Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1

Rescuing Yiddish for Future Generations

Kathleen Mills

Traveling abroad to interact with native speakers is a rite of passage for students mastering a foreign language. That is easy to do if you are working on Spanish, Polish, or Japanese. But where do you go to practice Yiddish?

Nina Warnke, Visiting Lecturer of Yiddish, Indiana University Bloomington

Nina Warnke’s students face that problem. Warnke is a visiting lecturer of Yiddish at Indiana University Bloomington. “There is no country where Yiddish is spoken,” Warnke says. “You can’t send your students to Yiddishland.” By some estimates, only about 700,000 people in the world speak Yiddish. Most of them are Hasidic Jews. “It’s spoken in ultra-orthodox communities, and those communities have different sensibilities from my students or from the people who teach at universities.”

Finding opportunities for students of Yiddish to interact with native speakers will become increasingly important as the number of students who study the language at IU increases. Yiddish courses, created just three years ago, are already popular among undergraduates. IUB students often choose to study Yiddish because a family member speaks the language, because they are Jewish, or, increasingly, because they have discovered klezmer music, Warnke says. Klezmer, the music of itinerant Eastern European musicians, is today often considered “Jewish jazz.” It first came to the United States in the early part of this century. Its popularity has risen and fallen since then, but since the 1980s, it has enjoyed a revival thanks to groups such as Brave Old World (Warnke translated the group’s “Beyond the Pale” CD liner notes from English to German) and the Klezmatics.

“For many Jewish students, it’s an alternative to studying Hebrew because it explores their own cultural background,” Warnke says of Yiddish. “And right now, it’s somewhat ‘in.’ Some people find it cool.”

Since she arrived on the IUB campus as a visiting scholar in 1997, Warnke has developed a program that includes the study of the Yiddish language, Yiddish literature and theater, and Yiddish culture in America. Her language course has nine students in it and her literature and culture class has an enrollment of twenty-eight. Last year, the university approved second-year courses, allowing students to fulfill their language requirement with Yiddish. It has also instituted a Yiddish minor for undergraduate and graduate studies. This fall, the university will add the Dr. Alice Field Cohn Professorship in Jewish Studies, a newly created permanent post for a scholar of Yiddish.

Since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the number of college students interested in studying Yiddish—both in Europe and in the United States—has been on the rise. Though study of the language is becoming more popular, Yiddish still suffers from a little public relations problem.

“Sometimes there is this misconception, and people associate Yiddish with nostalgia and tears, with jokes, or with words like schlemiel, shlep, chutzpah,” Warnke says. “In some people’s minds, it has become the language of the joke, rather than being a regular language with a structure.” That’s not to say that Yiddish does not deserve its place of honor in the routines of Catskills’ comedians. “It can be funny,” Warnke acknowledges. “But it is just as serious and complex as any other language.”

Warnke’s students already take Yiddish seriously. Those who study a demanding, little-spoken language such as Yiddish need a high level of interest. “The people who choose to study it have to think about it. It’s not just like you fall into Yiddish,” Warnke says.

Warnke, who was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, and grew up in Stuttgart, discovered Yiddish while a theater history student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She came to the American university in an overseas study program run by the University of Bonn. To continue her study of theater, she returned to Germany, where she also began studying Yiddish. To advance her knowledge of Yiddish, she participated in a summer program at Oxford University in England and then moved to New York City to pursue her doctorate in Yiddish studies at Columbia University.

Warnke, who is finishing her dissertation on Yiddish theater, regularly visited Yiddish-speaking communities when she lived in New York. Her IU students do not have those kinds of opportunities. “I miss that cultural environment where I could go down the street to the archives that are my major resource,” Warnke says of New York. “I also miss the fact that I can’t go to Yiddish theater, and I miss the Yiddish newspapers.”

From Der groyser kundes (The Big Prankster), 1909. Under the caption "Ven meshiakh vet kumen" (When the Messiah will come), this cartoon shows a stately theater building with the words "art," "music," "poetry," and "drama" emblazoned above its columns. The enormous sign in front of the theater announces that the performance of a literary play is sold out. Of course, the caption "When the Messiah will come" drove home the point that there was as little hope in ever having a sold-out performance of a literary play in the Yiddish theater as there was hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Warnke studies the Jews’ assimilation into American culture by analyzing the debates in the Yiddish press concerning Yiddish theaters and music halls in the early 1900s. The theaters offered “bawdiness, vulgar jokes, gratuitous and showy singing and dancing,” Warnke writes in “Immigrant Popular Culture as Contested Sphere: Yiddish Music Halls, the Yiddish Press, and the Processes of Americanization, 1900-1910,” published in Theatre Journal in 1996. They blended American and Jewish popular cultures. Jewish intellectuals, who published the immigrant newspapers of the day, had something else in mind for the masses.

