Author: Zahra Al-Hadi
Sholam Aleichem dear Yiddish-enthusiasts. Want to understand what Yiddish is all about? Well, where does one begin?
Like the meandering and unpredictable nature of the Danubian River itself, the journey of the language’s history and variety draws a great parallel to the depth and evolving nature of the waters. To understand it, one must appreciate the many layers, twists and turns that it offers to explore. A joyous journey of understanding I’m still attempting to embark upon myself, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a language that hooks you into its origin, its culture, and its religious roots, attempting to identify its past, present and future. A language that continues to trigger your interest through its rich history and humour.
It is a language influenced by many roots and therefore links many people and cultures together. For instance, I was immediately drawn to the idea of the loshn-koydesh (literally translated as holy tongue) components of the language. It refers to the Hebrew and Aramaic influences of the fabric of Yiddish’s speech and written word, the alphabet itself being that of Hebrew origin. Being an Arab myself, I immediately felt connected to a language that was also influenced on a Middle Eastern tinge and flavour. Already, it links different languages and cultures into one. Whilst I cannot confidently pinpoint the geographical location or opinions of any Yiddish speakers through the ages, I can certainly imagine Yiddish and Middle Eastern speakers getting along wherever they may be; understanding their similarities and intrigued by their differences. So immediately, the language seemed to appeal to a wider audience other than just that pertaining to the Jewish community, something that everybody can enjoy. A means to utilise in promoting understanding and practice of multiculturalism.
Stereotypes that dictate Yiddish isn’t a real language, isn’t properly practiced today or is one without an established grammar is one of the main ingredients as to why understanding its origins is incredibly important; knowledge shatters ignorance. But ahh the Yiddish language. To pinpoint its origins is a tale in itself. The language in its making borrowed words from the many lands where Ashkenazic Jews have lived in central Europe along the Danube and along the borders of western Germany. Hence, other than Hebrew, there are Germanic and Slovak roots that are woven into the language. Modern Yiddish may be described as that of the eastern European type with a predominant Slavic component (where Polish and Ukrainian seem to be of the greatest influences).
Yiddish became a language of its own right sometime between 900 and 1100 C.E, developing its own unique rules, grammar and pronunciations over the centuries. For a long time, Yiddish was only spoken and never written, as it was seen paramount within Jewish culture to maintain the Hebrew written tradition. Overtime however by the 16th century, Yiddish was well practiced as a written language as well as spoken word, and there is much Yiddish literature, theatre and music that flourished as a result. A great population of Yiddish speakers were eradicated through the events of the holocaust however, and for many that did survive, they were eager to assimilate within the culture and languages of their new lands of refuge and not utilise Yiddish as much. However, thanks to the Yiddish-speaking Jews who held onto their language and emigrated to places like New York, South Africa, Argentina and UK, the language spread worldwide. Nowadays, the language is recognised as a minority language in countries such as Germany, Bosnia, Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine and Romania and of course, practiced in different pockets of the world today.
Yiddish (which literally means Jewish) has a phonetic alphabet. As mentioned above, it is made up from the letters of Hebrew, an important language of the Hebrew Bible, Jewish prayer and religious study. It gives extra value therefore, when learning a language such as Yiddish, that extra insight can be gained into how a certain population exercise their spiritual journey and the means in which they worship God, and that is a very humbling experience to share in, it’s like being invited into someone’s home. Getting a glimpse of the richest part of Jewish culture and why it means so much to so many people.
What I also find intriguing and rather challenging is the idea that the alphabet isn’t as easy to learn as meets the eye. Quite literally. For someone learning the alphabet for the first time, there are two variations one must visually adapt to. That of the handwritten text, and the other of the printed form. It may not sound like much, but if you can’t identify the differences between the two, then you can say goodbye to the simultaneous skills of reading Yiddish and writing it.
And that’s why Yiddish feels like a journey. Its fluidity is an appealing feature. A language that intrigues you, continuously asks for your attention and willingness to evolve with it, demanding your patience and understanding of its roots, its culture, and its historical significance through the ages. A great metaphor for what it means to be a global citizen in the first place; an engaged member of society striving to learn what is represented as truth for other groups of society. A language that promotes understanding of the world around you.