Down with the “Revival”: Yiddish is a Living Language


Let’s get one thing straight: Yiddish is not a dying language. While UNESCO officially classifies Yiddish as an “endangered” language in Europe, its status in New York is hardly in doubt. According to some estimates, Yiddish is the fifth most commonly spoken language in Brooklyn, behind English, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park alone, the number of Hasidic Jews, for whom Yiddish is the primary language, is well over 150,000. While census data on Yiddish is notoriously skewed (census numbers do not include speakers under 5 years of age, a major Hasidic demographic), the numbers indicate that Yiddish is here to stay: even UNESCO recently held a conference entitled, “The Permanence of Yiddish.”

News stories announcing the death, and/or rebirth, of Yiddish, abound in mainstream media today. The phrase “Yiddish revival” gets you 15,000 Google results, mostly recent articles from the Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, and Reuters, to name just a few from the top 10 hits. As one blogger has pointed out, Yiddish is “journalistic evergreen,” providing countless opportunities to recycle ideas about its demise, or (dramatic twist!) its rebirth. This week’s Atlantic article continues this trend: while posing the problem of Yiddish’s imminent demise, the article ends up underscoring the presence of important Yiddish cultural institutions, from YIVO’s own Yiddish-intensive summer program, to the Forverts, the Congress for Jewish Culture, the New Yiddish Repertory Theater, and Yugntruf.

If you are interested in Yiddish, you have probably received articles of this kind of from well-meaning relatives. Besides the death/revival duality, another motif common in this kind of reportage is the Hasidic/secular divide: this motif implies that, while Yiddish may have numbers on its side, Yiddish culture is still declining, because Hasidim don’t contribute to a modern, secular Yiddish culture. Along with the problematic assumption that Hasidim have nothing to contribute to the continuing vibrancy of modern Yiddish culture, one problem with these tropes is that they obscure a much more interesting cultural phenomenon: the way that Yiddish serves as a conduit for creating an overlapping space between the margins of both the secular and religious communities, allowing for a creative dynamism between the two.

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Golde and Her Daughters: Soviet Jewish Women Under Stalin

"A woman’s path extends from the stove to the door. / Here in the USSR without God, the woman’s path leads everywhere." Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the workplace), 1927.

“A woman’s path extends from the stove to the door. / Here in the USSR without God, the woman’s path leads everywhere.” Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the workplace), 1927.

On June 16, 2013, Elissa Bemporad spoke at YIVO about her book, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press), a case study of the Sovietization of Jews in the former Pale of Settlement.

On Monday, September 15, at 6:30pm, Bemporad will speak again at YIVO, this time about one fascinating aspect of her research: the experiences of Jewish women under Stalin, their encounters with the Sovietization process, and the cultural wars surrounding Stalin’s attempt to eradicate religious culture and create a “New Soviet Jewish Woman.”

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Assistant Professor in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College, City University of New York. Her book Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press) was awarded the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, and the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for an outstanding work of 20th century history. She is currently working on a social history of the blood libel accusation in the Soviet Union and Poland.

Read an interview with Elissa Bemporad.

Attend the program. (Note: This program will be in Yiddish.)

Max Weinreich in Copenhagen: Follow-up


On August 29, we posted an article about how YIVO founder Max Weinreich and his son were stranded in Copenhagen in the early days of World War II. In it, the author, Bent Blüdnikow, wrote also about the small community of Yiddish-speaking Jews who took the Weinreichs in and about how these Jews, including Blüdnikow’s grandfather, Abraham Krakowsky, stayed in touch with YIVO over the years.

After the war, when the Danish Jews returned from Sweden, where they had been evacuated by the Danish underground and thus saved from death at the hands of the Nazis, Krakowsky and others began sending documents chronicling the social, cultural, and religious revival of the community to YIVO. They were zamlers (collectors), members of the worldwide network of volunteers who helped build the collections of the YIVO Archives and Library both before and after World War II.

Here are a few examples of what they sent to YIVO in the late 1940s and 50s, and which can now be found in RG 116 Territorial Collections – Denmark.

Digitization of images by Vital Zajka, YIVO Archives.

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Newly Published Books Based on Research at YIVO

Every month, the YIVO Library receives complimentary copies of books whose content has been drawn in part from research done by the authors in the YIVO Archives and Library. Below is a partial list of books published in 2011-2014.

  • Brin Ingber, Judith.  Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.
  • Dauber, Jeremy. The worlds of Sholem Aleichem: the remarkable life and afterlife of the man who created Tevye.  New York: Nextbook; Schocken, 2013.
  • Goda, Norman J. The Holocaust: Europe, the World, and the Jews: 1918-1945. Boston: Pearson, c2013.
  • Meller, Shimon.  Raban shel kol bene ha-golah: toldot Rabenu Hayim Halevi mi-Brisk. Helek 1. Jerusalem, 2014.
  • Ofer, Dalia, ed. Holocaust survivors:  resettlement, memories, identities. New York; Oxford: Berdhahn Books, 2012.
  • Ury, Scott. Barricades and banners: the revolution of 1905 and the transformation of Warsaw  Jewry.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Leyenzal: Interview with Isaac Bleaman


In 2013, Isaac Bleaman launched Leyenzal (Reading Room), a website that commissions original biweekly Yiddish-language video lectures about Yiddish literature, which can be downloaded for free along with the texts being discussed.

Bleaman is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Linguistics at New York University, with interests in sociolinguistic variation, language contact, and language shift. He earned an MSt in Yiddish Studies at Oxford, and a BA in Linguistics and Comparative Literature at Stanford. Earlier this year, he was profiled in “36 Under 36: Three Dozen Millenials And Gen-Xers Reinventing The Jewish Community” in The Jewish Week.

He is interviewed here by Yedies Editor Roberta Newman.

