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Yiddish: a Living Language

David Turshyan, Librarian, International Languages Department,
collection of Yiddish books

When in the second half of the last century Isaac Bashevich Singer was awarded a Noble Prize for Literature, he raised an interesting question: “People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’” And he tried to explain: “There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life… each encounter of love… Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures - rich in humor and in memories... In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Yiddish (from German: jüdisch—Jewish) is the mother tongue—mame loshen—of Ashkenazim, central and eastern European Jews and their descendants. Along with Aramaic and Hebrew, it is one of the three major literary languages of Jewish history. Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet, from right to left, and is the only Germanic language to be written in a non-Roman script. What is unique about this language is that it can capture concisely and with surprising precision the great diversity of the human character.

The roots of Yiddish go back a dozen centuries, when the Jewish people of northern regions of France and Italy began to migrate into the German-speaking regions of the Rhine Valley. They spoke dialects of French and Italian mixed with many words from Hebrew and Aramaic. Eventually, a distinct language emerged, that consisted of a fusion of German, French-Italian, and Hebrew-Aramaic. For example, one of the oldest words in Yiddish—בענטשן (bentshn) to bless—is formed from the German verb ending —(e)n added to Romance ben- from Latin benedicere, to bless.

Later, throughout centuries, as the Yiddish speakers will migrate to Eastern Europe and then to the United States, the language will split into new dialects and will be influenced and enriched by the words and expressions derived from the local languages, such as Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, as well as English. In turn, many Yiddish words and expressions will find their way into the dictionaries of many languages around the world. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, lists more than one hundred Yiddish words that today are part of the English language, such as bagel, chutzpah and mensch.

In addition, Yinglish—Yi(ddish) plus (E)nglish—will come to light, with such words as fancy-schmancy—meaning overly ornate and pretentious, such as Tinker Bell overdressed at the Oscar’s ceremony (English fancy plus Germanic s(c)hm- reduplication), or boychik—little boy, sweet and mischievous, such as Pinocchio or Peter Pan on one of their adventures (English boy plus the Slavic diminutive —chik).

It is remarkable that from a people who have gone through so much suffering throughout history, we find such a wellspring of humor and the ability to laugh through tears. Yiddish proverbs, always wise and often humorous, give a glimpse of the unique insights into the meaning of existence and convey the profound messages of the human heart.

Love is sweet; with bread it’s better.

Di lebeh iz zeez; mit broit iz zi besser.

A child’s wisdom is also wisdom.

A kind's khokhme iz oykhet khokhme

The highest wisdom is kindness.

Di hekhste khokhme iz gut’hartsikayt.

The heart is small and embraces the whole wide world.

Di klainer hartz nemt arum di groisseh velt.

There are three stages in life: young, middle age, and “you look so good.”

In lebn zaynen faran dray epokhes; yung, mitlyorik, un “du kukst oys azoy gut.”

Yiddish literature has many treasures yet to be unveiled. The founders of the classical Yiddish literature and the grand masters of the language, however, are three writers: Mendele Mokher Sefarim (“ Mendele the seller of books”—pen name for Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Sholom Aleichem (How do you do? or literally, “Peace upon you”—pen name for Sholom Rabinovitz) and Isaac Leib Peretz. These writers have breathed a new life and meaning into the language.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Mark Twain, in response to his own obituary in a newspaper, sent a witty note to the editor: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Like Mark Twain, Yiddish has often been written off as a dying language, a vernacular with no future. What will happen is yet to come, but as long as there will be a human soul singing the joyous-and-sorrowful song Tum-balalaika, Yiddish will remain a living language.

First published in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, the roots of this popular folk song go back to the ancient Egypt. It is a riddle between a boy and a girl, in the tradition of the Sphinx’s riddle: “What can grow, grow without rain? What can burn and never end? What can yearn, cry without tears?”

וואָס קען וואַקסן, וואַקסן אָן רעגן?

Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?

וואָס קען ברענען און ניט אויפֿהערן?

Vos ken brenen un nit oyfhern?

וואָס קען בענקען, וויינען אָן טרערן?

Vos ken benken, veynen on trern?