"Murdered on its native territory": Jordan Kutzik on Yiddish

Yiddish is a Germanic language tradtionally spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe and in diaspora communities around the world.  Prior to World War II, it was the mother tongue of more than 10 million people, and had a thriving written tradition, with newspapers, scholarly works, and a modern literature being produced in the language.  This came to an abrupt halt with the Holocaust, which left the vast majority of Yiddish speakers dead, and saw the survivors scattered to all corners of the globe.  Although the language remains relatively strong among certain Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities, outside of those communities it faces many of the same obstacles as other minority languages in terms of encouraging its use among the younger generation, and guaranteeing intergenerational transmission.

Jordan Kutzik just finished his BA at Rutgers University in Jewish Studies and Spanish, focusing in particular on the Yiddish language and Spanish translation.  He is currently working at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts as a fellow.

KPS: For readers not familiar with your language, tell us a bit about the history of Yiddish and its current status.
Jordan Kutzik

JK: The history of Yiddish and its current status is much more complicated than any other indigenous or minority language except for perhaps Romani, because the language was murdered on its native territory and exists today in different pockets of speaker communities descended from immigrants from Eastern Europe on four different continents and the language’s “strength” or “health” varies by community, country, and of course how one decides to measure it.

Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet, was the mother-tongue of around 11 million people, 8 million of them in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust (Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, parts of Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Moldova, etc,) with immigrant communities around the world.  In its Eastern European heartland it was the language of Jews of all levels of religious affiliations and the language of various schooling systems from secular schools to traditional religious academies.  Yiddish had an important literature of religious materials and original secular literature as well as translations from other languages and more than 100 daily newspapers, some of which were of a very high quality, on par with the national newspapers in other languages of the time period. The common language throughout Eastern Europe promoted a common ethnic identity among Ashkenazi Jews (those who traced their ancestry to Germany) and Yiddish was the strongest non-territorial language in the world, especially in terms of written material.  Right as the language was coming into its own in a modern sense, the Holocaust left around 6 million Jews dead in Europe, including 5.5 million Yiddish speakers.  The genocide not only killed its speakers, but more devastatingly for Yiddish it all but destroyed the civilization in which it had been the natural language.  Although by my own estimates around 1.25 million Yiddish speakers survived the war (most fleeing deep into the USSR, some surviving concentration camps, in Partisan Units, blending in with the surrounding population, joining the Russian army, etc.), the communities and institutions in which the language lived did not, and the vast majority of survivors left Eastern Europe for the Americas or British Mandate Palestine and later Israel.

In America the language died out in immigrant Jewish communities just as most immigrant languages eventually die out and in Israel the language was strongly discouraged and in some spheres actually outlawed in favor of Hebrew so it was not passed on for more than one generation for the most part there either.  After World War II, the USSR gained the Baltics and Poland and the strength of Yiddish among those few Jews who remained declined even further as the USSR enacted strong anti-Jewish national programs in Poland and the Ukraine and to a lesser extent Lithuania.  Yiddish did survive, however, among Hungarian Hasidim (who despite the name came not just from Hungary but also parts of Romania and Poland) for whom it largely remains the lingua franca whether these communities are in New York, Israel, Belgium, England, Canada or Australia.  In these communities Yiddish is the language of schools and religious academies, some media (newspapers, magazines, radio shows done through telephone hotlines, etc.) and the home.  In New York there are around 100,000 Hasidic Yiddish speakers and the population is extremely young and growing rapidly as the average family has 7 or 8 children.  There are about the same number of Yiddish speakers among Orthodox Jews in Israel as well, although the number there is tougher to gauge as language of the home is not asked as part of the census.  There are perhaps 20,000 Yiddish speaking Orthodox Jews in Antwerp, and perhaps a similar figure in both Montréal and London.  So a figure of 250,000 Hasidic Yiddish-speaking Jews is a fair guesstimate and the language is healthiest among these communities, being spoken by people of all ages.

Outside of the Hasidic world, Yiddish survived as the lingua-franca of many Holocaust survivors and many of their children speak it too.  There are still probably around 200,000 Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors, with the majority in the USA and Israel.  But this population is very elderly and unfortunately will be gone in the coming decades.  Additionally, the language never died out entirely as a language of culture in Jewish communities in America, Latin America, Australia, France and Israel, and there are still non-Hasidic Yiddish language publications around the world.  There are, however, very few families who have kept the language alive as the language of the home and of raising children outside of the Hasidic world.  My generation has seen a bit of a revival as I know several hundred young people (age 16-30) like myself who have learned the language to fluency and I know a few dozen families who are raising their children as Yiddish speakers even though it was the mother-tongue of neither parent.  This is something I particularly hope to see more of in the coming years.  There are Yiddish courses in several dozen universities around the world, and some non-Hasidic Jewish day-schools teach Yiddish, although only a few do it so that the children leave with any real fluency. Among non-Hasidic Jewish schools Yiddish is strongest today in Australia.

