Yiddish isn’t a “dead” language, of course. Tens of thousands of people read and speak it today.
But something about it did seem to die with the advent of the Shoah.
Before that time, Yiddish was poised to become a language that encompassed all the literature of the world. Translations of Shakespeare and other playwrights, even of Plato, were already in place along with translations of Biblical literature. I’m sure there’s far more than I know about.
I have a Yiddish edition of the Christian scriptures (Gospels/Epistles/Revelations) entitled “Der Bris Hadashah” — “The (Der) New (Hadashah) Testament (Bris).” I’m sure that it was originally prepared for missionary purposes with the predominantly Yiddish-speaking population that once existed in NYC, but I found it for $0.25 on a used-book shelf in a Hadassah Thrift Store in Far Rockaway (Queens, NY).
I have a Yiddish translation of the Bhagavad Gita, a classic piece of literature from India, that was done in the 1960’s by Abba Kliger, a Yiddish-language poet who was living in Brooklyn. Done chronologically after the Shoah, it still reflected the universalist humanism that Yiddish sought to incorporate at its height. In his way, his translation was at least as much a statement about Yiddish, as it was about India, spirituality, etc.
Nor was Yiddish as uniform as we nostalgically picture it. Its pronunciation could vary greatly from place to place, town to town, locale to locale. Just as we can tell the difference between someone from Dublin and someone from Dallas by their accent, a person’s hometown could be determined by the regional accent with which they spoke Yiddish. “Litvak” and “Galitziano” are familiar distinctions — sometimes even used a bit pejoratively.
That Yiddish combined Hebrew and German is common knowledge. But it incorporated some older Germanic vocabulary that the great German linguists of the 19th century found to be valuable for research into the development of German itself.
It’s also an oversimplification to speak of it simply as “German + Hebrew.”
Yiddish absorbed vocabulary from wherever its speakers were living. For example, about 30 years ago, I was teaching “English as a Second Language” in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (NYC); at that time, still a predominantly Polish community (the local movie theater was called “The Chopin,” in honor of the great Polish pianist and composer). Walking to my site one evening, I passed a Polish market, on the window of which was advertised “kishke.” The spelling was different but I could recognize the word. The word, and the food it designated, were familiar to me from early childhood. I’d never realized, though, it’s Polish source.
I remember, too, spending a Shabbat with Habad in Crown Heights in the mid-70’s. I stayed with a newly-married couple. The husband had grown up as a Lubavitcher. The wife’s family had been Orthodox, but leaned towards Hasidic. One of the main features of Habad life was long talks given by the Rebbe, z”l, in Yiddish. Both the husband and wife spoke Yiddish, but the wife told me that she couldn’t understand the Rebbe’s Yiddish and needed her husband to translate afterwards. Unlike many other Hasidic communities, Habad had been centered in Russia. The Rebbe’s Yiddish must have had a markedly different accent to the one familiar to the wife, which was probably more Polish-based. It might also have incorporated some Russian, which would have been even less familiar.
Both of my parents were born in the U.S. They were political radicals in the ’30’s, of a type that rejected religion. It wasn’t until I was in my own ’30’s that I learned that my father’s first language had actually been Yiddish. As a boy, he was hospitalized for what was at that time called “Infantile Paralysis.” None of his care-givers spoke Yiddish. He’d become very frustrated when they tried to feed him, yelling for “a gupel,” until someone finally understood that he wanted a fork! I think it might have been at that young age when they began to teach him English.
Some attempt was made in the Jewish community to replace religious Hebrew school education with cultural/secular Jewish education centered on Yiddish. I had friends who attended “The Shalom Aleichem Folkshule” in the Bronx, rather than a Hebrew school of any denomination. Their observance of holidays was more “cultural” or “historic” than religious. There were “Yiddishist” organizations and summer camps (Kinder Ring; Kinder Veldt) for both children and adults. Some still exist, but to a greatly limited extent.
So, as we remember the loss of life that no amount of tears will ever suffice, let’s note, too, the loss of virtually an entire culture. It left us “a generation lost in space,” in Don Maclean’s words. As children born after the Holocaust, being taught by Jewish adults many of whom had been born and educated in Europe, there was a sort of cultural disconnect. We picked up a nostalgia, a sense of loss, for a place, a time, a language, a culture that we never knew to begin with.
This consideration of the loss of Yiddish isn’t meant to detract from the memory of the individuals who were lost.
I mean to say: It wasn’t a loss of people alone.