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Harvey Gotliffe, Ph.D. Headshot

Yiddish Is Alive and Well

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Why is it that insane and inane narishkayt (Yiddish for nonsense) continues to permeate societies everywhere? In Norway, one man's ideologically inspired insanity wreaked havoc in a peaceful nation, while the United States suffers from a disturbing and disruptive ideological confrontation between 535 legislators and the President. Sadly, both situations and many others demonstrate a complete disregard for the will and the benefit of the people.

Narishkayt is actually too mild a term to describe the plethora of arcane conditions throughout the world today; ones that will pass and be replaced by others. The Yiddish language has somehow survived centuries of fervent anti-Semitism, planned and executed pogroms in Eastern Europe, and man's ultimate evil personified by the calculated, calamitous atrocities committed by the Nazis. More than 5 million Jews were murdered during the horrific Nazi era, and nearly two-thirds of them were Yiddish speakers. A Lithuanian rabbi told me that "the bandit Hitler" not only killed a people but tried to kill a culture and a language. Yet it was the Third Reich that was destroyed, while the remnants of European Jews and their coveted Yiddish language were able to survive.

After the war, many Holocaust survivors refused to go back to their homes where hatred for Jews hadn't dissipated even with the decimation of their people. In 2002, I was in Krakow, Poland walking toward the remains of Schindler's factory, when two men in their early 50s screamed out in Polish, "Jew. What are you doing here? The Germans should have killed you off." Both men were born after the war ended and had most likely never met a Jew, but they still harboured an irrational hatred.

Yiddish-speaking survivors sought refuge where anti-Semitism wasn't as overt, including the United States and Israel, with the latter being a promised, egalitarian land. Unfortunately Israel didn't fully live up to one aspect of the promise. Its leaders, including the formidible David Ben Gurion, feared that if even the seed of Yiddish was allowed to be planted, then both the country's new identity as a special haven for Jews and its lingua franca, Hebrew, might not flourish. To counteract an unwritten law of what was to be acceptable, those in power curtailed a nascent Yiddish theatre created by Holocaust survivors as a dedication to and a remembrance of the way things were.

Long before the war, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had the fortitude and were fortunate enough to escape rampant waves of anti-Semitism in Europe, brought Yiddish to America. Jews known as "the people of the book," became the people of the press. By 1914 there were 10 Yiddish daily newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 750,000. The Immigration Act of 1924 severely resticted immigration from Europe, and Yiddish press circulation began its decline. Children of immigrants actively strove for cultural assimilation, and they were more likely to read an English-language newspaper than the Yiddish Forverts.

The vulnerable Yiddish language could have languished and died. Instead, it has become a venerable part of our society. Americans have integrated Yiddish words such as oy, kibbitz, kvetch, chutzpah and schlep into their conversations. A recent crossword puzzle's answer to "Jewish dough" was gelt, while a national bank's advertising headline reads "1.35%APY vs. BUPKUS (nothing)."

Yiddish is used in the daily conversations of the ultra-Orthodox, black-frock-wearing men and their wig-wearing wives who dwell in self-contained and sometimes isolated religious communities in the United States, and where they have settled in Israel.

People are learning Yiddish in schools and shuls (synagogues) and survivors relish Yiddish conversations whenever they get together to schmooze. Everything anyone wanted to know about Yiddish but were afraid to ask can be found at Derbay.org. There's an eclectic mix including information on language usage to listings on the International Association of Yiddish Clubs and The Yiddish Book Center. The Center has helped rescue thousands of Yiddish books and both entities have worked hard to preserve the Yiddish language.

A Jewish Olympics, the Maccabi Games, was held in Vienna in July, a city and a country with a dubious and disturbing record of their treatment of Jews. Many wondered why that city was chosen considering that the Nazis nearly succeeded in destroying their vibrant Jewish community. A small community exists today, and the Games marked the first time since 1945 that thousands of Jewish athletes from dozens of nations came together as participants on a territory of former Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany has been dead for 66 years, the Jewish people are very much alive, and alts iz gut (all's well) with the vibrant and treasured Yiddish language. The next time you are with anyone you care about, when you part, wish him or her well with a bisl (bit of) Yiddish: Simply say, Zay Gezunt. It may help deflect a bit of the narishkayt.

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