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The Death of Yiddish?

By Merav Levkowitz

For 25 years, the American klezmer band The Klezmatics has been unable to sustain itself solely from their Yiddish klezmer music. The reason is not for lack of talent: In 2006, they won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album for their album Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In an age when music gains fame through social media and viral marketing, a Grammy award may not mean instant fame and success for anyone.  Yet the Klezmatics, the subject of a  documentary called On Holy Ground, have faced difficulties with deeper roots: the decline of Yiddish.

For centuries, Yiddish was more than just an “Oy gevalt” and a “What chutzpah!” thrown into other languages for comic effect. Rather, Yiddish was the beacon of a rich East European Jewish culture of language, literature, poetry, and music, like klezmer. For most of its history, Yiddish was the primary language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. A variety of factors led to the decline of Yiddish language and culture, most significant of which was the Holocaust; the majority of its Jewish victims were Yiddish speakers. For many of the remaining speakers in Europe, Israel, and the United States, Yiddish stood as a nostalgic emblem of the past and sometimes even an impediment to assimilation and modernization. Only the Hasidic communities of the diaspora have sustained Yiddish as their spoken language. Nevertheless, as the number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled with the passing of the older generations, Yiddish’s rich secular culture has died with them.

A 2006 Modern Language Association survey found that there are just under 1,000 college students studying Yiddish at the 28 institutions offering language courses in the United States. At the beginning of 2010, for example, the University of Maryland, home to one of the nation’s oldest and strongest Yiddish programs, announced that, due to tighter budgets and low enrollment, it would cut funding to the program after this academic year. At the same time, other nails have been driven into “the coffin of Yiddish.” At the end of the summer, The New York Times reported that the only secular Yiddish bookstore in New York was closing. Archives remain full of Yiddish texts, but as Maryland professor Miriam Isaacs laments, today, few people can read or translate them. The body of Yiddish writers, once boasting numbers in the hundreds, now hovers around fifty.

Yiddish appears to be cornered in a Catch-22. Historical circumstances depleted the group of speakers, writers, and thinkers, as did American assimilation. More recently, low demand has resulted in the cutting of Yiddish programs, but such cuts also remove these programs from the “menu” of options available to students. Still, not all is lost for Yiddish language and culture. Organizations, like the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Yiddish Book Center in Western Massachusetts, maintain meticulous archives and proof of Yiddish life and support scholars in the field, in spite of dwindling resources. Though not MTV stars, bands like The Klezmatics continue to create modernized Yiddish klezmer tunes, sacrificing higher-paying jobs for this passion. There remain small pockets of Yiddish revivalism throughout the country, like a Washington DC group of about ten people who meet weekly to speak Yiddish and a Yiddish conversation and music group in Brooklyn. Earlier this month the Jewish Studies Department at San Francisco State University made Jewish headlines by announcing a new “Yiddish History, Literature and Society,” which, though taught in English, will explore Yiddish culture. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer summed it up best: “Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for another thousand.”