S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid
(It's tough to be a Jew)
Yiddish folk saying
Yiddish was at one time the international language of Ashkenazic Jews (the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants). A hybrid of Hebrew and medieval German, Yiddish takes about three-quarters of its vocabulary from German, but borrows words liberally from Hebrew and many other languages from the many lands where Ashkenazic Jews have lived. It has a grammatical structure all its own, and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters. Scholars and universities classify Yiddish as a Germanic language, though some have questioned that classification.
Yiddish was never a part of Sephardic Jewish culture (the culture of the Jews of Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East). They had their own international language known as Ladino or Judesmo, which is a hybrid of medieval Spanish and Hebrew in much the same way that Yiddish combines German and Hebrew.
At its height less than a century ago, Yiddish was understood by an estimated 11 million of the world's 18 million Jews, and many of them spoke Yiddish as their primary language. Yiddish has fallen on hard times, a victim of both assimilation and murder. Today, less than a quarter of a million people in the United States speak Yiddish, about half of them in New York. Most Jews know only a smattering of Yiddish words, and most of those words are unsuitable for polite company. But in recent years, Yiddish has experienced a resurgence and is now being taught at many universities. There are even Yiddish Studies departments at Columbia and Oxford, among others, and many Jewish communities provide classes to learn Yiddish. Many Jews today want to regain touch with their heritage through this nearly-lost language.
Yiddish is referred to as "mame loshn" ("loshn" rhymes with "caution"), which means "mother tongue," although it is not entirely clear whether this is a term of affection or derision. Mame loshn was the language of women and children, to be contrasted with loshn koydesh, the holy tongue of Hebrew that was studied only by men. (And before the feminists start grinding their axes, let me point out that most gentile women and many gentile men in that time and place could not read or write at all, while most Jewish women could at least read and write Yiddish).
The word "Yiddish" is the Yiddish word for "Jewish," so it is technically correct to refer to the Yiddish language as "Jewish" (though it is never correct to refer to Hebrew as "Jewish"). At the turn of the century, American Jews routinely referred to the Yiddish language as "Jewish," and one of my elderly aunts continues to do so. However, that usage has become unfashionable in recent years and people are likely to think you are either ignorant or bigoted if you refer to any language as "Jewish." Likewise, the Yiddish word "Yid" simply means "Jew" and is not offensive if used while speaking Yiddish or in a conversation liberally sprinkled with Yiddish terms, but I wouldn't recommend using the word in English because it has been used as an offensive term for far too long.
It is generally believed that Yiddish became a language of its own some time between 900 and 1100 C.E., but it is difficult to be certain because in its early days, Yiddish was primarily a spoken language rather than a written language. It is clear, however, that at this time even great biblical scholars like Rashi were using words from local languages written in Hebrew letters to fill in the gaps when the Hebrew language lacked a suitable term or when the reader might not be familiar with the Hebrew term. For example, in his commentary on Gen. 19:28, when Rashi comes across the Hebrew word qiytor (a word that is not used anywhere else in the Bible), he explains the word by writing, in Hebrew letters, "torche b'la-az" (that is, "torche in French").
It is believed that Yiddish began similarly, by writing the local languages in the Hebrew characters that were more familiar to Yiddish speakers, just as Americans today often write Hebrew in Roman characters (the letters used in English).
The Yiddish language thrived for many centuries and grew farther away from German, developing its own unique rules and pronunciations. Yiddish also developed a rich vocabulary of terms for the human condition, expressing our strengths and frailties, our hopes and fears and longings. Many of these terms have found their way into English, because there is no English word that can convey the depth and precision of meaning that the Yiddish word can. Yiddish is a language full of humor and irony, expressing subtle distinctions of human character that other cultures barely recognize let alone put into words. What other language distinguishes between a shlemiel (a person who suffers due to his own poor choices or actions), a shlimazl (a person who suffers through no fault of his own) and a nebech (a person who suffers because he makes other people's problems his own). An old joke explains the distinction: a shlemiel spills his soup, it falls on the shlimazl, and the nebech cleans it up!
