They say that Yiddish is a dying language. But is it? And who are they? And where the heck did Yiddish come from?
Yiddish originated in Central Europe and became the designated language of Ashkenazi Jews. A mishmash of other languages, including German and Hebrew, Yiddish was spoken by more than 10 million European Jews at its height. Those who migrated to New York City at the turn of the century had their pick of as many as six different daily newspapers printed in Yiddish, with dozens of other Yiddish publications available on a less frequent basis.
When most European Yiddish speakers perished during the Holocaust, a whole generation was kept from passing on the language outside of the U.S. Inside the U.S., some parents used Yiddish when they didn’t want their kids to know what they were talking about (this was definitely the case with my grandparents!), prohibiting their offspring from fully absorbing the language.
According to Rutgers’ Department of Jewish Studies, “it is estimated that there are about a quarter million Yiddish speakers in the United States, about the same number in Israel, and another 100,000 or so in the rest of the world.” With more than 4 million Jews living in the U.S., it’s not a stretch to say then that most Jews in Los Angeles cannot speak conversational Yiddish. However, there are Yiddish classes and a Yiddish meet-up in Los Angeles dedicated to reviving the language and culture.
We are also fortunate that, in some ways, this historical language will never completely die. It has, in fact, overtaken the English language. Here is a short list of words that, believe it or not, were derived from Yiddish:
- Bagel – Can you imagine life without these doughy rings of goodness?
- Glitch – Computer programmers and IT departments would have a whole new lingo, not to mention that Wreck-it Ralph wouldn’t have been the same without it.
- Klutz – It’s my middle name.
- Nosh – Because some of us are always hungry.
- Oy vey – Even little kids know this phrase!
- Schlep – Soccer moms everywhere are familiar with this one.
- Schmooze – Hollywood might not exist with this.
- Spritz – What else do you do with your hairspray?
- Tchotchke – We all have some of these in our home.
- Tush/Tukhus – You’re probably sitting on yours right now.
- Yarmulke – Even if you’ve never worn one, you know what it is.
You might think that because you don’t know many Yiddish words, you definitely don’t know any Yiddish literature. However, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem penned stories featuring none other than Tevye the Dairyman, the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. And perhaps some of you remember the movie Yentl starring Mandy Patinkin, which was based on award-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.”
I could keep sharing more about Yiddish words and literature, but, to use a Yiddish phrase, genug shoyn (enough already).
Are you a Yiddish speaker? What’s your favorite Yiddish word or phrase? Share with us!