Skip to content
“Yiddish is still a living language, one that is attracting new speakers wanting to find a different way to express their Jewishness and their passion for keeping the language and its culture alive.”
Der tate firt mir far a hant in shul
der tog iz frimorgndik zunik,
der tog iz – yom-tov

Thus starts one of my favourite Yiddish poems, by H. Leivick (1888-1962):
My father leads me by the hand to shul (synagogue)
Today is early, a sunny morning
Today is – yom-tov (holiday)

Never mind that ‘holiday’ doesn’t quite work for yom-tov, the poem is a nostalgic look back to the old country… The marketplace and all of the shops are closed, today father is gentle, like yom-tov. They are watched over by God. It’s Pesach (Passover). Father walks and the child narrator dances along, his small hand in the hand of his father.

‘kh bin alt geven finf yor,
un der tate iz geven – eybik

I was five years old,
My father was – eternity

Never mind that Leivick’s own family background was not happy, and that for many years he was a Communist despite his religious background, he writes about a world that is gone. Gone, but not quite vanished. In Lithuania, I’ve been in villages where the shops and the markets were once Jewish, and where some of the houses round the former market areas still bore traces of mezuzahs (small containers carrying religious texts) on their doorposts.

The language he wrote in… is that also gone, but not quite vanished?

A few years ago, for my own amusement, I listed a number of words in relatively common use in British-English that were Yiddish in origin – including chutzpah, schlep, klutz and nosh among many others. Had I used American-English the list would have been much longer. Indeed, most of the Yiddish words in British-English probably came over from the USA. This reflects both the number of Jews in the United States compared to the UK and their influence on public life, popular culture and speech in each country. And by Jews, I mean here Jews of central and east European descent – the Ashkenazim – whose historic language, Yiddish, was, roughly-speaking, a blend of medieval German, Hebrew and Slavic languages. The language stories of Sephardi Jews (those who came originally from Spain and Portugal) and Mizrahi Jews (those who came from other countries of the Middle East and North Africa) are distinctly different!

In the USA, there were many writers whose lives were formed by their Yiddish-speaking family background and whose work reflected this: Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, for example. More recently, there’s Michael Chabon’s wonderful novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), which imagines a Yiddish-speaking state. Here, in Britain, we have…. well, save for Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer (1999), few contemporary British Jewish novels that reflect the language of those who spoke Yiddish in the home, at work and, as in Jacobson’s case, down the market.

Yiddish was once spoken by ten or eleven million Jews and a sprinkling of others. The late US general Colin Powell, who, as a teenager, worked in Jewish stores in the Bronx, was proud of his basic Yiddish; the Arab boatmen of Haifa could get by in the language that the state of Israel itself would soon downgrade in favour of Hebrew and, somewhere in my files, I have an image of an apparently non-Jewish boy in Birobidzhan reading Yiddish. (Birobidzhan was a 1930s Stalin-sponsored colonisation project on the Russian/Chinese border, to which Soviet Jews were encouraged to migrate, and where Yiddish was officially approved.)

But then the Holocaust (khurbn in Yiddish) wiped out a few million speakers. Stalin also played a part, closing down Yiddish organisations and, finally, executing the leaders of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee on 12 August 1952, the Night of the Murdered Poets. Even Birobidzhan saw mass purges. Moreover, there was linguistic assimilation, to Hebrew, to English and to other languages in the places where East European Jews ended up. Native speakers, once established in their new countries for a generation or two, rarely passed the language on. Indeed, some Jewish schools actively discouraged Yiddish.

In London there were, at one time, four Yiddish daily newspapers (the last, Di Tsayt, closing in 1950) and a vibrant publishing scene which faded away as Jews took the north-west passage away from the East End. Avrom Stencl, a poet and publisher, used to sell his literary magazine Loshn un Lebn (Language and Life) outside Jewish meetings – ‘Koift a heft’ (buy a copy/buy a journal) he would say. And he did sell copies, towards the end largely to those who could not read the magazine he was selling. In the former Yiddish-speaking heartland of London’s Jewish East End, the Friends of Yiddish group kept going for decades, first under Stencl, then Maier Bogdanski and finally Chaim Neslen. The Friends included a number of the last, fluent native speakers of Yiddish living in the East End, and a sprinkling of learners. Its meetings at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel folded in 2011.

