13 Reasons to Study Yiddish
1. You're interested in Jewish religious life.
For centuries Jews have studied religious texts, explained Jewish law and custom, and even prayed in Yiddish. Yiddish translations of the Bible and other sacred texts reveal how generations of Jews have interpreted scripture. Yiddish books on Jewish religious practice demonstrate how Jews have understood laws and developed local customs. Yiddish prayers reveal how the canon of Jewish liturgy was elaborated to accommodate the needs of ordinary Jews.
2. You're interested in modern Jewish politics.
During the late 19th century, Yiddish played a key role in developing modern Jewish political movements, promoting a wide array of political ideas— Zionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, diaspora nationalism— to masses of Jews living in Eastern Europe. Yiddish played a key role in organizing Jewish political parties and trade unions, and it also provided a voice for Orthodox jewish responses to modern political ideas. Jews wrote and read political pamphlets, poems, and speeches in Yiddish across Europe, in the Americas, and in Palestine.
3. You're interested in American Jewish history and culture.
Yiddish sources are invaluable for understanding Jewish life in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present. The majority of Jews living in the United States today are descendants of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Yiddish these immigrants created their own American culture: theater, newspapers, cabarets, novels, popular songs, humor, political organizations, schools, clubs, radio broadcasts, poetry, movies. It remains to this day one of the most important examples of American culture created in a language other than English.
4. You're interested in Jewish life in Israel.
Yiddish has been spoken by Jews living in Jerusalem, Safed, and elsewhere in the area for several centuries. Most of the first Zionist pioneers who came from Eastern Europe to settle in Palestine were native speakers of Yiddish. For years, Yiddish was more widely spoken among halutsim than Hebrew, and Yiddish was a major influence on the grammar, idioms, and vocabulary of the Hebrew spoken in Israel today. Today, there is a growing interest in Yiddish language and culture among younger Israelis, reacting against the often antagonistic relationship that previous generations of Israelis have had with Yiddish.
5. You're interested in the Holocaust.
Most of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. During the war, many of them used Yiddish to write diaries, tell stories, sing songs, and keep records of how they were doing whatever they could to endure in the face of genocide. After World War II, survivors wrote some of the first responses to the Holocaust— memoirs, histories, poems— in Yiddish.
6. You're interested in hasidism.
Yiddish was the daily language of the first hasidim, and the language has played a key role in hasidic spirituality ever since. Legends about the Baal Shem Tov and other rebeyim were first told in Yiddish, as were the mystical tales of Nahman of Bratslav. Today, Yiddish is the vernacular employed by most hasidim around the world, who believe that use of the language sanctifies their daily life.
7. You're interested in secular Jewish life.
Yiddish-speaking Jews pioneered the creation of a modern Jewish culture that celebrates the history and creativity of Jews separate from religious life. Secular Yiddish culture has thrived in Eastern Europe, Israel, and the Americas. During the 20th century, secular Yiddishists in the United States created their own school systems, summer camps, choirs, political organizations, and rituals.
8. You're interested in Jewish literature.
Some of the greatest works of modern Jewish literature were written in Yiddish: Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories, S. Ansky's play, "The Dybbuk," the fiction of Y.L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others. Modern Yiddish writers also created dazzling avant-garde poetry and plays in both Europe and America. Yiddish literature dates back to the late Middle Ages, when works of European literature, from Aesop's Fables to the legend of King Arthur were rendered in Yiddish versions. There is also a rich religious literature in Yiddish, such as the work of hasidic storytellers, and there are writers creating new works of Yiddish literature today as well.
9. You're interested in Jewish theater and film.
Yiddish theater includes Purim plays, which have been performed for centuries (including by hasidic communities to this day), as well as a wide repertoire of modern dramas, comedies, and musicals. In early twentieth-century Europe, Yiddish theater artists were among the most innovative performers on the continent; in America, Yiddish theater played a vital role in Jewish immigrant life. For a brief period, filmmakers captured the performances of some of the greatest stars of the Yiddish stage on film. Today, Yiddish plays are performed in Jewish communities in the Americas, Israel, and Europe.
10. You're interested in Jewish music.
Yiddish has an extensive repertoire of folk songs, theater songs, political anthems, and other genres. Yiddish is also an important component of the contemporary klezmer movement and informs the work of other avant-garde Jewish musicians.
11. You're interested in Jewish folklore.
There is a wealth of Yiddish folktales, riddles, proverbs, jokes, folk songs, Purim plays, and other forms of traditional Jewish folk culture. Yiddish folklorists also played a key role in pioneering the collecting and studying of folkways created by ordinary Jews around the world.
12. You're interested in Diaspora studies.
Yiddish culture is an exemplary diasporic phenomenon. For centuries, Yiddish language and lore have served as a "portable culture" that Jews have taken with them in communities across Europe, the Americas, as well as Israel, Australia, and South Africa. Scholarship on Yiddish-speaking communities sheds important light on how this and other diasporas work.
13. You're interested in Women's and Gender Studies.
Yiddish has long had special associations with women's culture in Ashkenazic Jewry. Many of the first published Yiddish books were intended especially for women readers, offering them access to the Bible and its commentaries, Jewish law and customs, and even enabling them to pray in Yiddish. One of the most remarkable books written in Yiddish is the memoir of a Jewish woman, Glikl Haml, who lived in northern Germany during the 1600s. During the 20th century, dozens of Jewish women turned to Yiddish to write memoirs, fiction, and poetry. The relationship of Yiddish and Hebrew in modern cultural politics has revealing implications for the gendering of Jewish life.