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Reprinted with permission from The Avi Chai Bookshelf, where Birthright Israel alumni can order free books and magazines.
History is full of bizarre twists and turns, and the fate of a language can be as unpredictable as the fate of a people. In 1945, the future of Yiddish looked bleak. Millions of its speakers had been murdered, and the audience for Yiddish literature was practically wiped out. Many survivors focused on learning Hebrew or English–the languages they needed to build new lives. Meanwhile, Yiddish fell by the wayside, becoming the language parents and grandparents spoke when they wanted to hide things from their children.
Klezmer is Suddenly Cool
But nearly 60 years later, klezmer music is suddenly cool. The melodies our grandparents laughed and cried to are played in places where twenty-somethings gather, from New Orleans jazz clubs to Montreal cafés. Meanwhile, recent American Jewish literature–like Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges–pays constant homage to Yiddish fiction masters like Sholom Aleichem, Y.L. Peretz, and I.B. Singer. For young writers like Englander, Yiddish humor amid tragedy is an inspiration. Many of these Yiddish stories, like Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, are readily available in English, and sometimes, North American readers decide they want to check out the fiction in its original language.
The majority of current Yiddish speakers, of course, are from Hasidic and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families who raise their children with Yiddish as their mother tongue. These large families have led some scholars to believe there may be a million Yiddish speakers again. But the more surprising story is the slow but seemingly steady increase in Yiddish lovers in the non-Hasidic world.
“In the Jewish ‘mainstream’, interest in Yiddish may be growing,” says Neil Zagorin, bibliographer at The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. “It will probably not again be the vernacular or cultural language of the Jewish ‘masses’ the way it was before the Holocaust. Most ‘mainstream’ Jews will not be fluent or literate in Yiddish.”
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