Thanks to Dovid Katz, Gennady Estraikh and others, Yiddish teaching thrived for a period at the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies’ summer schools. The Ukrainian-born Estraikh now teaches in the USA and the American-born Katz largely in Lithuania. Katz’s book Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish came out in 2004, while Estraikh, a former managing editor of the Yiddish literary journal Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland) has written widely on Soviet-era Yiddish literature and culture.

A continuous, secular Yiddish life has lasted longer in the USA, but the social democratic newspaper Forward (Forverts), once selling a quarter of a million copies daily, moved largely to English in the 1990s. The anarchist Fraye Arbeter Shtime (Free Voice of Labour) went to the great utopia in the sky in 1977, and the communist Morgen Freiheit winked out of life in 1988. It’s interesting that these long-lasting papers were all left-leaning.

And yet, at the same time, the number of native speakers was actually growing – among communities of the strictly orthodox Haredi and Hassidic Jews. They still tend to have large families, their own newspapers, an internal life mostly conducted in Yiddish – and an active publishing industry specifically for their own members. As anyone with a flair for language could work out from watching the TV series Unorthodox (2020) or the drama series Shtisel (2013), the Hassidim portrayed (adherents of the Satmar sect, which largely separates itself from the secular community) have their own dialect.

In Boychiks in the Hood (1995), Robert Eisenberg remarked that by 2050 there will be more Yiddish speakers alive than at any time previously. It’s just that they won’t have any relationship to the non-Hassidic world. Nor will they read the secular books, all that wealth of material from 150 years of Yiddish literature. Yiddish books will be thrown away. Who will there be to read them? What do you do with these old books?

Over in America, the National Yiddish Book Center (now called the Yiddish Book Center) was set up to save the books. The story is told by founder Aaron Lansky in Outwitting History (2004). The Center collects Yiddish books, and its digitalisation programme – with a target of 70,000 published volumes – means that eventually the entire corpus of Yiddish publishing could be online. You can already download over 11,000 titles free from their website.

So we have the literature, but who can read it in what Jeffrey Shandler, in his recent book Yiddish: Biography of a Language (2020) calls this ‘post-vernacular’ time? Beyond the Hassidic world there are few groupings of native speakers or families where Yiddish is passed from generation to generation. One exception is the Melbourne Bund. The Bund was the main Jewish socialist organisation in pre-war Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The group just about survived, in Poland and then in exile, but faded as the members of the war years died out. In Melbourne, however, it survives and thrives with a focus on Yiddish and political activism and with an active youth group. The newest Yiddish magazine I’m aware of is LINK לינק, the Melbourne Bund’s youth zine.

In the USA, the Workers Circle (Der Arbeter Ring) continues teaching Yiddish and engaging in social justice campaigns. In Boston, its large, intergenerational choir Besere Velt has performed everywhere from conferences to picket lines, from temples to interfaith rallies. In France, meanwhile, the Maison de la Culture Yiddish – Bibliothèque Medem – organises courses and a full cultural programme.

What is happening is that – increasingly, internationally – a different sort of Yiddish speaker is emerging. Shandler, in his biography of Yiddish, describes how, for a number of Jews, Yiddish is a way to be Jewish without synagogues and without Israel at the centre of Jewish life. Avi Blitz, a teacher of Yiddish, has described something similar going on within Israel.

Nobody cares if you are from a religious background or whether you are gay or straight or even if you are not Jewish. There are teachers of Yiddish in the UK who are not Jewish and quite a few klezmer musicians who are not. In the USA, for a period, Yiddish was taught at the University of Texas by the Romani academic Ian Hancock, whose London grandfather passed himself off as Jewish to work in the sheet music business when it was effectively a Jewish trade! Though my own Yiddish learning stalled due to pressure of work, nobody ever cared that I was not Jewish either. Jewish life in the UK is not solely focused on the worlds of religion and Israel; however the new Yiddish world has its own distinctive identity and a certain tam (taste/feeling).

In Britain, you can now access not only academic courses, but also a monthly Yiddish open mic cafe, an annual Yiddish summer-school (Ot Azoy, run by the Jewish Music Institute based at SOAS, is one of a group of European summer schools), and, from 2022, the first residential sof-voch (weekend) being held entirely in Yiddish.