As Jews became assimilated into the local culture, particularly in Germany in the late 1700s and 1800s, the Yiddish language was criticized as a barbarous, mutilated ghetto jargon that was a barrier to Jewish acceptance in German society and would have to be abandoned if we hoped for emancipation. Yiddish was viewed in much the same way that people today view Ebonics (in fact, I have heard Yiddish jokingly referred to as "Hebonics"), with one significant difference: Ebonics is criticized mostly by outsiders; Yiddish was criticized mostly by Jews who had spoken it as their native language. Thus the criticism of Yiddish was largely a manifestation of Jewish self-hatred rather than antisemitism.
The first major work written originally in Yiddish was Tsena uRena (Come Out and See), more commonly known by a slurring of the name as Tsenerena. Written in the early 1600s, Tsenerena is a collection of traditional biblical commentary and folklore tied to the weekly Torah readings. It was written for women, who generally did not read Hebrew and were not as well-versed in biblical commentary, so it is an easier read than some of the Hebrew commentaries written for men, but it still packs a great deal of theological rigor. Translations of this work are still in print and available from Artscroll Publishers.
In the mid-1800s, Yiddish newspapers began to appear, such as Kol meVaser (Voice of the People), Der Hoyzfraynd (The Home Companion), Der Yid (The Jew), Di Velt (The World) and Der Fraynd (The Friend), as well as socialist publications like Der Yidisher Arbeter (The Jewish Worker) and Arbeter-Shtime (Workers' Voice). Some Yiddish language newspapers exist to this day, including Forverts (the Yiddish Forward), founded in 1897 and still in print, both in English and Yiddish versions.
At about the same time, secular Jewish fiction began to emerge. The religious authorities of that time did not approve of these irreverent Yiddish writings dealing with modern secular and frivolous themes. Some strictly observant people refused to even set type for these writers because they were so offended by their works, but Jewish people throughout Europe embraced them wholeheartedly.
The first of the great Yiddish writers of this period was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch, known by the pen name Mendele Moykher Sforim (little Mendel, the bookseller). Abramovitsch was a respected writer in Hebrew and used the pen name when writing in the second-class language of Yiddish. He wrote stories that were deeply rooted in folk tradition but focused on modern characters. Perhaps his greatest work is his tales of Benjamin the Third, which is thematically similar to Don Quixote. Mendele's works gave Yiddish a literary legitimacy and respectability that it was lacking before that time. I have been told that there is a street in Jerusalem called Mendele Mocher Sefarim Street.
The next of the great Yiddish writers was Yitzhak Leib Peretz. (I.L. Peretz). Like Mendele, his stories often had roots in Jewish folk tradition, but favored a modern viewpoint. He seemed to view tradition with irony bordering on condescension.
Perhaps the Yiddish writer best known to Americans is Solomon Rabinovitch, who wrote under the name Sholem Aleichem (a Yiddish greeting meaning, "peace be upon you!"). Sholem Aleichem was a contemporary of Mark Twain and is often referred to as "the Jewish Mark Twain," although legend has it that Mark Twain, upon meeting Sholem Aleichem, described himself as "the American Sholem Aleichem"! Americans know Sholem Aleichem for his tales of Tevye the milkman and his daughters, which were adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof. How true is the musical to the stories? Based on my readings of the stories, I would say that Fiddler is a faithful adaptation of the plotlines of the Tevye stories, but the theme of "tradition" that pervades the musical is artificially imposed on the material. The stories certainly turn on the tension between the old world and the modern world, but Tevye's objections to his daughters' marriages are not merely because of tradition. For example, in the original stories, Tevye opposes Hodel's marriage to Ferfel not so much because of tradition, but because Ferfel is being sent to prison for his socialist political activities! Also, there is no fiddler in Sholem Aleichem's stories.
