Yiddish, like the Jewish community, contains multitudes. Originally referred to as לשון־אַשכּנז, or the language of Ashkenaz, Yiddish draws roots from German, Hebrew, Aramaic and trace Slavic languages. According to the 2000 United States Census, there are fewer than 200,000 Yiddish speakers in America, and a vast majority of them are located in New York.
But Yiddish, like all languages, is so much more than a collection of vocabulary words and conjugations. The term “Yiddish” is conflated with inherent Jewishness, a varied cultural experience that connects speakers all over the world.
But I can’t speak Yiddish, and I’m not alone. Many young Jewish people are isolated from the language of our people for a multitude of reasons. Children pick up languages easily, but they need to be immersed in them. In a country where people speaking their native languages are threatened with violence and told to “go back where they came from,” teaching your children your native language may lead to social backlash.
A combination of racism and antisemitism discourages kids in secular environments from leaning into their Judaism, particularly in places where they are the minority. And still, even though I can’t hold a conversation or ask where the bathroom is, Yiddish feels like home to me.
My father’s grandmother was a fluent speaker, and her influence permeated my household. My father would pronounce a particularly bad hand of Uno chazerai, meaning “pig food.” He commented on my baby sister’s cheeks—that punim!—and lauded kvetching as an art. I absorbed these beautiful words like a little sponge, noticing them in my non-Jewish friends’ vernacular: spiel, schtick, chutzpah.
The English language has a habit of absorbing words and phrases into its messy conglomeration, and the Yiddish influence is evident. However, due to a lack of knowledge about the language, some non-Jews view Yiddish as a language completely composed of snappy one-liners and swears, which reduces nuanced communication to a caricature. Overbearing mothers in media toss in the occasional Yiddish word to give their characters a little stereotypical twist. In the American non-Jewish mind, Yiddish exists in the space between humor and cruelty, which is only a small facet of the language as a whole.
Eighty-five percent of the Jews who died in the Shoah were Yiddish speakers. A huge swath of the population and culture was lost to violence. But Yiddish refused to be stamped out, and the language of immigrants and mothers and home still wraps around the Jewish people.
Despite the relatively small number of fluent speakers, Yiddish flourishes. Hassidic communities are devoted to the language. The Forward, a Yiddish newspaper in New York, has circulated weekly since 1897. Boston Workers Circle offers Yiddish classes for those who wish to reconnect with their roots. Like the Jewish people, Yiddish has staying power, the practice of planting its feet and declaring that it isn’t going anywhere.