My own tiny part in Yiddish is in publishing, and gives some indication of where we are: one dual language book of poetry by Avram Stencl, a reader on Yiddish film, a book on the paintings of Stanislaw Brunstein, translations from Soviet Yiddish writers torn from us by Stalin (From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing 1917-1952), and a dual language version of Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt/Mir Geyen af a Bern Yagd (2021). Closing a circle here, this book – the first children’s book in Yiddish to be published in the UK for decades – is translated by Helen (Khayele) Beer, a native speaker from Melbourne and lecturer in Yiddish at University College London (UCL). The other week, in the bookshop where I work, I heard a question I never thought I would hear… a customer picked up the Yiddish Bear Hunt and asked if we had any other children’s books in Yiddish.

If you are looking for children’s books, a good place to start is Sweden’s Olniansky Tekst Farlag, if you want, say, Der Hobit or Harry Potter un der Filosofisher Shteyn as well as original stories. Unfortunately, most people who might have an interest in Yiddish literature and stories, can’t read them. The Yiddish Book Center recognises this, as do a number of American university presses, and translations are now coming out regularly.

Academic teaching and research on Yiddish in the UK is based largely at UCL, now under the direction of Professor Lily Kahn. Social and cultural historian and performer, Vivi Lachs has published two books: London Yiddishtown (2021) and Whitechapel Noise (2018), while oral history broadcaster Alan Dein has compiled the CD Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World on the London Yiddish jazz scene. Historian David Mazower, now working at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has done a great deal of work on the history of Yiddish theatre in Britain. These researchers and activists form only a part of the recovery of the London Yiddish past that will help the creation of a Yiddish future. When Isaac Bashevis Singer accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, he said ‘Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.’ Indeed, in April 2021, Duolingo introduced a Yiddish programme!

Secular Yiddish lives in the Argentinian Lloica Czackis singing Yiddish tango; in the queer-run Pink Peacock café in Glasgow (the first business in a generation to have its shop sign in Yiddish); in the music of the rock band The Klezmatics, and klezmer revivalists including Michael Alpert (now living in Scotland) at Klez North, Klezmer in the Park and Klez Camp; in the political music of Daniel Kahn; in the ‘Professor James’ Yiddish Punch and Judy show; at the art show Feygeles by Shterna Goldbloom (feygeles = little birds = Yiddish slang for LGBTQ+ people); in the banner of young Jews in Poland marching for women’s rights and carrying a banner with slogans from the Bund; in the research on the Yiddish speakers who fought in the Spanish Civil War; at Polina Shepherd’s Yiddish choirs and online events; even in the words of the editor of this WritersMosaic guest edition who wrote that he was on shpilkes (pins) about it.

I finished this article just after watching Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, which is about an early Yiddish play, Got fun Nekome (God of Vengeance) by Sholem Asch. In Rebecca Taichman’s production, Yiddish is projected on the backdrop and Merlin Shepherd’s klezmer band frames the work. What was interesting about the original, 1907, play was that it featured a passionate relationship between two Jewish women, one a prostitute and the other the brothel owner’s daughter. It played to packed audiences wherever Yiddish theatre was performed. Sexual transgression in Yiddish was never far away – the 1936 musical comedy Yidl mit’n fidle (Yidl with his fiddle) has a cross-dressing main character, while Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1962 short story Yentl, in its original language, was replete with homoerotic longing.

Yiddish – quoting Singer – is a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government… nor does it need any of these impediments. It seems to me, also, that it is a language that does not put itself above others, and that links Jews to other minority cultures. No surprise then that the slogan on the banner of the Polish-Yiddish Naftali Botwin Brigade in the Spanish Civil War – the same one carried by young Jews in Poland – read Far ayer un undzer freiheit – For your freedom and ours!

Ross Bradshaw

Ross Bradshaw has been involved in radical publishing and bookselling for nearly half a century. He was involved in Nottingham’s Mushroom Bookshop from 1979-1995. He has run Five Leaves Publications since 1995, and in 2013 he opened Five Leaves Bookshop, which operates on a wider canvas. On opening a bricks and mortar bookshop he said: ‘I’m quite prepared to be wrong, quite prepared to go bankrupt, quite prepared to have egg on my face, but I’d rather look silly and be wrong than not have a go.’ The bookshop won the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award in 2018 and has been shortlisted twice since then.

Prior to COVID, the bookshop organised about a hundred events a year including its own mini-festival, Bread and Roses. Earlier projects included jointly setting up Nottingham Peace Festival and, later, Nottingham Green Festival; Lowdham Book Festival and Southwell Poetry Festival. In 1989 and 2004 he was one of the organisers of the Anne Frank Exhibition in Nottingham and Southwell, together with their related meetings and arts events. Ross is also a coordinator of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers and the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.

© Ross Bradshaw