One last Yiddish writer deserves special note: Isaac Bashevis Singer (middle name pronounced "buh-SHEH-viss"), who in 1978 won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings in Yiddish. He gave his acceptance speech in both Yiddish and English, and spoke with great affection of the vitality of the Yiddish language. Singer was born in Poland, the son of a Chasidic rabbi. He wrote under his full name, Isaac Bashevis Singer or I.B. Singer, to avoid confusion with his older and (at the time) better-known brother, Israel Joshua Singer, who wrote as I. Singer. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote mostly short stories, but also some novels and stories for children. Like the others, his stories tended to deal with the tension between traditional views and modern times. Many of these are available in print in English. Perhaps the best known of his many writings is Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, which was adapted into a stage play in 1974 and later loosely adapted into a movie starring Barbara Streisand. It is worth noting that although the movie was quite popular, Singer hated the movie and wrote a brutal editorial in the New York Times about it (January 29, 1984). He thought that Streisand placed too much emphasis on the Yentl character (which she played) to the exclusion of other characters, and that her revised ending (Yentl immigrating to America instead of moving on to another Polish religious school) was untrue to the character.
Yiddish culture has a rich theatrical tradition. It has been suggested that Yiddish theater began with the "Purimshpil," outrageous comedic improvisational plays based on the biblical book of Esther, performed in synagogues by amateurs as part of the drunken festivities related to the Purim holiday.
Professional Yiddish theater began with Abraham Haim Lipke Goldfaden, who wrote, produced and directed dozens of Yiddish plays in the last quarter of the 19th century. Goldfaden and his troupe traveled throughout Europe performing Yiddish plays for Jewish audiences, and later moved to New York City where they opened a theater.
Many traveling Yiddish theater groups also performed Yiddish versions of existing plays, most notably Shakespeare and Goethe. With apologies to Star Trek fans ... Shakespeare's Hamlet cannot be fully appreciated until it is seen in the original Yiddish.
Permanent Yiddish theaters sprung up in cities around the world, including Odessa, Vilna and New York City. In New York, Yiddish theater was jump-started by 12-year-old immigrant Boris Thomashefsky, who fell in love with the European Yiddish show tunes sung by his coworkers in a tobacco sweatshop. He persuaded a rich tavern owner to finance the endeavor and introduced Yiddish theater to New York with an Abraham Goldfaden play in 1881. Over the next few decades, Yiddish theater grew substantially in New York, but most of these theaters no longer exist. National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, founded in 1915, is the oldest continuous venue for Yiddish theatre in the world and continues to have an active calendar of Yiddish-language productions, now with "English supertitles" at all performances.
Yiddish plays tended to be melodramas with strong traditional Jewish values, often with song and dance numbers incorporated into the serious plots. Yiddish theater also included many comedies, in America often focusing on intergenerational conflicts between the immigrants and their American-born children.
Like Yiddish theater, Yiddish music ultimately has its roots in Jewish religion. The Jewish love of music is seen in the earliest stories in the Bible: in Exodus 15, both Moses and Miriam lead the Children of Israel in song after G-d drowns the pursuing Egyptians in the sea; King David is often portrayed playing musical instruments. Music is an integral part of Jewish worship: most of the prayers are sung or chanted. Even the Torah is read to a traditional chant. It has been customary for hundreds of years for synagogues to have a professional chazzan, a person with musical skills to lead the song-filled prayer services.
Yiddish culture has produced a wealth of music, from lullabies to love songs, from mournful songs of loss and exile to the wild dance music of klezmer.
Yiddish music traditionally was played on string instruments (fiddle, viola, etc.), the tsimbl (a Jewish instrument similar to a dulcimer) and flute, perhaps because these instruments were relatively quiet and would not attract the attention of hostile gentiles. In later days, however, the clarinet became a staple of Yiddish music because of it's ability to emulate the wailing or laughing sound of the human voice.
The style of music most commonly associated with Yiddish culture is klezmer. The word "klezmer" comes from the Hebrew words "klei zemer" which means "instruments of song," and probably indicates the important role that instruments played in this kind of music. You've probably heard klezmer music in the background of television shows or movies featuring Jews: it is normally characterized by the wailing, squealing sounds of clarinets. It has also influenced some modern bands: I was in a bookstore a while ago and heard what I thought was klezmer music, only to be told it was Squirrel Nut Zipper! The klezmer style is based on cantoral singing in synagogue: simple melodies in a minor key with extensive ornamentation, such as fast trills and sliding notes. It's hard to explain unless you've heard it.
