Thursday, February 12, 2009

Yiddish: not just for Jews 

If my thesaurus's inclusion of "schmuck" and "cockamamie" is any indication, it is safe to say that Yiddish has officially permeated the English language. From the workplace to the classroom, peppering one's speech with Yiddish catchphrases is becoming increasingly commonplace.

Yiddish's growing presence in everyday speech is due to a greater revival of the language, sparked in part by a large population of young Jews who worry that their grandparents' beloved mameh-loshn (mother tongue) is dying out, and fast. These Generation Y and X-ers are not getting themselves worked up for nothing; though Yiddish remains a vernacular language among ultra orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, Jerusalem and other insular Jewish communities, the last generation of secular Jews who spoke Yiddish as their first language has practically completely died out.

This recent revival, born largely of urgency, is made up of young and enthusiastic Yiddishists who are responsible for the burgeoning Yiddish language clubs on college campuses, as well as a great number of Jews who remember Yiddish as the language that their grandparents spoke when discussing matters inappropriate for the "kinder."

The Pioneer Valley serves as perhaps the quintessential example of this resurgence; over the past several decades, the Five College area has seen the creation of myriad cultural and language centers for amateur Yiddishists, most notably the National Yiddish Book Center (NYBC), founded in 1980 by Hampshire College alumnus Aaron Lansky.


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