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Abraham Sutzkever: The Power in Poetry

A dark violet plum,
the last one on the tree,
thin-skinned and delicate as the pupil of an eye,
that in the dew at night blots out
love, visions, shivering,
and then at the morning star the dew
grows weightless: That
is poetry. Touch it so lightly
that you don’t leave a fingerprint.

“Poetry” 1954, by Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by Chana Bloch

For Samson’s riddle—Out of the strong came something sweet—the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever substituted a riddle of his own: the power that emerges from rhyme and the permanence from what appears to be transitory. Sutzkever came of age in Vilna in the 1920s and 30s when Yiddish poetry was the favored creative outlet of its Jewish youth. For him, poetry—but only if good enough—was more than self-expression, more than beauty and truth: it was the endurance that is manifest in nature and in the Jewish people. On Wednesday, September 10 at 7:00pm, acclaimed literary scholar Ruth Wisse puts Sutzkever’s poetry to his own test. Professor David Roskies (Jewish Theological Seminary) delivers introductory remarks.


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Today News, Tomorrow History (1965)

YIVO MicIn this episode, originally heard on March 7, 1965, YIVO historian and archivist Zosa Szajkowski talks about the importance of collecting news of current events: “How what is news today is tomorrow’s history.” Two of the many YIVO archival collections with newspaper clippings and first-hand accounts that he mentions are The Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (RG 80), which contains documentation on events in Ukraine, including pogroms, in 1918-1920, and Territorial Collection-France (RG 116), which contains scrapbooks related to the Dreyfus Affair.

From 1963-1976, YIVO had its own program on WEVD, the radio station established by the Socialist Party of America in 1927 (its call letters stand for the initials of American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs), which was purchased by the Jewish Daily Forward in 1932 and became a major venue from Yiddish programming.

YIVO used its spot on WEVD for Yiddish-language interviews and discussions with leading New York Yiddish cultural figures, as well as for reporting on its own scholarly and cultural work.

A new podcast of this program in the order in which it was originally broadcast will be posted here every two weeks.

Presentation of series curated by Matt Temkin, YIVO Sound Archives.

Listen to the program [in Yiddish].

Max Weinreich in Copenhagen


In 1939, Max Weinreich, his wife Regina, and their son Uriel-Eliezer were stranded in Copenhagen, Denmark. Weinreich had been on his way to Brussels for a conference on languages with leading Danish linguists. But the outbreak of war put an end to his trip and he was forced to stay in Copenhagen while his wife traveled back to Vilna in order to care for the couple’s youngest child, Gabriel. We shall speak more of Max Weinreich and his stay in Copenhagen, but first, a few words on the East European Jews of Copenhagen.

Yiddish culture in Copenhagen

Beginning in the 1880s, large groups of Jews emigrated west from tsarist Russia. Most went to the United States but smaller groups made their way to Paris or London. About 5,000 Jews sailed from the Baltic ports to Copenhagen. In the poorest areas of town, they formed a ghetto where Yiddish was spoken and also performed on stage. In many ways, the ghetto of Copenhagen was similar to the Jewish environments that could be found in lower Manhattan or in the poor East End of London.

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YIVO in the News/Staff Notes – August 2014

The YIVO Digital Archive on Jewish Life in Poland is glowingly reviewed on a website dedicated to the Jewish community of Dnepetrovsk.

In an August 20 article in the Malibu Times, “Malibu Film Archive Gives Light To Anne Frank Documentary,” filmmaker Paula Fouce speaks of the importance of YIVO’s Holocaust collections, including the recently discovered Otto Frank file. (The article includes some inaccuracies, including the statement that YIVO has spent “$7 million dollars” on a “research tool for Holocaust survivors and their testimonies.”

YIVO is mentioned in an NBC News report, “Meet the Polish Catholic Devoted to Helping American Jews,” and in an essay by Peter N. Miller in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Objects Speak.”

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Song of the Murdered Jewish People: Looking for the “Real” Yitzkhak Katzenelson

katzenelson poem

Untitled poem by Yitsḥak Katzenelson, n.d
Untitled poem by Yitsḥak Katzenelson, n.d. Dedicated to Khayke Kahan, “my friend from Korelitz.” “Of everything . . . / Of everything that I once had / There remains to me a heart tired and weary. . . .” Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F73.12. (YIVO)

Poet and playwright Yitzkhak Katzenelson (1885-1944) was known chiefly for his work in Hebrew before World War II, especially in Łódź, where he helped found Ha-Bamah ha-‘Ivrit (The Hebrew Stage) Theater Company. But when he was incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto, he turned to Yiddish poetry as a way of reaching more readers. In 1942, his wife and two younger sons were deported to the Treblinka death camp. He and his older son joined the Jewish resistance in the ghetto and participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In May 1943, as the German razed the ghetto, he escaped to the Aryan side of the city and managed to obtain a Honduran identity certificate. This, however, did not save him. He and his son were incarcerated in a detention camp for foreigners in Vittel, France, and from there, deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

Even during his imprisonment in Vittel, he continued to write poetry, some of which survived in hiding places or in the hands of trusted individuals. Among the poems he wrote as a prisoner was the lament Dos lid funem oysgehargetn yidishn folk (Song of the Murdered Jewish People), which would become his best-known work.

Now, two adjunct professors from the Philology Department of Jagiellionian University in Krakow have joined together in a project focused on this poem and on Katzenelson’s life and work. Magdalena Sitarz is a specialist in the History of Literature and Yiddish Studies. She recently published Literature as a Medium for Memory. The Universe of Sholem Asch’s Novels (Peter Lang 2013). Andrzej Pawelec specializes in Philosophy, Linguistics and Translation Theory. He has recently published articles on Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Polish translations.

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