You can hear some traditional Yiddish music in the samples of Best of Yiddish Songs and Klezmer Music on Amazon.com. The track Doyne/Kiever Freylekhs is a particularly good example of klezmer dance music.
Yiddish is written with Hebrew letters, but the letters are used somewhat differently than in Hebrew. In fact, the first time I saw the familiar Yiddish phrase "oy vey" written in Yiddish letters, I thought the spelling must be a mistake!
The Yiddish alphabet is called the alef-beyz for its first two letters.
The biggest difference between the Hebrew alefbet and the Yiddish alef-beyz is in the use of vowels: in Hebrew, vowels and other pronunciation aids are ordinarily not written, and when they are written, they are dots and dashes added to the text in ways that do not affect the physical length of the text. In Yiddish, however, many of the Hebrew letters have been adapted to serve as vowels and the pronunciation aids in Hebrew are reflected in the consonants. Vowels and other pronunciation aids are always written unless the Yiddish word comes from Hebrew, in which case the Yiddish word is written as it is in Hebrew, without the vowel points but with the dagesh (dot in the middle).
When a Hebrew word is combined with a Yiddish suffix, the Hebrew part is spelled as in Hebrew and the Yiddish part as in Yiddish. For example, the Yiddish word "Shabbesdik" (for the Sabbath; festive) combines the Hebrew word Shabbat (Sabbath), spelled as in Hebrew, with the Yiddish adjective suffix "-dik" (set aside for, suitable for, in the mood for, "-ish"), spelled as in Yiddish.
In addition, some of the most common Hebrew letters are rarely used in Yiddish, being used only if the Yiddish word comes from Hebrew. These rarely-used letters all have the same sound as another Hebrew letter, and reducing their use simplifies spelling when bringing words in from languages that weren't originally written using these letters. For example, there are three different Hebrew letters that make the sound "s": Samekh, Sin and the soft sound of Tav (according to Ashkenazic pronunciation). Which one do you use? It depends on the origin of the word. Words brought in from Hebrew use the original Hebrew spelling, which may be any of these three letters, but words brought in from other languages will always use Samekh. The word vaser (water, from the German wasser) is spelled with a Samekh, but the word simkhah (celebration, from Hebrew) is spelled with a Sin and the word Shabbes (Sabbath, from Hebrew) ends with a Sof.
The illustration below shows the Yiddish alphabet. You may wish to review the Hebrew alphabet to see the differences.
To hear how these letters are pronounced, check out the alef-beyz page on YIVO's website (requires an MP3 player), which pronounces the name of the Yiddish letter, then a Yiddish word that begins with the sound, then the English translation of that word. Unfortunately, YIVO lacks audio for many of the vowel sounds, but they provide explanations of pronunciation.
Here some things to notice:
Transliteration is the process of writing a language in a different alphabet than its native alphabet. The Yiddish language began by transliterating Germanic words into the Hebrew alphabet, so I find it unspeakably amusing that we now take Yiddish and convert it back into the original alphabet!
In Yiddish, unlike Hebrew, there is a widely-accepted standard for transliterating Yiddish into the Roman alphabet (the alphabet used in English). This standard was developed by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the recognized world authority on Yiddish language, history and culture. Although the YIVO standard is widely accepted in general, it is routinely ignored for Yiddish words that have a widely-used, familiar spelling. For example, a certain Yiddish word appears in many American dictionaries spelled "chutzpah," but the correct YIVO transliteration would be "khutspe"!
Here are a few fun Yiddish or Yiddish-derived words that would not require your mother to wash your mouth out with soap. Many of them have found their way into common English conversation. Most of them are spelled as I commonly see them, rather than in strict accordance with YIVO transliteration rules. I've tried to focus on words that are less commonly heard in English (gentile English, anyway).
There are many Yiddish sites on the web and many of them maintain a better list of links than I could ever hope to. I will point out only a few that I find useful, along with their links to other sites.
