Yiddish in Lithuania

According to an article on the BBC, Jews in Lithuania are trying to revive Yiddish, which was spoken by around 250,000 people before the Second World War. Today there are about 5,000 Jews in Lithuania and only a few hundred still speak Yiddish. Children at the only Jewish nursery school in Lithuania are being taught Yiddish songs and nursery rhymes, which they enjoy a great deal, and a Yiddish class at Vilnius’ Jewish secondary school started last month.

One of people interviewed comments that:

“…the only way to make sure Yiddish survives is to interest all Lithuanians in the country’s Jewish history and art, and above all, its music.”

The position of Yiddish in Lithuania sounds quite similar to that of other endangered languages – most of the remaining speakers are elderly, few families are passing the language on to their children, and a lot of people see speaking the language as a hobby rather than an everyday means of communication.

The BBC article has quite an optimistic tone, however another article I just found paints a more gloomy picture. One of the people quoted in the second article says “There is no real revival of Yiddish, … It’s a club, it’s a fetish, it’s a hobby.”

By the way, I’d be interested to know if there are any Yiddish speakers who read this blog.

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This entry was posted in Endangered languages, Language.

18 Responses to Yiddish in Lithuania

  1. Ben L. says:

    Obwohl ich hab’ nur Deutsch studiert, interessiere ich mich immer noch fuer Jiddisch. Einer von meiner Familie (jueddisch) war aus Kaunus, Lithauen gekommen.

    I suppose I confirm the negative article’s fears. I understand there are still active communities of speakers in Israel.

    Simon: why do you write “Lithuanian”? Are you refering to the language?

    Sog nit ken mol az du gest dem letzten veg!

  2. jdotjdot89 says:

    There are more than just active speakers of Yiddish in Israel–Yiddish is still very much alive as a spoken language, though not in all parts of the world. For years, particularly after the Holocaust, predictions were made every couple of years that Yiddish would soon die out–and it never did. It’s mostly spoken by the very religious right, Jews of (not surprisingly) Eastern European descent. They (not unlike the Amish, in some ways) make an attempt to hold on to the lifestyle of the past, and this is why in the Lubavitch and other Chasidic movements we see Jews wearing long black coats, black hats, and with pais (the curls) and beards, etc. Among them, Hebrew is considered too holy a language to be used in everyday life, and so Yiddish is used instead in yeshivot (religious schools) and in the home. In these communities, sometimes the families don’t even know English, though more often than not they do. Some places you’ll find Yiddish are Brooklyn, NY; Lakewood, NJ; and Me’ah She’arim, Israel. But it’s definitely alive, and not just in the words borrowed into English like “chutzpah” and “maven”.

  3. jdotjdot89 says:

    Yiddish was actually almost chosen to be the national language of Israel when it was being formed, but the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda saw to it that Hebrew won out.

  4. Ben L. says:

    I wonder, is Yiddish is sort of folkloric art, or are its various communities in contact and producing literature (beyond periodicals)?

  5. jdotjdot89 says:

    I don’t know if all of the communities are necessarily in contact with each other, but there definitely is literature produced aside from periodicals or religious commentaries. One such example is the list of works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a well-known Yiddish author in the Jewish world. His works have been translated into a number of other languages and include a large variety of short stories based on Chasidic folklore as well as a set of stories about his life as a child, hearing about cases of Jewish law being decided in his father’s rabbinical courtroom.

  6. Juliette says:

    Your call out to see whether there are any Yiddish speakers of this blog, pulls a string in me… I would very much like to get in touch with someone who can speak (and more importantly write) Yiddish for a one-time only translation of a relatively small document (approx 225 words).
    It would have to be a volunteer translation as it is for a no-budget non-profit project.

    So… if there are Yiddish speakers here, I would very much appreciate it if you would get in touch with me. You can read more about the project on the website I link to and can contact me by e-mail on translations@remembermewhenimgone.org .

    Talking about this, we are trying to make the above mentioned document available to *everyone* world wide… I realize this is quite a task we have set ourselves, but still….

    This means of course that translations to other languages are also very welcome indeed, but please do contact me before making a translation as we currently already have the document available in 96 languages (92 online, four more coming up soon).

    If you are willing to help this non-profit project and are fluent in a language which is not yet available on our website, I would very much like to invite you to contact me !

    (Simon, I hope I’m not being too presumptious using your blog for this call for help, please forgive me)

    For those of you studying languages, you may find it interesting to have a look at the document anyhow. It’s some 40 quite simple phrases and you can find the translations of these in 92 languages on our website.

  7. Ben L. says:

    That’s a good point. I’ve heard of Singer before- he wrote “The Dybbuk”, among other things, didn’t he? Would you consider him a contemporary author, though?