“The socialist press was outraged,” Warnke explains, adding that critics expected theater to follow in the tradition of Ibsen and Tolstoy and to enlighten. Theater was supposed to teach these new immigrants an appreciation of art and morality. “Theater should be a guide for behavior, and these were not the behaviors to show.”

Newspapers’ condemnation of Yiddish theater and music halls had another purpose too—it fueled a press war. Using the Yiddish theater issue, Warnke writes, each newspaper “promoted its own commercial interests and moral concern.” One editor, Abraham Cahan, was especially shrewd on the topic. Cahan took over the “moribund socialist” Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward)newspaper and turned it into something readers had to have. “To increase the paper’s readers, Cahan reduced the lengthy, academic articles on socialist thought and theory,” Warnke writes. “. . . His editorials on the music halls, which he started on the second day of his editorship, showed this vision to change the makeup of the paper. ‘I started to write editorials [Cahan noted] . . . which did not deal with political or social questions but with issues of daily life.’” Readers, concerned both with questions of community morality and the fate of the Yiddish music halls, snapped up these newspapers. Though Yiddish newspapers of the day criticized the music and dance halls as lowbrow, lewd entertainment, Jewish immigrants found them an important meeting place where they could “experiment with new forms of social and sexual interactions.”

While these immigrants may have worked ceaselessly at home in Europe, in their new home in America, they could enjoy recreation. “While going out was a welcome opportunity that came with living in America, the immigrants’ crowded living conditions fomented this desire to seek evening recreation away from home. Young couples brought their small children, and many teenage sons and daughters chose to go out rather than spend the evening in a single room with their younger siblings or their parents,” Warnke writes. “Leisure was seen as an American thing,” she says. “It’s not that there was no such concept before, not that people didn’t enjoy life, but there wasn’t this explosion of popular culture at the turn of the century in Europe the way there was in America.”

The press war over the impact of popular culture was only one indication of the rapid change overtaking the Yiddish-speaking world in the early twentieth century. Yiddish is a linguistically complex Germanic language, written with Hebrew letters, that includes Slavic and even some Romance language words. In part, because Yiddish is a language without a country, no governing body oversees the grammar, structure, and slang of Yiddish. “There is no mechanism like the Académie française. You don’t have that kind of system with Yiddish. It wasn’t standardized until the 1920s, and then it could not be universally enforced.”

The Nazi concentration camps of World War II destroyed most of the Yiddish culture and language of Eastern Europe. After the war, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the language further diminished the number of Yiddish speakers. The first generation of European Jews to emigrate to the United States, like many other immigrants from the era, did not want to speak an old language in their new, adopted homeland. While other post-World War II immigrants to America rejected their native languages as a way to proclaim their assimilation into American culture, Jews had another reason to abandon theirs. “Yiddish was associated with the Holocaust,” Warnke says.

Later, younger generations of Jews began to question their parents and grandparents about Yiddish. “There was a curiosity and interest in this culture that has disappeared,” Warnke says. “There was a sense among the younger generation that they could reinvent it, not just preserve it, but recreate it.”

Since Yiddish is spoken by a select group of people scattered about the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, and other countries, teachers of Yiddish face a decision—Do you teach Yiddish as a living language or as a relic? “It’s a very strange situation. It’s different from Latin or classical Greek where it’s accepted that they’re dead,” she says. “It is a language that is alive, it’s just not being spoken by very many people as their primary language.”

She has decided to teach Yiddish as a living language that is constantly changing, absorbing words and concepts from the countries where Jews live. “How much English do you let in? How much German do you let in? Who decides the word for ‘skateboard’?” Warnke asks. She tries to give her students “authentic” learning experiences, using real-world materials such as Yiddish newspapers, but acknowledges that most of her students will speak Yiddish in artificial settings. “You have a sense that you want to do something that is authentic, but is that possible?” Warnke asks. “It’s a schizophrenic situation for teachers.”

Warnke approaches the subject with pragmatic optimism. “We’re not going to revive the culture as a living culture,” Warnke says. “It’s not going to be a primary culture for millions of Jews, but it is becoming more of a part of the Jewish identity.”

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