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Why I finally decided to learn Yiddish

TJI Pick
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Published: 18 November 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

For an increasing number of Jews, Yiddish is a hip alternative door into Jewish culture without the complications of Israel, writes JEFFREY WEINSTOCK.

Living in Israel in the 1980s and ’90s, I readily absorbed the stigma against Yiddish. “Hebrew is the language of the Jewish People,” I parroted rather smugly. “Study Yiddish? It’s like shouting into the void.”

But then I started reading about the revival of Yiddish around the world. The young and hip, members of the LGBT community, radical poets, and the heavily tattooed and pierced were rushing to study the language in droves. Trendy restaurants sprouted up around the world with Yiddish names and bilingual menus; in the hipster neighbourhoods of South Tel Aviv, I saw that the graffiti was mostly in Yiddish.

For some, learning Yiddish had become a form of social protest to identify with the underdog; for others, an alternative door into Jewish culture that avoids the complexities of Israel; and for still others, it’s simply a longing for bubbe and zayde. Whatever the reason, I saw that Yiddish was finally so far out, it was in.

And so, on a whim, I joined 109 other students at a month-long course in Tel Aviv. It was extremely demanding and very, very challenging, even for a language lover like me.

But, pamelech, pamelech (slowly, slowly), I started to learn. I learned the peculiar way Yiddish is written with Hebrew letters but not Hebrew spelling rules. I learned the nominative, accusative, and impossibly illogical dative case.

I also learned that Yiddish idiomatic expressions were deeply rooted in Jewish culture, with allusions pointing clearly back to Jewish tradition. It’s not a silk purse that you can’t make out of a sow’s ear—it’s a shtreimel (fur hat) you can’t make out of a pig’s tail. When someone cries crocodile tears, in mameloshn (the mother tongue), they’re shedding “Joseph’s brothers’ tears.”

Yiddish, I started to understand, was a language that looks at the world through Jewish-coloured glasses.

Why I finally decided to learn Yiddish (Tablet)

Photo: Yiddish Wall Art (Etsy)

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