke Yiddish, the death rates during the Holocaust were as high as 90 and 95 percent, as was the case in Poland and in Lithuania, respectively.
Jews — Zionists or not — are not to blame for the near-extinction of Yiddish. The Nazis and their collaborators are. Period. To claim that Zionists are responsible for the decline of Yiddish is nothing more than victim blaming. After all, many Holocaust victims were Zionists. Nearly 100 percent of Holocaust survivors were Zionists as well.
Yiddish nearly went extinct because of a cultural — and physical — genocide, not because of the actions of other Jews.
In fact, in the years leading up to the Holocaust, while the Zionist movement was increasingly active, Yiddish use not only continued to grow, but it reached the height of its cultural importance, especially in Eastern Europe. Yiddish literature was widely distributed and Yiddish theater and cinema were booming. It even reached official status in a former Soviet republic. In fact, some Zionists hotly debated which language should take primacy in the Zionist movement, Yiddish or Hebrew (thankfully, Hebrew was chosen, as not all Jews come from Yiddish-speaking communities. Hebrew is the language the entire Jewish community has in common).
Though Yiddish use sharply plummeted after the Holocaust, the use of the Yiddish language is actually growing today. In fact, Yiddish today is classified as a “vulnerable” language, not “definitely endangered,” “severely endangered,” or “critically endangered.” This flies in the face of anti-Zionist claims that Zionists and Israel are to blame for the decline of Yiddish.
Approximately three million people speak Yiddish today, with some 500,000-one million native speakers. Native speakers generally belong to Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] branches of Judaism, though there is a growing interest in Yiddish among secular Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
In 1996, the Israeli Knesset [parliament] passed the “National Authority for Yiddish Culture,” which promotes Yiddish art and literature, publishes Yiddish classics in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and works to preserve Yiddish culture.
"DE-HEBRAIZATION" OF YIDDISH
There is unfortunately a long history of anti-Zionist Jews distorting Jewish culture to fit their ideology, and Yiddish is no exception.
The above tweets are absurd. First, not all Jews in Britain are Ashkenazi; that is, Yiddish is not their native tongue. In fact, the first Jews to arrive to Britain were Sephardi. It makes sense to say “Shabbat shalom.” Anyway, the Yiddish “Shabbos/es” comes from the Hebrew word “Shabbat.” Ashkenazi Hebrew also pronounced the “T” sound with an “S” sound, so that statement is all the more ridiculous. In other words, the classic Ashkenazi pronunciation for “Shabbat” would sound very similar to “Shabbes.”
Second, Yiddish without Hebrew is not Yiddish. It’s just Middle High German.
"DE-HEBRAIZATION" IN HISTORY
In 1918, the midst of the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Communist Party established a “Jewish branch,” with the consent of Vladimir Lenin. It was named “Yevsetskiya,” meaning “Jewish Sections of the Communist Party.”
The mission of the Yevsetskiya was, quite literally, the “destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture.” In other words, this Jewish branch of the Soviet government was dedicated solely to the destruction of fellow Soviet Jewry. At their third conference in July of 1921, the Yevsetskiya officially dedicated itself to the “total liquidation of Zionism.”
The Yevsetskiya, which published a Yiddish newspaper known as “Emes,” also dedicated itself to the destruction of the Hebrew language. The Yevsetskiya shut down all schools that taught Hebrew, no matter their political views.
The Yevsetskiya established new Jewish schools that taught “Soviet Yiddish.” “Soviet Yiddish” changed the spellings of all Yiddish words that came from Hebrew. Unsurprisingly, the schools taught all about the evils of Zionism.
Additionally, they closed all rabbinical schools and staged show trials on the High Holidays. They’d get fake witnesses to denounce Zionism — and even Judaism — on the stand. According to historian of Soviet history Richard Pipes, “In time, every Jewish cultural and social organisation came under assault.”
Until their dissolution in 1929, they imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jews.
The Soviet government dissolved the Yevsetskiya in 1929, claiming that it was no longer needed. During Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, virtually all its members were arrested and executed, including both chairman Dimanstein and “Emes” editor in chief Litvakov.
IMPACT ON OTHER LANGUAGES
Yiddish has deeply influenced other languages, particularly the American dialect of English and modern Hebrew.
According to linguist and language revivalist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, modern (i.e. Israeli) Hebrew has traces of Yiddish patterns in it, as Yiddish was the mother tongue of most Hebrew revivalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He states: “Israeli does include numerous Hebrew elements resulting from a conscious revival but also numerous pervasive linguistic features deriving from a subconscious survival of the revivalists’ mother tongues, e.g. Yiddish.”
(It’s important to note that virtually all linguists and language revivalists agree that it’s impossible to revive a language in a manner that is 100 percent “pure”; that is, without traces of the revivalists’ mother tongues in it. This is the case whether one is attempting to revive Hebrew, Hawaiian, Sámi, or any other language that has been subject to linguicide due to colonialism).
Many words that are now part of the American English lexicon, such as glitch, klutz, bagel, shmuck, and more, come from Yiddish.
Additionally, Yiddish has influenced what is colloquially known as “Yeshivish” (New York yeshiva English), Cockney English, and Berlin and Vienna German.
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