Is Yiddish a Dead Language?

by KathleenDuffy

In the 1890s, Jews fled Russian areas of Eastern Europe, settling in New York's East Side. They spoke Yiddish, a vibrant language which they fought to keep alive. Did they succeed?

There are many reasons why the Yiddish language was in decline after the first generation of Jews settled into the East Side. The older generation was sad to see the last of their culture and language slipping away.

But against all the odds, Yiddish is making a comeback. Young people are keen to explore their history and, along with it, the language that their recent ancestors brought with them from Europe to the New world.

Gradually the Yiddish language was weakened by a number of factors, including:

  • By the 1940s, the first generation of Yiddish-speakers was dying off;
  • Most Yiddish speakers in Europe perished in the  Holocaust;
  • The new state of Israel rejected Yiddish as the language  of the ghetto and replaced it with Hebrew as the official language. (This  controversy over whether Yiddish is a language of despair is an ongoing  debate);
  • The new generations wanted to assimilate fully into American life and speak and read English, and;
  • Yiddish became assimilated into the American language.  This was a good thing, but meant Yiddish itself became almost forgotten.

The Revival of Yiddish in New York


Today, a new generation of Jews is reviving Yiddish. Groups such as The New York Yiddish Language Meetup Group and the Workmen’s Circle provide Yiddish classes, music, walking tours of the Lower East Side, and various other cultural opportunities.

Many Jewish students are keen to discover their East-European roots and are learning Yiddish so they can connect to their own families who died in the war.

Two old stalwarts of the Yiddish language, The Jewish Daily Forward and Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, have seen an upsurge in interest by a public keen to experience Yiddish language and culture.

Yiddish socialist daily, the Forward, November 1st, 1936
Yiddish socialist daily, the Forward, November 1st, 1936

One of the oldest and most influential vehicles for Yiddish culture and language was The Jewish Daily Forward, a socialist journal founded in 1897 and based on the politics of the German Social Democratic Party. It defended trade unionism and published Yiddish authors, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winner.

Today Forward is a weekly publication which is available in two versions, English and Yiddish. According to their website, with the resurgence of interest in Yiddish, Forward sales are steadily on the increase.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre now National Yiddish Theatre


In 1917, when America entered World War I, there were twenty-two Yiddish theatres in New York along with two Yiddish vaudeville houses.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre (now The National Yiddish Theatre) was formed in 1915 and is the oldest continuous Yiddish theatre in this vibrant tradition.

This theatre has done much to promote the Yiddish language, as confirmed by their mission statement, which says the theatre seeks:

"To preserve, promote, and develop Yiddish Theater for current and future generations to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Yiddish culture as a necessary component of Jewish Life."

Short Interview with two Veteran Actors of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre


Not only does The National Yiddish Theatre perform the traditional Yiddish plays and musicals, but they encourage and promote contemporary playwrights.

According to their website, during the years 2008-2009, The National Yiddish Theatre audience has increased by 60 percent.

Yiddish Theatre Items from E-Bay


Klezmer – Yiddish Music


With its imitation of the human voice, whether sobbing or laughing, Klezmer, a form of emotional Yiddish folk music, is fast gaining popularity on the world music scene. Its lineage can be traced back to the Ashkenazi Jews, so lyrics are typically in Yiddish.

Klezmer music influenced early American jazz. Cab Calloway recorded his own version of a Yiddish song, The Tailor’s Song’ whilst the influence on George Gershwin’s music is obvious in compositions like It Ain’t Necessarily So, My One and Only and Rhapsody in Blue.

Here's a video of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - it's rather long, but the clarinet at the very beginning is a perfect example of the way Gershwin integrated Klezmer style into his celebration of New York City.

'Rapsody in Blue' by George Gershwin

The Diamond District, East 47th Street


Yiddish is used every day by the predominantly Hassidic Jewish dealers in the Diamond District of East 47th Street. Diamonds could be described as a Jew’s best friend, for when trouble meant you had to quickly move on, diamonds could be hidden in clothing or swallowed.

During the Second World War Jews working in the diamond industry in Amsterdam and Antwerp fled to New York. Most never returned, and today the Yiddish language dominates the Diamond Dealers' Circle.

Yiddish Continues to Flourish!

Yiddish has shown a remarkable resilience and refusal to die. In Brooklyn, the resurgence of interest in Yiddish means it is possible once more to tap into a historically important and creative vein of writing, music and language.


Further Useful Information:

  • Find our about the New York Yiddish Language Meetup Group here.
  • Visit The Workmen's Circle website.
  • Have a look at The Jewish Daily Forward on line.
  • Why not visit The National Yiddish Theatre? Find out what's on here.
Updated: 07/13/2013, KathleenDuffy
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katiem2 on 04/11/2013

Listened to the video, it's wonderful! Very Dramatic and Moving!

KathleenDuffy on 04/11/2013

Yes - so many languages are being lost and along with them goes the culture, the stories, etc. But fortunately there always seems to be some amazing people who work to retrieve them, with some success!

katiem2 on 04/11/2013

This is fantastic, culture and its language roots are such a treasure. Anytime I speak in my Scottish accent my daughters are intrigued and yet so few of us express our native way of speech, I'm thrilled Yiddish may be on the rise, coming back.

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