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Yiddish Still Spoken (And Taught) Here

By , Lubavitch Headquarters

Ed note: When the The Yiddish Day Journal folded in 1972, one of its writers, the late Rabbi Gershon Jacobson, founded The Algemeiner Journal, still in circulation today.

Concerned by the doomsayers who predicted that Yiddish will be a dead language in a few decades, Jacobson turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who assured him that the same will be said fifty years hence.

“Pretty much the same is true of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, who has taken on editorship of the paper since his father’s passing.

To be sure, the number of Yiddish speakers today are few, but within the Chabad-Lubavitch community, there is some movement to empower a younger generation with the means to access its literature in the original. 

( Lovers of Yiddish call it by the nickname Mameloshen. The English equivalent is “mother tongue,” but something’s lost in translation.

The Chabad Lubavitch community has long appreciated the language’s supple ability to convey feelings – overt, implied – or its coziness with the wisdom, pathos, irony, and humor of the Jewish mindset. Many individuals and schools have gone to great lengths to ensure that the language used by Lubavitcher Rebbes throughout the generations to convey the deepest parts of Chabad philosophy does not become a forgotten tongue.

Sruly Lavirnoff, 9, sprawls out in the playroom floor with his sister Racheli, 7, their hands busily working purple modeling clay into grape clusters and squiggly snakes. They speak to each other in English, but the chart that their mother Beth uses to track their best behavior carries a Yiddish headline.

Sruly attends a Chabad-run yeshiva in the Boro Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. His instructors speak Yiddish. Recess games of tag are in Yiddish. Beth, known to friends as Bracha, and her husband Naftali, an architect, prepped Sruly for an all-Yiddish environment by sending him at age two to “play” several times a week with a Yiddish teacher.

Beth’s reasons for immersing her children in Yiddish are both practical and personal. “I knew they would be in a school where Yiddish was the language of instruction, and I did not want them to be at a disadvantage.” Both Lavrinoffs taught themselves enough Yiddish to converse with business associates, make small talk with neighbors, and to understand volumes of transcribed talks by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

“For me, when I learn in Yiddish, the whole experience seems more authentic somehow,” Lavrinoff said.

It is that experience precisely, says Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, that makes keeping Yiddish alive, worth the effort. “Yiddish is like the cover of a Torah Scroll ,” he says, alluding to a metaphor by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory.  It is precious because it holds the Torah within.

“This is the language that for hundreds of years, contained the tears, laughter, struggles and wisdom of our people.”

Indeed, bookshelves in the Lavrinoff home are lined with the collected talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, printed in some 39 volumes: two thirds of which are in Yiddish, the others are in Hebrew. Likutei Sichos, as the set is known, remain a perennial best seller for Kehot Publication Society, the Chabad publishing house established by Lubavitcher Rebbe. Books of the Rebbe's transcribed talks, as well as letters, and the talks and letters of some of the Rebbes of previous generations, are also published in Yiddish.

Works in Yiddish make up a small percentage of published Lubavitch scholarship. The language was conceived a spoken language, something to give solace to and bond Diaspora Jews as strangers in strange lands. As a written language, Hebrew is the language of Torah study; Yiddish, the mameloshen, the everyday murmur of home and street.

At its height, Yiddish in written and printed form was used to reach the less educated, says Rabbi Dovid Olidort, senior editor at Kehot. He points out that when the second Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773-1827), wrote a guide for returnees to traditional Judaism, unversed with scholarly Hebrew, Rabbi DovBer wrote in Yiddish.

“Because of the importance of these books many Chabad members who are originally not familiar with Yiddish, study the language in order to learn in the original," explains Rabbi Olidort.

In modern day US, the popular youth monthly "Talks and Tales" that was published for decades by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational divison of Chabad,  had a parallel Yiddish version "Smuessen mit Kinder", and those periodicals were printed lately in a collection of 16 volumes.

How many would be comfortable reading that book today? In Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (Basic Books, 2004) author Dovid Katz hems and haws over the number of Yiddish speakers in the United States. There are no exact numbers. The rough estimate he gives is 250,000 in the United States, 650,000 worldwide. Katz pinpoints Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood as the nucleus of spoken Yiddish among Lubavitchers, who speak a dialect that he describes as the “closest to standard literary Yiddish of any Hasidic Yiddish.

Among Lubavitchers, Katz writes, “There is considerable knowledge of Yiddish in educational settings in traditional strongholds, but less and less in everyday speech in the home, and sometimes none in outreach communities established around the world.”
Declining spoken Yiddish among Lubavitch Chasidim mirrors a worldwide trend. In February, Canadian Jewish News reported that for the first time, Hebrew replaced Yiddish as mother tongue for Jews in Canada. There’s been a 20% decline in native Yiddish speakers between 1996 and 2006 in Canada.
Offsetting, to some extent, this decline, is the growing number of Yiddish speakers among other Chasidic groups. In their communities, Yiddish is hale and hearty as the lingua franca. Lubavitchers, on the other hand, “did not make Yiddish a canonical value. We never made that an issue because the Rebbe wanted to be all-inclusive,” the director of the Chabad’s central education office, Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, told  

“Having children struggle with Yiddish at the expense of the educational process is not our aim,” said Rabbi Kaplan.

Several Lubavitch schools are working to integrate Yiddish into the educational experience. At Associated Beth Rivkah Schools, the flagship Lubavitch girls’ school in Brooklyn, NY, Yiddish is the language of study and play among a portion of the students due to a concerted effort. Beginning in 1990, one of the five first grade classes has been devoted to all-day Jewish studies. Alta Mina first graders, named as a memorial to a teacher’s daughter, are taught in Yiddish from first bell until dismissal. Although a firm foundation in Chasidic thought and a love for Torah study are the aims of the Alta Mina class, the language immersion results in young girls who are “very proficient in Yiddish,” said Chana Etkah Feldman, principal of the first through third grade at Beth Rivkah.  
Across the world, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aviva Fox’s children are achieving fluency in Yiddish. Fox “slogged through sichos” to build her Yiddish skills during her post-high school studies at Ohel Chana in Melbourne, Australia. A native South African, Fox found that her background in Afrikaans, itself a hybrid of Dutch and German, helped her get comfortable with the heavily Germanic roots of Yiddish.

Fox wanted Yiddish to come more naturally to her children. They are enrolled in the Cheder stream of the Torah Academy School in Johannesburg and spend half their school day speaking Yiddish.

“When they do their homework, they review in Yiddish. When they sing their songs, they’re in Yiddish,” said Fox, and the language so close to the hearts of yesterday’s Jews finds its way into the next generation.

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