Published on 23 July 2015

Yiddish on the rise

“It’s a dying language on the rise”

Published in the Economist July 21, 2015
On the first Sunday of Krakow's recent Jewish Culture Festival several rain-soaked families took their seats in a tiny pop-up library behind a 15th-century synagogue. It is the oldest of seven in Kazimierz, the historically Jewish quarter where the festival takes place every year. Agnieszka Legutko and Anna Rozenfeld greeted the group: “Shalom aleikhem!” “Aleikhem shalom,” replied the five young girls and their parents. Ms Legutko and Ms Rozenfeld, who were leading this children's Yiddish workshop, introduced themselves in Yiddish, and started a chain. “Ikh heys Marianna” went the first girl, followed by Lotka, Edyta, Natasza and Lila. Then the singing began. 
According to the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University fewer than one million people worldwide still speak Yiddish, compared with over 11m in 1939. Five of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims spoke Yiddish. A “nearly murdered language”, is how Michael Alpert, an American klezmer musician, describes it. But the decision made by the organisers of the Krakow festival to focus not on Hebrew or Holocaust studies but on Yiddish was unsurprising: the language appears to be recovering. Mr Alpert says the number of Yiddish speakers has increased in recent years, citing both the high birthrate of Hasidic communities worldwide, who still use the language, and also its appeal as “hip and cool, part of the new face of Jewish Poland”.
So it was that among a week of events related to Jewish culture in Krakow were Yiddish singing, dancing, concerts, lectures on Yiddish culture and literature, and—of course—Yiddish schmoozing. Schmooze, like kvetch, schlep and schmutz, arrived in the English language with the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi immigrants who came to America at the turn of the last century. A Germanic language with a Hebrew-based alphabet, Yiddish originated in Central Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries as a fusion of German with Aramaic and Hebrew. It became a separate language, and duly became the dominant spoken tongue of Ashkenazi Jews, and ultimately a word connoting their culture.
“It’s a dying language on the rise,” says Jeff Warschauer, a New Yorker who has led Yiddish singing workshops at the festival since the 1990s. This year he attracted a mix of English and Polish speakers, many of whom he says were not even Jewish. Festival attendees can sing Yiddish tunes by day, then dance to Yiddish tunes by night (pictured). Klezmer, the traditional music of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, is often referred to as Yiddish music. The Klezmatics, a Grammy Award-winning klezmer band, performed in Krakow... Read more.