yiddish history


Yiddish, Ladino and Jewish English: Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?

Yiddish-speakers themselves, including some of the most prominent Yiddish writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, routinely referred to their language as Zhargon – Jargon. It was a bastard tongue, bad German, a linguistic mishmash, hardly a language at all. Jews intent on assimilation found it particularly odious. In Germany for example, Jews tried to reduce Jewishness to a Konfession, a religion divorced from culture, insisting they weren’t Jews at all, but rather “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion” Go make the case in Yiddish, where every word, every linguistic tic, is a reminder of peoplehood. Consider, for example, Max Weinreich’s example of a more or less random Yiddish sentence: Di bobe est tsholent af Shabes – The grandmother eats warmed-over bean stew on the Sabbath. Bobe, “grandmother” is a Slavic word that entered Yiddish in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Est was adopted a thousand years ago, from Middle High German. Tsholent, bean stew, came from Old French more than a thousand years ago, probably from chaud, “hot”, and lent, “slow” – a fitting name for a dish that Jews keep warm on the Sabbath, when cooking is not allowed. And Shabes, “Sabbath,” is a Hebrew word that dates back several thousand years. Quite literally, Yiddish is a living chronicle of Jews’ historical experience, proof of their peoplehood, and therefore spills the beans on assimilationist aspirations. No wonder Bourgeois Jews hated it; no wonder scholars ignored it. In 1873, for example, the German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz afforded Yiddish just two paragraphs in his magisterial six-volume History of the Jews. Never mind that Yiddish was then the first or only language of 80% of the world’s Jews; for Graetz, it was “eine halbtierische Sprache,” a half-bestial tongue.

- Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Polish-Jewish Literature: I Had Dream by Itzhak Katzenelson

I had a dream,
a terrible dream:
my people was no more, my people
I rose screaming:
Ah! Ah!
What I have dreamed
is happening now!
Oh, God in heaven! –
Shuddering I shall cry:
what for and why
did my people die?
What for and why
in vain did it die?
Not in a war,
not in battle …
the young, the old,
and women and babies so little – –
are no more, no more:
wring your hands!
Thus I’ll cry in sorrow
both day and night:
What for, my Lord,
dear God, why?

Itzhak Katzenelson (1886-1944) - One of Poland’s Jewish poets and dramatists who wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Prior to World War II he wrote mostly for children. During the war he was consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto and later to the camp at Vitel in France, whence he was sent to Auschwitz where he perished.

Soviet Educational Advertisement in Yiddish, 1920
The “Kheyder” (traditional religious school) is compared to the modern “Rotn shul” (“Red School”): “The old school has fostered slates. The red school prepares healthy, capable working men, builders of the Soviet Order.”


Yiddish-Anarchist song “In ale gasn/Hey, hey, daloy politsey!”(“Down with the Police”)  

Vote for the Jewish People’s Party

Solomon Borisovich Yudovin (Iudovin)
Jewish People’s Party
Soviet Union, ca. 1918

The Yiddishe Folkspartei (Jewish People’s Party) was founded by the historian Simon Dubnow following the 1905 pogroms in the Russian Empire. The party took part in several elections in Poland and Lithuania in the 1920s. The artist of this poster, Solomon Yudovin, unlike several other Russian Jewish artists of that period such as Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky, did not embrace modernism but remained a figurative, realistic artist throughout his life. He likely created this poster between 1918 and 1923 while he lived in Vitebsk, a predominantly Jewish city that was at that time an important center for the Russian avant-garde.

Translation from Yiddish: The Jewish People’s Party. Vote for ballot line #4 for Jewish cooperation


I’m working on a calligraphic commission for a client who wants me to include reference to his Lithuanian-Jewish heritage from Vilna (Vilnius). While researching imagery from Jewish Vilna, I found this charming film about Jewish Vilna from 1939 — in Yiddish with English subtitles. It shows various aspects of Jewish life in the city, the Jewish Quarter, synagogues, the marketplace, YIVO headquarters, and more. It ends with footage of Jewish children swimming and demonstrating athletics — an image of the flourishing Jewish future… Of course, Jewish Vilna was destined for horrendous destruction only a few years later. What a bittersweet treasure this film is!

“Religion is a hindrance to the Five-Year Plan. Down with religious holidays! Religion is a weapon for enslaving the worker. Join the union of militant apikorsim.” Printed in Moscow, ca. 1928.

Shortly after this poster was printed, the Moscow and Leningrad choral synagogues were closed by force. By 1932, just three synagogues remained in Leningrad. By 1938, most Jewish religious functionaries had been arrested.

Shakespeare in het Jiddisch: Sonnet XVIII

Zol ikh dikh tsu a zumer-tog farglaykhn?

Bist milder, liblikher in yedn zin;

Durkh Frilings blitn roye vintn shlaykhn,

Un kurts iz fun dem zumer der termin:

Oftmol tsu heys dos oyg fun himl laykht,

Oft iz zayn goldener glants fartunklt gor,

Un oft dos sheyne fun der sheynkayt vaykht

Durkh tsufal, enderung fun der natur:

Dokh eybik lebn vet dayn zumers prakht,

Un vos du sheyns farmogst vet eybik vayln;

S’vet toyt nit hobn iber der keyn makht,

Vayl bist fareybikt in di eybike tsayln;

    Vi lang nokh mentshn otemen, oygn zen

    Lebt mayn gedikht, un du vest nit fargeyn.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Vertaald uit het Engels in het Jiddisch door Abraham Asen


Sonnet XVIII

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Isaac Leib Peretz, depicted on a Yiddish postcard, c. 1910
Isaac Leib Peretz (also known as Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (יצחק־לייבוש פרץ) and Icchok Lejbusz Perec or Izaak Lejb Perec (in Polish)) (May 18, 1852 – 3 April 1915), best known as I.L. Peretz, was a Yiddish language author and playwright. Payson R. Stevens, Charles M. Levine, and Sol Steinmetz count him with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem as one of the three great classical Yiddish writers. Sol Liptzin wrote: “Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz was the great awakener of Yiddish-speaking Jewry, and Sholom Aleichem its comforter… Peretz aroused in his readers the will for self-emancipation, the will for resistance…”