Oy vey! Yiddish making a comeback

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ATLANTA — A group of American college students stands in a semicircle, clapping and hopping on one foot as they sing in Yiddish: “Az der rebe tantst, tantsn ale khsidim!”

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Yiddish teacher Miriam Udel, left, leads a class in singing a song to teach Yiddish at Emory University.  DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Yiddish teacher Miriam Udel, left, leads a class in singing a song to teach Yiddish at Emory University.

In English, that’s: “When the rebbe dances, so do all the Hasidim.”

This isn’t music appreciation or synagogue. It’s the first semester of Yiddish at Emory University in Atlanta – one of a handful of college programs across the country studying the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews.

The language came close to dying after the Holocaust as millions of Yiddish speakers perished in Nazi concentration camps or fled to countries where their native tongue was not welcome. Emory and other universities, including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and McGill University in Canada, are working to bring the language back.

“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Emory who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out.”

Experts estimate there are between 1 million and 2 million native Yiddish speakers in the world, but only about 500,000 speak it in the home – mostly orthodox Jews. About 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada now offer some Yiddish courses, though just a few have degrees in the language.

The interest has grown because of the younger Jewish generation, which doesn’t feel their parents’ embarrassment that their family spoke Yiddish rather than English, said Paul Glasser, the dean of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

Emory junior Matthew Birnbaum said he took Udel’s class because he feels a personal connection to the language: his grandparents still speak it.

“It’s taught me a lot about my own roots and where my people have come from,” he said. “It’s been a really interesting learning experience, not just from the language perspective but also from the historical perspective.”

It’s not just college classes where the interest in Yiddish has grown.

Klezmer music has made a comeback with young musicians. The Congress for Jewish Culture in New York City holds coffeehouses monthly where young Yiddish musicians perform and brings in guest speakers such as graphic novel artist Ben Katchor, hoping to appeal to a younger audience.

A search for Yiddish on Facebook produces dozens of links to groups including “Di Kats der Payats (The Cat in the Hat)” and “Yiddish Slang Dictionary.”

“This is what everyone in Yiddish is trying to do: to get to the younger generations and show people what’s out there,” said Shane Baker, the president of the congress. “They used to say in the family: ‘Speak Yiddish so the children don’t understand if you’re talking about something serious or arguing.’ Now a hook is: ‘Speak Yiddish so your parents won’t know what you’re saying.’ ”


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