Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Memes of Yiddish Atlantis - And the Hits Keep Coming!

Just when you thought no editor could possibly be interested in the re-revivication of Yiddish, well, you thought too soon. Once widely spoken, now mostly studied, Yiddish sees revival  was published a few days ago in the Religion News Service and subsequently widely syndicatedOnce widely spoken, now mostly studied, Yiddish sees revival  follows the Yiddish!Revival! formula and hits all my favorite memes. 

Without further ado, let's break it down:

Spunky old people meeting at a Yiddish shmooze club, speaking from the heart and without grammar:

Friends of Yiddish has no agenda. No textbooks. No Yiddish grammar rules.
Its members gather every month at the B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom synagogue to speak a language stamped in their hearts and memories. They savor their past through Yiddish words and phrases spoken by their parents and grandparents. In the process, they are keeping a dying language alive.

in a purely nostalgic mode:

“It’s a nostalgic get-together with mostly old people coming to renew their memories from when they were kids,” said Cohen, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Lithuania.

BUT! Small numbers of young people are discovering Yiddish and a revival is, or is not, imminent :

But while many older Americans gather to reminisce about parents and grandparents who spoke the Germanic-Hebrew language of Eastern and Central European Jews, a renewed interest in Yiddish is blooming among a younger generation of people who have no such memories.

Via academic  and summer intensive courses:

Much of the renewed interest grows out of university programs in Jewish studies that now offer Yiddish language and literature courses. This summer also saw a flourishing of intensive language courses and camps...

Then there's the historical trajectory of Yiddish: assimilation in America, suppression in Israel:

For centuries, Yiddish was widely spoken by an estimated 11 to 13 million Jews throughout Europe. But the number of Yiddish speakers began dwindling with the Holocaust and the Soviet persecution. A Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet, Yiddish was also the victim of the assimilation of Jews who immigrated to new countries and left their old language behind.
When Israel rejected the language over Hebrew many believed it had been dealt its final blow. Today, an estimated 1 million speak the language, many within the Orthodox community.

And now comes Revival, but not too much (obligatory dour straw man):

Professor Victor Bers of Yale University grew up speaking Yiddish and organizes the Yale-New Haven Yiddish Reading Circle. He believes Yiddish will survive on college campuses. 
“My feeling is that Yiddish is going to be an academic subject,” he said.

BONUS! Head scratching error 

But others say the ranks of Orthodox Jews, and particularly Hasidic groups such as the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which has embraced Yiddish and is growing worldwide, will keep the language alive.

(Chabad is NOT a center of Yiddish, unlike Satmar and other Hasidic sects which support numerous Yiddish language publications and teach and conduct business in Yiddish)

The bottom line is that languages require support and political will. Yiddish will continue to thrive in places like Kiryas Yoel and Williamsburg as long as it has utility as a method of social control. And the "revival" among young American Jews will continue to be limited by the resources available to those who are interested, (college students have access to high quality Yiddish language courses. Most of us do not.)

Seeing that the majority of American Jews are invested (for many complex reasons) in the morbidity of the language (and thus loathe to actually put much money or support into it), right now there's little chance this so-called revival will go much further than where it is today. And articles like this one only reinforce our narrow, ahistorical vision of American Jewish life.  

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