  8. Podolsky says:

    I know Yiddish. A few years ago I visited Lithuania, spent a couple of hours in the Yiddish institute at Vilnius University and know their program of teaching Yiddish. It has no chance of reviving Yiddish. The majority of those who come (the program lasts one month in August) are elderly people who enjoy singing Yiddish songs and talking the language; but it will hardly produce new speakers.
    There is in the recent years a certain upsurge of interest in Yiddish. Still the only group which normally makes use of the language (besides elderly people) is the ultra-orthodox Jews in USA and Israel.

  9. It pains me just a little to see these interesting comments thrown completely out of kilter by certain submissions that are – to put it mildly – nonsensical. I do not think I am alone in thinking thus. :-(

    Will Simon, as moderator, be able to excise absurd submissions?

  10. Simon says:

    Ronald – I agree, and have removed the bizarre comments (and your repeated one).

    Ben L. – writing Lithuanian rather Lithuania was a mistake that I’ve now corrected.

  11. Podolsky says:

    jdotjdot89 Says:
    For years, particularly after the Holocaust, predictions were made every couple of years that Yiddish would soon die out–and it never did.

    True, but the number of speakers grows less every year. Very few children are using it, so that its reproduction in the next generation is doubtful.
    I know quite a few people who write prose and poetry in Yiddish; the number of those who read it is few.

  12. Alex says:

    Another Yiddish speaker here (it’s not my native language, but I’m reasonably conversant in it).

    Re jdotjdot89′s first comment: there is actually a bit of a difference in that regard between Lubavitch and most other Chassidic communities. Most Lubavitchers – like myself – do speak the local language (English in the US, Hebrew in Israel, etc.) at home, though sometimes heavily flavored with Yiddish. As for Lubavitcher schools, there is a range of options, anywhere from almost exclusive use of the local language to almost exclusive use of Yiddish. [There is a large body of religious literature in Yiddish, particularly the talks ("sichot") of the last two Lubavitcher rebbes, so most of the time there is some attempt to get the students conversant enough in the language to be able to read and understand these.] Incidentally, there is a Lubavitcher rabbi in Vilnius who runs a synagogue and a school, although I have no idea whether Yiddish is used in either.

    What surprises me about the BBC article is that there’s no mention of Dovid Katz, a well-known professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University, who runs the summer program that Podolsky refers to (and which is also mentioned in the second article that Simon linked). I would have thought that no description of the state of Yiddish in Lithuania would be complete without such a reference.

  13. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    Growing up in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s, in a Western part of the city where there were numerous jewish businesses I had the impression that I had Yiddish language culture all around me sometimes. More than 40 years later a lot of Jews have moved on (with the English) to Toronto and elsewhere because they didn’t want to learn French and/or work in French, but enough have remained to keep several Yiddish culture institutions alive, as this extract from the wikipedia article on Yiddish theater attests:

    Although its glory days have passed, Yiddish theatre companies still perform in various Jewish communities. The Folksbiene (People’s Theatre) company in New York City is still active 90 years after it was founded. The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theater of Montreal, Quebec, Canada has been active for over 49 years.

  14. Evans Knight says:

    I’m not a particular fan of yiddish…it sounds like german spoken by someone with a cold, but Ladino has become a recent passion of mine. which is more widely spoken?

  15. Podolsky says:

    Speakers of Ladino are usually people over 70 years old.
    Some time ago I had a conversation with somebody who passionately spoke in favour of Ladino:
    “Why, I used to speak this language to my Grandma!”
    “When did you last spoke Ladino”, I asked.
    “Well, she died 40 years ago.”
    “What language did you speak to your parents?” – “Bulgarian.”
    “And what language do you use now at home , with your wife and kids?”
    “Hebrew.”

  16. Harris Engelmann says:

    There is definitly other literature in Yiddish besides just newspapers; a new important area of growth is in the Khasidic communities. Singer was definitly an excellent writer, although not the author of the Dybbuk; That was Sholem An-ski. As for Yiddish and Ladino, Yiddish is spoken by somewhere between 1 and 3 million, including a small but growing number of children, while Ladino is spoken by maybe 200,000, almost none under 50.

    I myself am not a native speaker of Yiddish, though I have commited myself, although I am only in my secondary school years, to learning the Language and Culture. I hope to be a writer or Professor in Yiddish when I grow up, though I know the oppurtunities are few and the resources almost nonexistent. As a lover of Yiddish, one of the hardest things for me to see is the fact that Yiddish is constantly denegrated and considered a “Jargon”, even by it’s own speakers. I do hope that there will be a revival of Yiddish, but I don’t know how it can occur if its own speakers are resistant to the language.

  17. renato says:

    I really agree with Evans. I don’t speak Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino, but I have some material in all this language, and I could understand better Hebrew construction through Ladino. Thanks for your comment Evans.

  18. Evans Knight says:

    in my experience, i have found that ladino is much more common out of israel, and that when sefardi families move there, they switch to hebrew. the few young ladino speakers i know are from families with roots in greece or turkey.