Forverts is a weekly American Jewish newspaper written in Yiddish. This is an excellent source if you want to try reading some useful, day-to-day Yiddish. It is written in the Yiddish alphabet, not transliteration.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research is an organization dedicated to studying and preserving the history, society and culture of Ashkenazic Jewry. YIVO is the recognized leader in the study of the Yiddish language. They have a page of the alef-beyz with transliteration (Romanization) and pronunciation guides and an extensive list of Yiddish links.
Dr. Rafael Finkel, a computer science professor at the University of Kentucky, has a marvelous Yiddish typewriter online. Type a word in transliteration (Roman letters, according to YIVO rules of transliteration), and it will show you what it looks like in Yiddish letters. He also maintains a Yiddish song list and a number of Yiddish texts, as well as an extensive list of Yiddish links. See his index.
The New Joys of Yiddish (Paperback): The original edition by Leo Rosten was the first Jewish book I ever owned. It examines a wide variety of useful Yiddish words, many of which have found their way into English, and puts them into their cultural context, illustrating the use of words through classic humorous stories and jokes. The original edition is no longer in print -- much of what it said has become remarkably dated in the 50 or so years since it was written. This new edition has gotten mixed reviews because, rather than merely updating some of the dated slang and references, the new edition merely adds a lot of politically-correct footnotes. For example, after Rosten's original text defines "shlock house" using the expression "gyp joint," the revisor goes off on a lengthy rant about what a terrible term "gyp joint" is, because the term "gyp" comes from "Gypsy" and the Gypsies have been horribly oppressed, all of which is true, but none of which provides any insight into the meaning of the term "shlock house."
Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler (Paperback): Two stories by the first great Yiddish writer, Mendele Moykher Sforim, including his masterpiece, Benjamin the Third, with a lengthy scholarly introduction discussing the author and the time and place where he lived and wrote. Translated into English.
In my Father's Court (Paperback): Autobiographical short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer. These stories tell of his childhood in a Polish community with his father, a Chasidic rabbi. Translated into English.
Vini-Der-Pu (Paperback): Want to try reading some Yiddish? Why not start with that classic children's favorite, Winnie the Pooh! Leonard Wolf has provided a very direct, literal translation of Winnie the Pooh into Yiddish. Printed in transliterated Yiddish (Yiddish in familiar Roman letters), with the first paragraph of each story presented in the Yiddish alphabet as well, Vini-Der-Pu is a fun place to start reading Yiddish. You may also want to buy the English original for comparison. Oy gevalt, hot Pu gezogt! (Oh, bother, said Pooh).
Avi Hoffman's Too Jewish (YouTube): I saw this video on PBS's pledge drive years ago and absolutely had to own it. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available to buy any more, but during the 2020 COVID pandemic he streamed it live on YouTube and the recording is still there! I haven't watched the whole YouTube video yet but I'm sure it is as great as the original, which was a loving tribute to Yiddish culture and language, sometimes touching and usually hilarious, full of Yiddish songs both traditional and not so traditional, jokes and stories. My favorite part was his translation of Broadway show tunes into Yiddish (Veyn nisht far mir Argentina...) and Yinglish (Oyyyyyyyyy...glaucoma ven ya can't see foither den yer nose...).
Mamaloshen (Audio CD) Well-known actor Mandy Patinkin shows his Jewish pride with this CD. Half of the songs are traditional Yiddish songs like Belz and Oyfn Pripichik; half are songs written in English by American Jews but translated into Yiddish, such as Maria, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and Paul Simon's American Tune. Some have quibbled with his pronunciations and some have criticized him for being - dare I say? - a bit of a ham, but Patinkin's affection and enthusiasm for the material are overwhelming and infectious through every song.
Rise Up (Audio CD) A recent CD by the Grammy award-winning The Klezmatics, a modern band mixing klezmer and jazz. They won the Grammy for their CD Wonder Wheel, which puts their (mostly klezmer) music to Woody Guthrie lyrics. They also drew from the Woody Guthrie well on Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah, which puts klezmer music to Chanukkah-related songs that Guthrie wrote.