Jeopardy. The Catskills. Broadway. Leftovers. Libraries.
What does each of these have in common? Unlike country clubs or polo shirts — which just “feel Goyish” — each of these simply feels Jewish. Why? It’s because of Yiddishkeit.
When you google “Yiddishkeit,” the first result might tell you that the word literally translates to “Jewishness,” or “the quality of being Jewish; the Jewish way of life or its customs and practices.”
“It’s all one package, whether you believe or not,” says Rukhl Schaechter, editor of the Yiddish Forverts, the world’s only remaining Yiddish newspaper outside the Hasidic Jewish world.
Yiddishkeit is not just Jewish religion, and it’s not just Askenazi literature, culture, theater, and film. It is perhaps a phenomenon you need to feel in order to understand.
There’s been a lot of excitement within the Jewish community about Duolingo’s new Yiddish course. But Yiddish is not merely a language, it’s the verbal manifestation of Yiddishkeit — the essence of Askenazi life. What does it mean to learn Yiddish without Yiddishkeit? Can the language be taught without its essence?
Yinglish: Yiddish Revival
“In 1945, the future of Yiddish looked bleak. Millions of its speakers had been murdered, and the audience for Yiddish literature was practically wiped out,” explains writer Aviya Kushner, in a piece she wrote on Yiddish revival.
At the time, some survivors focused on learning the languages they would need to rebuild their lives, such as Hebrew, English, Spanish, or French. Plus, during the second half of the 20th century, Yiddish was repressed by forced assimilation in the Soviet Union and acculturation to Hebrew in the newly founded State of Israel.
Yiddish was treated as a language of the past. It was the language that “parents and grandparents spoke when they wanted to hide things from their children,” writes Kushner.
Today, over 70 years later, it seems Yiddish has once again returned to popularity. Yiddish humor, literature, art, and music have made their way into much of popular culture.
Though many Orthodox Jews have continued to speak fluent Yiddish, many secular Jews pepper ‘Yinglish’ — a combination of English and Yiddish — into their vocabulary, with common words and phrases like oy, schlep, and chutzpah. In many ways, Yinglish has become a modern manifestation of Yiddishkeit.
Yearning for Authenticity
For some, Yinglish is simply ingrained into their vocabulary, but for others, it is truly a way of connecting with their heritage.
“I think that people really want to get that feeling of authenticity… They want to feel like they’re in that place with these people,” explains Schaechter.
She believes part of the Yiddish revival movement can be explained by a desire for authenticity and connection… A true desire to know, feel and understand the Yiddishkeit behind the Yiddish.
“If all they wanted to do was know about the Yiddish books that were written, they could read them in English. But this [Yiddish revival] crowd is different,” she explained.
Though the Yiddish revival movement is a relatively new phenomenon, yearning for authenticity is not.
“10 years ago, we got it from reality TV,” says Schaechter. “People wanted to know: What would happen if? What would happen if a husband cheated on his wife? What if someone came into your home and redid your entire living room? It’s all meant to give the feeling of authenticity.”
Now, in the digital world where virtual reality can teleport us to any place, any time, it makes perfect sense that Jewish people would crave to know what their ancestors’ lives would have been like in the shtetl world. Especially, as survivor populations who lived through it themselves are shrinking.
Learning Yiddish is one way to connect with those times.
“[Language] can very often get you into the heads of the people and how they used to think,” explains Schaechter. “For example, because we live here in America and have a different kind of humor, we have a different way of thinking… and certain kinds of subtle irony that you see [in Yiddish] that I don’t see that much in English.”
Yiddishkeit is Ingrained into Yiddish
Although you can learn Yiddish as simply a language, ‘shtetl culture’ is fundamentally ingrained into its vocabulary. An understanding of Yiddishkeit will inform, provide context, and nuance to many terms and expressions.
For example, the Yiddish term machatunim refers to the relationship between a bride’s parents with a groom’s parents — a completely novel concept for an English speaker, since there is no such term in the English language. A similar word would be the Spanish consuegros, which can be loosely translated to “co-in-laws.”
Schaechter explains that in shtetl times, when a shidduch (match) was made, it was primarily understood as the union of two families, rather than two people.
“The two sets of parents would meet and they needed to see if they got along. If they did get along, only then would the children meet,” she says. “When marrying and raising children, they understood how important it is to have the support of your parents and parents in law. The only way that that can work is if both sets of parents are committed to helping out and that’s why it is so important that both sets of parents communicate and get along.”
This connection was deemed important enough to get its own official title in the language — a concept that completely flies in the face of the modern-day nuclear family model.
Machatunim aren’t simply the parents of the bride and groom who might babysit the kids every so often. They are two sets of people who enter into a lifelong covenant with one another, marked by the union of their children.
If the term machatunim appeared on someone’s Duolingo, there is almost no way to properly explain the term without the nuances that are a product of Yiddishkeit.
Yiddishkeit is the backbone of Yiddish.
For today’s Hasidic communities, Yiddish takes on a different meaning. Many families have continued to raise their children with Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Although this is rooted in the traditionalist ideology of upholding traditions from the shtetl, Schaechter has noted development in Yiddish culture within Hasidic communities too.
“Every other week I see a new Yiddish song being posted on YouTube,” she says. “And some of these songs are not religious at all. They’re about feelings, about living within the community.”
Schaechter points out that at one time, some people suspected Hasidim only spoke Yiddish as part of their traditional values, but that is changing. There is a Yiddish revival movement within Hasidic culture too.
“They are not just speaking Yiddish, they are beginning to create new Yiddish culture,” she says. “They are very much affected by the culture of the world around them and they see that music is so infectious.”
She believes a growing population of Yiddish speakers in non-Hasidic communities might help to bridge the gap between modernity and the Hasidic world.
The Bottom Line
From Joan Rivers and ‘Yinglish’ to Hasidic Jewry, Yiddish is undoubtedly steeped into the modern world and contemporary Ashkenazi culture.
Yiddishkeit from traditional shtetl life informs every aspect of the Yiddish language we learn today.
As the population of ‘shtetl’ Yiddish speakers shrinks, the impetus to revive Yiddish amongst the non-Haredi Jewish mainstream makes sense. We crave to know and understand what our ancestors thought, felt, and experienced in those times.
Yet, although Yiddish revival might be rooted in a longing for authenticity, this new movement is redefining what Yiddishkeit can mean for modern-day Jews through music, comedy, and apps such as Duolingo, both in the Haredi and non-Haredi world.
All this is to say, Yiddish and Yiddishkeit are fundamentally interconnected. Neither can exist in its entirety without the other. The difference? Yiddish will always be able to transport us back to the culture of shtetl life ingrained in its vocabulary. While Yiddishkeit, though fundamentally rooted in the past, is constantly changing, evolving and being redefined.
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Originally Published Apr 20 2021 08:57AM EDT