In Lithuania with Fania Brantsovsky
As far as official status; Yiddish has official status in the Jewish autonomous region of Russia known as Birobizhan (near Korea!), but there are very few Jews there and few of them speak Yiddish.  Many non-Jews there learn Yiddish in the schools, however, some extremely well, and there are even government signs on courthouses and such in Yiddish, the only place in the world with actual Yiddish signage on public buildings.  Yiddish has token recognition in Israel, along with Ladino, the language of Jews who left Spain after the expulsion of 1492, but for all intents and purposes the Israeli government doesn’t do much to support Yiddish.  Yiddish is also an official minority language of Sweden, Holland, Poland, Romania, and the Ukraine under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages but not much is done on its behalf by these governments.

KPS: How have you been personally involved with language revitalization and activism on behalf of Yiddish?

JK: I have been involved with Yiddish language revitalization/activism for the past four years in various capacities.  I am a board member of Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish, an organization which promotes Yiddish among young people around the world and most especially in the NYC area.  Almost all of our events are run exclusively in Yiddish, most prominently our “Yiddish Week” which attracts around 150 people from around the world.  I am particularly active with Yugntruf’s facebook and twitter presence, as well as finding young Yiddish speakers in unexpected places around the world through the internet.  I also run a Yiddish-themed Youtube channel with lots of films of tours in Yiddish with English subtitles with Fania Brantsovsky, the librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and a Holocaust survivor and former partisan.  I didn’t know how to make/edit films when I made the channel so most of the films aren’t of the highest quality but there is a lot of interesting and important stuff there about Yiddish, the Holocaust, Jewish culture, etc.  Now that I’ve learned how to shoot/edit film properly I will have higher quality films in the future.  I also work as both a freelance (paid) translator as well as a volunteer translator for people using Yiddish language source materials for research involving the Holocaust for creative writing projects, historical research etc.  I copyedit an online web-journal connected with the Yiddish Farm project and have a blog in Yiddish that desperately needs to be updated.  I also tweet in Yiddish on my personal Twitter feed and run a Twitter feed dedicated to publicizing Yiddish classes and immersion opportunities (@yiddishclasses). 

KPS: What opportunities are there to use the language online?  Are there websites translated into your language?  What about software and other resources like web browsers, office software, spell checkers?

JK: Most Yiddish online now is computer generated as Google translate is available in Yiddish.  It is quite poor, actually, because if you translate a text with a word in plural form it won’t actually translate it but rather transliterate it into the Hebrew alphabet.  But when you search for a Yiddish word now most of the websites that come up are Google translations of other sites that are computer generated, which makes it more difficult to find websites that were actually written in Yiddish.  Among non-Google translated websites in Yiddish there are some Yiddish language publications, some Yiddish organizations, some Hasidic message-boards, a few Yiddish bands and so forth with Yiddish websites.  Almost all of these sites are also in a national language like English, Hebrew, French or Polish and usually the Yiddish site itself is far less extensive than the versions in other languages. It is particularly strange and frustrating to me that none of the websites for Holocaust survivors run in Yiddish.  There is also a Yiddish Wikipedia with some 7,000 articles (largely written by two very dedicated men), a Yiddish version of Google search, and some Jewish communal organizations, especially in Eastern Europe, have summary pages in Yiddish.  There is also an excellent online dictionary created by Refoyl Finkel.

KPS: Many speakers of indigenous and minority languages are reluctant to use their languages online, for various reasons.  How do speakers of your language feel about using the language online?

JK: With the internet and Yiddish there are three distinct communities; Hasidic, Yiddishist and heritage.  Hasidic Jews are, generally speaking, not supposed to be on the internet according to the rules of their own communities or are only supposed to use the internet for business in which case they will probably be doing so in a national language.  Many are, however, and there is a lot of informal Yiddish language internet use among them on message boards, twitter, facebook etc.  Most Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews on the internet, however, use English, Hebrew, French or Dutch as these languages are more widely understood so Yiddish usage is usually restricted to intra-community affairs, especially when they want to keep non-Hasidic Jews out.

A few Yiddishists like myself have set up Yiddish blogs, twitters, facebook pages and so forth in an effort to make the language more visible.  We also have Yiddish language Google groups and so forth.  Often times we use Yiddish as a matter of principle online even though we could be communicating in another language.

Trilingual sign (English/Spanish/Yiddish) in Brooklyn, NY
Some heritage Yiddish speakers, often the children of Holocaust survivors, will use Yiddish if they find that they don’t have another language in common with another person.  This sometimes overlaps with the Yiddishist community as well.  For instance I’ve written people at Jewish communal organizations in France and Brazil about things that had nothing to do with Yiddish just to get a response that they didn’t speak English and asking if I spoke Hebrew or Yiddish!  Far more people, and probably far more French Jews for that matter, speak English than Yiddish, but in some cases my knowledge of Yiddish proved to make communication possible where it wouldn’t have been otherwise.  So there is some non-ideologically based internet Yiddish use going on too.  I never run into that type of thing when I email a Jew in say, England or Mexico because I speak/write English and Spanish but with Brazil and France it happens occasionally. So in that sense the internet has actually gotten people to use the language more often than they would have otherwise because people are meeting online who would not meet otherwise and would otherwise have no practical use for the language.

