by JENNIFER YOUNG
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.