The Uses of Yiddish

I suspect that language is always discovered in the study of it. You might think you know what, oh, Irish is, and then you study it, and you discover that Irish doesn't have a word for orange, never mind that it is one of the colors of the Irish flag, and this seems to say something about how contrary the Irish people can be, or about how we think orange is a color but others might think it is a yellowish red or a reddish yellow, or that, I don't know, the Irish have a previously undetected color blindness. I don't really know why there is no word for orange in Irish, and maybe they have added one in since I studied the language, which I only did for about four months. Nonetheless, my point is that when you learn another language, you learn things about it that you did not expect.

But, man, Yiddish. I have started to think that Yiddish is not just discovered in the study of it, but invented in the study of it. I know there are college programs that treat Yiddish just like any other language, and teach students with the goal of fluency, just as you would with any other language. But Yiddish isn't any other language, and fluency is just one of many possible goals in the study of the language. And the truth of the matter is, if you're going to study the language in a non-academic setting, you're going to have to decided what sort of Yiddish you want to learn, and then invent that Yiddish for yourself.

I am going to make a list of possible uses for Yiddish. This list will necessarily be incomplete, because language is always protean, and Yiddish, which has developed a robust and growing life as a post-vernacular language, may be more plastic than most. I don't think a list like this can ever be comprehensible, because I suspect the Jewish capacity for invention is unlimited, and so we will always be able to come up with a use for Yiddish that people hadn't considered before.

But I think it is worth looking at some of the uses of Yiddish, because each are going to have their own course of study, and if they are the sort of thing that the Jewish community supports, they are likely to need different sorts of support and different institutions of support. I will try to include examples where I can:


As far as I can tell, this is the approach that has the greatest institutional support just now, along with my next example. This is the classic approach to language: Learning it as a means of everyday communication. There are a number of college programs that teach this, as well as online courses, summer programs, and at least one podcast. This is probably the most demanding of the various uses of Yiddish, both because learning a foreign language is a tremendously protracted and time-consuming process, but also because, for most American Jews, there is just not that much opportunity to regularly use Yiddish as a vernacular language.


One need not be perfectly fluent in a language to be able to read and write in it, and there are a variety of institutions that support Yiddish as a written language, including at least one Yiddish-language newspaper, the extraordinary work of the Yiddish Book Center, and a variety of newer publications written in part or entirely in Yiddish. Similarly, written Yiddish is used as a language of historical research, again often in academic institutions.


There is an unbroken history of Yiddish being a language of performance in the United States, primarily in the form of Yiddish songs and in Yiddish theater, as well as a small but not insignificant number of Yiddish films. I suspect a lot of contemporary performers in Yiddish are not necessarily fluent in the language, but are attracted to its expressiveness, its history, and the creative possibilities it offers. Although these forms do not necessarily have the institutional support that Yiddish vernacular and literary studies do, as far as I can tell they are the most popular and widely experienced forms of modern Yiddish expression, especially regarding Yiddish music.


This is probably the most common expression of modern Yiddish: The use of atomized Yiddish words or phrases in English sentences as a way of signaling Jewishness, like when we say we schlep something rather than carry it. This approach has virtually no formal institutional support, although a large number of popular books on Yiddish seem geared toward this usage, at least tacitly.


This also has a great deal of popular if not institutional support, especially among the Orthodox. This is the use of Yiddish words for specific aspects of the religious experience, such as calling a synagogue a shul, describing praying as bentshn, and calling a sexton a shamash.


Jewish political groups have a history of making use of a few very precisely chosen Yiddish words to signal the Jewishness of their approach, including activist Jewish gay groups who have reinterpreted Yiddish words and phrases to express a modern understanding of the LGBT experience and Jewish feminists who have made use of Yiddish, in part, to discuss the intersection between sexism and antisemitism.


This involves both aspects of using Yiddish as a cultural signal and as a performative language, but messily. Some Jewish humorists use Yiddish to signal their Jewishness, while others use it as a sort of hipster argot in the manner of Lenny Bruce, while others use it because they think it sounds funny.


Some people just like the way Yiddish looks, and so, on craft and design websites like Etsy, you will sometimes find people who use Yiddish words or phrases as a decorative motif.


All of these approaches strike me as more or less valid uses of Yiddish, and only the first, the use of Yiddish as a vernacular language, requires fluency. I suspect most people are interested in several of these approaches to the language, and sometimes they will bleed into each other, or one will encourage another.

The more I discover about Yiddish, the more I think the future of the language will benefit from, and may depend on, encouraging as wide a variety of uses of the language as possible. I suppose my feeling is that the more ways we give people to experience Yiddish as something they can make use of, as something that serves a real function in their life, the more people will see it as a living expression of the Jewish experience and less as the dying language of foreign ancestors.

Let me use the world of nonprofits as a parallel for a moment. When I used to work at a nonprofit, I was forever reading about the ways nonprofits finance themselves, and a lot of it had to do less with seeking new members and donors than with taking existing members and donors and increasing their commitment level.

Perhaps this was because existing members and donors have already enjoyed the benefits of their participating, and so are more likely to support the institution. Or perhaps it is because of the sunk cost fallacy, where people who have already made an investment are likely to increase that investment because the original investment cannot be recovered, and they cannot believe they were foolish to make the original investment, and so they keep throwing good money after bad in the optimistic belief that it will all be worth it.

For whatever reason, it is easier to get increased commitment from people who are already invested than to seek new investors. But the survival of a language, either as a vernacular or postvernacular, requires a lot more than a few extremely dedicated individuals. And so I think we need a mechanism to get a lot of people involved with minimal commitment but maximum rewards, and we need to recognize that people have different interests and different desires for reward. Once we have people minimally invested in the language, we can start encouraging them to increase their commitment.

So the greater variety of ways people have to first encounter Yiddish, make use of the language, and be rewarded for doing so, the larger a group of people who might increase their participation. I know this is true of me: The more Yiddish I learn, the greater commitment I have to continue to learn it, both because my ability to use and enjoy the language increases, and also because otherwise why did I waste all that time?

There is no way for me to guesstimate how likely anyone is to learn Yiddish, how many of those will go on to learn more Yiddish, and how many will go on to learn even more Yiddish. There is not much institutional or even cultural support for Yiddish nowadays, and what there is is often prohibitive,. You're not going to hear much Yiddish in the mainstream institutions of Judaism -- the synagogues, the Federations, the summer camps, etc. In the meanwhile, most Jews cannot pursue a degree program, and many cannot take the time or afford to travel to shorter programs. Few are going to want to join a Haredi community that uses language as their vernacular. And even the day-to-day, slangy use of Yiddish as a Jewish in-language seems to be on the decline.

If Yiddish were a nonprofit, I would say we have the ingredients for a terrifying attrition rate and virtually no opportunity to turn people who are already invested into even more engaged participants. And it's too bad, because there are two things that Jews are really good at: We're really good at finding a place for languages that are no longer vernacular, and we're really good at building institutions.

It shouldn't be too hard, either. There already is an awful lot of Yiddish music around; we just need to commit to supporting it and bringing it into our communities. If we teach literature, teach Yiddish literature, even in translation. If we work in Jewish institutions, ask where we can use Yiddish in those institutions, even in small ways -- gatherings can be called kumzits, students can be called talmidim, etc. (I know there is some concern about institutions being overly Ashkenazi; I will address that in a later post.). If we work at summer camps, we might consider using some Yiddish to describe the camp experience, which is something we did in the past, and we might include Yiddish songs during singalongs. There are a lot of ways we can start putting a little bit of Yiddish back into the Jewish world, if we choose to.

I suppose we just have to choose to.