Actually using Yiddish, however, poses some technical challenges.  Yiddish uses a modified form of the Hebrew alphabet and makes use of some vowel markings and diacritical markings that are not used in Hebrew.  Many people don’t know how to use the Hebrew keyboard or the Yiddish keyboard programs that have been developed and most people who can write Hebrew can’t write the special characters used for Yiddish with their Hebrew word-processing programs.  Furthermore, many online programs have problems displaying right to left languages like Yiddish and have particular difficulties displaying Yiddish so things like periods, commas, and exclamation points will end up on the wrong side of a line.  On Twitter the vowel markings get counted as an extra character and to make matters worse they often do not display correctly!!! A friend of mine who is very good with computers tried to make a “twitter friendly” Yiddish program with pre-combined characters but twitter still split the characters up.  This makes it much easier to leave out the vowel markings and diacritical marks on Twitter but some sticklers would rather tweet shorter messages or not tweet in Yiddish at all than tweet without using the proper Yiddish spelling.  Most Hasidic Jews, as well as myself sometimes, forgo the vowel markings and diacritical markings on the internet and especially on Twitter because it really can be a headache.  I use a transliteration machine to type Yiddish so I can’t write Yiddish in a chat program like Facebook message so I’ll transliterate the language into the Latin alphabet.  I do the same thing with text messages in Yiddish.

A bunch of us tried to organize a massive effort to translate Facebook into Yiddish since they were using crowd-source translations but it just didn’t take off.  There is a Yiddish translation for Blackberry and a few smartphones have been made for Hasidic Jews in Israel in Yiddish.

KPS: I mentioned above that many indigenous languages lack computing terminology.  Is this an issue for your language?  How is/was terminology developed?

JK: As far as vocabulary, most Yiddish speakers learned to use a computer in another language but since Yiddish is sometimes the only common language among people using it online there has been a slight tendency toward the creation of neologisms.  Most of these are unknown among Hasidic Yiddish speakers and are only used by Yiddishists but a dozen or so including some of the most essential like blitspost (“email” as a category) blitsbriv (an individual email), vebzaytl (website), shleptop (laptop) have caught on in both the Hasidic and Yiddishist world.  Blits means lightening in Yiddish, so the words for email mean “lightening mail” or “lightening letter.”  Veb means “web” and zaytl means “page” so that renders “webpage” but it also echoes the English “website” as the pronunciation is similar.  Older Yiddish words like the words for screen, document, keyboard, erase, save, etc have been naturally given newer meanings but you’ll also see English or Hebrew equivalents being used and transliterated to Yiddish spellings too.  For basic everyday computer usage it’s never a problem and there are basic computer classes in Yiddish for Yiddish speaking Hasidic Jews taught over the internet but I doubt anyone is doing complicated programming in Yiddish on a regular basis, with the exception of some database work cataloging literature which was done at an Israeli University.

KPS: Are there other special challenges your community faces in terms of developing technology for the language and/or communicating online?

JK: There is an academic standard written Yiddish spelling but most speakers don’t use it.  This really doesn’t cause any problems in computer usage or reading the language because everyone except students just beginning to read/write is familiar with variations in spelling.  This does cause problems, however, when someone wants to make searchable databases.

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

JK: Yiddish speakers need to organize to use resources and funding available from governments, especially in Europe, to teach Yiddish to more people, especially children.  I am particularly interested in the language-nest model and want to assemble a team of people down the road who could start an international non-profit to run a steering committee to run language nests in Jewish communities where Yiddish was spoken before World War II and where it enjoys protection under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  There is also enormous potential for broadcast media in Yiddish done through the internet.  We have radio shows which double as podcasts and Youtube channels but we could really use something like a weekly TV show done as a podcast.  There is no local market that would justify the expense of a Yiddish TV show on TV as the Orthodox don’t use TV’s but now with the internet and archiving it could be done. And I think that any use of media; whether websites like Twitter, radio broadcasts, podcasts and more traditional media like newspapers and magazines help to promote the language.

As far as online use, I’d like to see more Jewish organizations and governments, especially those that serve Yiddish speakers such as Holocaust survivors or Hasidic communities, have websites in Yiddish.  It’s absurd that the government of Sweden and the New York Health Department publish information online in Yiddish but the government of Israel does not.  German, French and American websites written for Holocaust survivors and their children should also have information available in Yiddish.  I’d also like to see a usable Facebook interface in Yiddish.  Obviously Facebook in Yiddish wouldn’t be practically useful like say a Health Department bulletin written for Hasidic Jews but it would be a really cool thing to be able to show to young people and say “hey, you can even use Facebook in Yiddish!”