Museum of Family History

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   The Yiddish World





"Dear home, my heart leads me only to you,
Only you always taste sweet to me,
Beloved home, I long to gaze at you.
You are special to me, I never forget you,
Your clean and shining streets
Where I used to walk with my friend,
Yes, that's the way it was,
How good it was in my home..."

--excerpt from the song "Yas", words & music by M. Kleter

As a second-generation Jewish-American growing up in New York, I had relatively little exposure to the Yiddish language. I heard Yiddish spoken at my grandparents' apartment in Brooklyn (especially when they didn't want me to know what they were saying), when they played the occasional recording of Yiddish music on the Victorola (the first song I ever learned was "Shein Vi Di Levone"), and perhaps some Yiddish conversation in the shul. I have never taken a class in Yiddish, though I do try to study it a bit on my own from time to time.

For most of my life then, I have had no true Yiddish speakers in my family. All I ever heard during this time from Yiddish and non-Yiddish speakers alike is how sad it was that there were so few Yiddish speakers left, that the language would eventually die out. Some did take pride in the fact that they could speak a few phrases in Yiddish or could understand a little when it was spoken. Others would have a sentimental connection to Yiddish, especially when they heard Yiddish songs, e.g. "My Yiddishe Mame." Certainly, once their Yiddish-speaking parents passed away and the number of Yiddish speakers that they were exposed to diminished, their knowledge of Yiddish diminished too. Even in Eretz Israel, where there are still many Yiddish speakers, the preferred spoken language is Hebrew.

Yiddish was one of the few pan-European languages spoken before the second World War. It imbued nearly every aspect of Jewish life and culture. For this reason alone, such a loss of language and culture would seem like a shanda (disgrace) to anyone with a deep appreciation of Jewish history, and that the history of the wonderful world of Yiddish life is worth saving.

"My child, precious one, you are going away,
Please be a good son to me.
My plea is filled with tears and fears,
Your mother loves you, your mother dotes on you.
You are going my only son
Across the far-off seas,
Arrive in your destination, safe and sound
And do not forget your mother,
May you leave in peace and return in peace
And write me every week
Fill your mother's heart with pleasure, my son..."

--excerpt from "Send a Letter to Mother" ("A Brivele der Mammen")

Yiddish is also the language that most Jews spoke in the country of their birth, predominantly the Ashkenazi. It is the language that filled the many tearful letters written between the homesick immigrant and the family members they left behind. Many who had made the United States their new home could neither read nor write English, but they could probably write Yiddish and read the daily Jewish Forverts (the Forward, the paper written ostensibly in Yiddish) or one of the other Yiddish-language newspapers. These newspapers represented one of the few means by which the immigrant could learn news of what was happening around the world, especially in the region of Europe from where they had come from. Like the Yiddish theatre and cinema, reading a Yiddish newspaper acted as a lifeline across the Atlantic Ocean, giving the Yiddish soul some comfort and relief from the daily grind.

And what of the great Yiddish writers, playwrights and musical works? What shall become of their works if the Yiddish language is forgotten? Surely they should not be stored away in some archive gathering dust, relegated to relative obscurity. It is said that Yiddish theatre began in the fifth century when Purim plays (shpiele) were performed. This begat the Yiddish theatre that would eventually develop and flourish in Eastern Europe. There it would thrive and give voice to such beautiful and rich Jewish creativity and expression. Yiddish theatre would eventually be exported to many countries throughout the world such as the United States in the late nineteenth century, England and Canada. Live Yiddish theatre, at least until World War II, provided a wonderful means for the Jewish immigrant to forget about his or her troubles by attending plays performed in their native tongue, or they might have heard music that reminded them of their hometown, the families that they left behind, and the Jewish culture that they were so accustomed to. Like the Yiddish newspaper, the Yiddish theatre was a way for Jews to stay connected to a culture that was so much a part of their lives, something of great value that nourished their Jewish soul. Such a history of Jewish creativity and thought is certainly worth fostering and preserving.

One of the aims of the Museum of Family History is to keep the Yiddish language and culture alive. How wonderful it would be to remind in some small way many of those who were born into Yiddish-speaking families once again of the beauty of the Yiddish language and culture. Perhaps though, it is even more important to make newer generations aware of what role Yiddish played in Jewish life. Making people aware is perhaps all we can do as individuals. In the absence of a multitude of Jewish communities that speak Yiddish, without the hard work of many who could talk about the Yiddish language to their children and grandchildren or speak publicly to Jewish groups about the importance of preserving Yiddish culture, the forecasters of the extinction of the Yiddish language may be right. All we can do however is try, from the depth of our Jewish souls, each in our own unique and heartfelt way.



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