I used to feel bad for Yiddish. It was, for somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 years, the secular language of European Jews, and it had millions of speakers before they were wiped off the earth by the Holocaust. There have been dire predictions about the death of the language ever since, with every Yiddish speaker who dies seen as being one less person who speaks the language, never to be replaced.
With the exception of some Hasidim, who often still speak Yiddish, religious Judaism didn't do much for Yiddish. It wasn't taught in my Hebrew school, or at my summer camps, or at the Jewish high school I attended, or at the Jewish Studies program I studied in college. We did not sing Yiddish songs, we did not watch Yiddish films, and Yiddish theater was nonexistent in Minneapolis, as it was in most of America.
Still, I grew up with a lot of Yiddish. My father speaks some -- mostly curse words, which he makes free and ample use of. When I was young, there was still a pervasive use of Yiddish as a cultural marker among Jews, so we would shlep, and we would oy vey, and we would gevault. It was a great language for complaining, or, at least, spicing up complaints, which we called kvetching. It was still easy to find copies of Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish," and people read it and borrowed from it. There was also the trailing influence of comedian Lenny Bruce, who used Yiddish often and freely, inventing himself as a Jewish hipster and reinventing Yiddish as the language of the Jewish hipster.
And Yiddish then had a strange cultural cache in Hollywood, so you would hear everybody, even non-Jews, toss around Yiddish phrases. "The whole megilla" could be heard from an actress on Carson while "meshuggeneh" was later said by a comic on Letterman. But the last gasp of this, as far as I can tell, was Mike Myers' "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman" sketches on Saturday Night Live, inspired by his mother-in-law, who was actually named Linda Richman. It's still the impression of Jews speaking Yiddish that I hear the most, even though much of it is nonsensical ("shpilkis in his genechtagazoink"?) To put this into perspective, people who recite this impersonation to me are doing a 25-year routine about a woman who is now about 77-years-old -- not exactly the most contemporary reference.
In the meanwhile, Hollywood's new Jewish comics don't seem to do much with Yiddish. I recently saw "The Night Before," a Christmas movie by a Jewish filmmaker with a largely Jewish cast that took great pleasure in actor Seth Rogen's unmistakable Jewishness. And yet I don't think there was a single Yiddish word in the whole film. I'm not sure why this is. The cast is also a decade or thereabouts younger than me. Perhaps they were raised in a world with much less Yiddish in it, or perhaps Yiddish seems dated or cliched. Maybe there is no conscious decision-making going on, and they just have so little experience with Yiddish that it's not a comic tool in their toolbelt.
And so it's is easy to feel bad for Yiddish and think that it's a great tradition that is on its way out. I think that's why I initially became interested in the language, years ago. I felt like something was slipping away, and it wasn't something small, but instead the language of a people, and not just of a people, but my people, my family, who spoke Yiddish when they came to America.
I'm not so discouraged now. There is an active Yiddish community in America, both among the Hasidim and among Jews who have just taken an interest in the language, like me. There may be more attrition than new growth, in the sense that more old Yiddish speakers die than new ones are born or educated, but that's not quite the same thing as extinction. It seems to me now that there will always be a cult of Yiddish. More than that, thanks to the same technological developments that inspired this project, it is no longer prohibitively difficult to learn at least some Yiddish. I mean, I don't know how long I intend to keep this project going, but I plan to come out of it a lot more familiar with the language than I am now.
But the question I asked in the headline for this post is a simple one: Why Yiddish? And I suppose my answer is just as simple. It's a Jewish language, and I'm Jewish. It's the language my family spoke, and I'm part of my family. It has become a cult thing, and I like cult things. It seems like fun, and I like fun. So, why not Yiddish?