Yiddish originated in Germany, but was eventually spoken by Jews all over Europe.

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Yiddish in the Twentieth Century

In 1908, the first international conference on Yiddish language (the Czernowitz conference) declared Yiddish to be "a national language of the Jewish people." The purpose of the conference was to discuss all the issues facing the language at that time, including the need to establish Yiddish schools, to fund Yiddish cultural institutions, and to establish standard Yiddish spelling. However, these agenda items received little attention, with much of the debate being focused on whether Yiddish should be considered the national language or a national language of the Jewish people. In 1925, YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, was founded in Vilna. It became the premiere institution for Yiddish scholarship and has been based in New York since 1940.

In the early days of the Soviet Union (1922 until the mid-1930s), the communist government supported Yiddish schools, theater, research, and literature--as long as these were strictly cultural expressions, without Jewish religious content. The extraordinary support given to Yiddish, and the respect initially shown to Yiddish writers, led many around the world to see the Soviet project as the true hope for the future of the language. However, the government soon began to censor Yiddish works, and eventually closed down most Yiddish institutions. During the purges of 1937, many Yiddish writers and leaders were arrested and executed at the increasingly paranoid orders of Joseph Stalin, who viewed Yiddish as anti-Soviet. In 1952, the remaining great Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union were brutally murdered in what is known today as the Night of the Murdered Poets (though not all of those executed were writers).

In interwar Palestine (1918-1948), and later in Israel, Yiddish was marginalized and, in some instances, outlawed. Until 1951, it was illegal for local theater groups to stage productions in Yiddish. Hebrew was the national language of the Jews in their land, and was considered the only legitimate medium of Jewish expression.

Post-Holocaust Yiddish

On the eve of World War II, there were roughly 13 million Yiddish speakers in the world.

The Holocaust destroyed most of this population. In America after the war, immigrant parents were often hesitant to speak Yiddish with their children. Though there were a few networks of Yiddish schools in the post-war period, after-school programs and camps could not compete with the intense pressures of Americanization. Yiddish began to take on a lowbrow image, and its use was associated with failure to climb up the American socioeconomic ladder of success.

But the last half century has brought many positive developments for Yiddish. It has been seriously studied as an academic discipline, and Yiddish literature has been recognized as great world literature, exemplified by Isaac Bashevis Singer receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

The 1970s saw the beginning of a Yiddish and Eastern European cultural revival, particularly in music. Thanks to the work of highly-talented artists, at the forefront of which are groups like The Klezmatics, klezmer music is now a ubiquitous presence in American Jewish culture.

Though the largest groups of Yiddish speakers today are Hasidic communities, more and more people are demanding access to Yiddish language and literature classes.

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Mordecai Walfish

Mordecai Walfish is Director of Special Projects for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner (bjpa.org). He comes from a long line of Yiddishists and has studied Yiddish at New York University, Tel Aviv University, and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.