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Rediscovering Yiddish

DU now offers a course in Yiddish, which crept into the American vernacular during the 1950s and '60s. Photo courtesy of DU Beck Archives

Lori Goldberg was exposed to Yiddish when she began interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation nearly a decade ago.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Alana Goldberg, grew up hearing the rich sounds of Yiddish interlaced in the broken English spoken by her paternal grandmother. Both wanted more. So they signed up together for DU’s first Yiddish class.

“The class is totally joyful,” Lori says of the 10-week course offered by DU’s Center for Judaic Studies.

With the success of the fall quarter Yiddish course, the center has made the historic language a permanent part of its curriculum and is hiring an adjunct instructor to teach it. Center Director David Shneer hopes to develop the non-credit language class into a for-credit requirement for serious Jewish scholars. Because much of the early history of Judaism is described in Yiddish, he says, any quality Jewish studies program must include the study of its ancestral language.

“Hebrew and Yiddish are culturally intertwined,” Shneer says. “Putting Yiddish in the curriculum gives the center intellectual status.”

Established in 1975, the Center for Judaic Studies offers an interdisciplinary program that explores Jewish civilization, history, literature and philosophy. It provides a minor in Judaic studies and graduate work in a number of disciplines and also works with community organizations to present Jewish history and cultural programming.

Yiddish, meaning Jewish, originated in Eastern and Central Europe between the ninth and 12th centuries as an adaptation of German dialects to fit the special needs of Jews. Although Yiddish is written in Hebrew and is read from right to left, the spoken language reflects its Germanic origins rather than the Semitic origins of Hebrew.

According to language scholars, Yiddish is a highly assimilative language, rich in idioms and filled with pithiness and pungency. As a language developed by people rather than scholars, it has a wealth of character descriptions — such as putz (a fool) — and expletives, including oy veh (an expression of exasperation).

The language, which resembles English grammatically, crept into the American vernacular during the 1950s and 60s as Borscht-belt Jewish comedians slipped Yiddish pieces, or shtick, into their acts. Through comedians such as Jack Benny, George Burns and Morey Amsterdam, American audiences learned that a klutz is a clumsy person, that to schlep means to drag a heavy load, and that shmooze means to have a conversation.

“With the rising popularity of Jewish immigrant humor,” Shneer says, “Yiddish started permeating American culture.”

Toward the end of the 20th century, however, the use of Yiddish declined except with Hasidic Jews and in small Jewish enclaves in New York, Israel and Belgium. They kept it alive all those years, Shneer says, and today it is enjoying a rebirth among a broad spectrum of people. A growing network of Yiddish scholars is exchanging information over the Internet, Yiddish summer camps are popping up on the East Coast, and eager Jewish learners are signing up for Yiddish language courses at universities such as Stanford, Columbia and now DU.

Jewish baby boomers, Shneer says, are warming wistfully to the language they remember from their youths. And young multilingual high school students like Alana Goldberg are learning Yiddish to connect with their past.

“I keep hearing words that remind me of my grandmother and the stories she used to tell,” Alana says.

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