Yiddish, the English form of the German word Judisch, is the name applied to a German dialect spoken by the Jews of Central and Easter European origin. It is most likely that at first the German Jews employed the language of their Christian neighborhood without any changes whatever. In their communication with their fellow-Jews, they wrote the language in Hebrew characters and introduced such Hebrew words as were necessary for the observance of their Jewish religion.

    The Language

    In vocabulary, Yiddish is predominantly German with less than a third derived from Hebrew and Slavic sources. In pronunciation the influence of Russian and Polish is minimal, while Hebrew words and expressions were themselves "Yiddishized."

    In writing

    The basis of Yiddish writing is the Hebrew alphabet. Most words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin retain their original spelling. The vowel system consists of the systematic use of assigned consonants to indicate vowel sounds.

    The Speakers

    The Yiddish language, from its beginning in the tenth century, until the end of the 18th century was the dominant medium of oral communication among the Jews on the European continent. In Eastern Europe the number of Yiddish speakers increased rapidly as the Jewish population grew. The great migrations of Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries caused the Yiddish-speaking community to expand throughout the world. The number of Yiddish speakers at any one time is difficult to determine. The best estimates reckon with eleven million speakers just prior to World War II. This number was drastically reduced by the Holocaust. However, among traditional Ashkenazi Jews, a knowledge of Yiddish, at least as a second language, continues to be widespread. The recent increase in the yeshiva enrollment could result in an expansion of the Yiddish community since many yeshivot still study the Talmud and biblical commentaries in Yiddish.

    In Europe, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, Yiddish came to be seen by many thinkers as the national language of the Jews. This was particularly so among the non-Zionist circles who wanted the Jews to have an autonomous existence in Europe with Yiddish as its language. In 1908 a conference on the Yiddish language was held in Czernowitz to deal with the role of Yiddish in Jewish life. The Zionist Hebraists objected violently to Yiddish being described as the national language of the Jews. That place, they claimed, is reserved for Hebrew. In the end a compromise was reached and Yiddish was called "a national language." In the early years of the modern settlement of Eretz Israel, many people objected to the use of Yiddish and insisted on Hebrew.

    In modern times there has been a considerable amount of academic interest in Yiddish and it is an accepted subject in many universities throughout the world including the U.S. and Israel.


    It was not until the beginning of the 17th century that homiletic or sermon prose began to appear in Yiddish. This prose was a mixture of stories, tales and fables woven around the Bible and its commentaries. Most of the activity in prayer literature was in direct translation from the Hebrew. However, there were other areas in which Yiddish was used to express religious feelings and devotion.

    It was natural that a wealth of Yiddish literary activity would develop out a Jewish society based on the Bible and its rules for ethical conduct. The Yiddish literature on traditional conduct instructed the Jewish community in the rules of proper behavior during synagogue worship and religious ceremonies at home. These works were written in a simple, clear style which was easily understood by the average person.

    The beginning of the 17th century witnessed a great demand on the part of the Jewish masses for a literature of amusement and entertainment. This demand called forth a supply of all kinds of fiction and especially of tales of mayses written in Yiddish prose. This period saw an outpouring of mayse literature or, as it was sometimes called, secular literature, to amuse and entertain the reading public. The quality of these works was not high, yet the literature did express real feelings of the masses. To satisfy the growing desire for wordy and general knowledge, many books dealing with history, geography, travel and popular science were also published during this same period.

    At the end of the 18th century Jews, especially of Western Europe, were starting to abandon the ghettos both physically and spiritually. The migration from the ghettos exposed the Jews to the danger of assimilation. The Haskalah, or Enlightenment movement arose with the object of stemming the tide of assimilation which was already becoming evident in the middle of the 18th century. The leaders of the movement employed literature aimed at raising the cultural level of the people, to develop a taste for beauty of nature and language and to refine their moral feelings.

    The central figures in Yiddish literature at the end of the 19th century were Mendele Mokher Seforim (1835-1917), Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), and Isaac Peretz (1852-1915). These three dominated the latter part of the century. Mendele was primarily responsible for the standardization of modern literary Yiddish. His words criticize, yet they made memorable, what was characteristic and typical of Jewish life in his time. Sholem Aleichem's genius captured the essence of poor and simple people: simple folk who instinctively absorbed the Jewish faith and its affirmation of Life. Sad and tragic events are treated by Sholem Aleichem with an unshakable faith that man can overcome any adversity. He satirizes but does not belittle the values of life, but rather serves to emphasize those values. Peretz's literary technique was the use of the folktale. His Hasidic stories idealized the rabbis, painting them as the model men of the future, and helped initiate a neo-hasidic trend in Yiddish literature. Peretz attempted to modernize Jewish life through the use of the Yiddish language.

    It was also during this same period that remarkable social progress was made. The philosophies of Zionism and socialism were heatedly debated; parties organized; and everywhere new ideas were on the march. This resulted in the development of a wordily, many-sided Yiddish literature. It supplied information and provided light reading for leisure hours, but is primer purpose was as an instrument for social progress. Although centered in Russian Jewry, there was a parallel development of this literature in America. the mass migration of Jews in the 1880s brought to America a large number of Jewish workingmen who came from the smaller towns of Eastern Europe. These immigrants turned mostly to the needle trade. Thus, within a short time there arose a large Jewish working class which struggled hard for a living. In the emerging class struggle, Yiddish was used as the medium of expression and propaganda since this was the only language the masses understood. Most of the literature was dedicated to the service of the socialist ideal and to carrying on the class struggle. It dealt mainly with scenes of poverty, the miserable conditions in the sweatshops and the tragedies in the homes of the laborers resulting from oppressive working conditions.

    Much of Yiddish literature of this period had its origin in journalism. Pamphlets, brochures, daily and weekly newspapers, were published to further the cause of the laboring class. The Forward which began to appear in 1897 became the leading organ of the laboring masses and is still appearing today.

    During the last 50 years two great events took place in the life of the Jewish people, both of which affected the history of Yiddish literature. One is the great catastrophe which befell European Jewry during the Nazi regime and the second event is the creation of the State of Israel. The life of torture and suffering, the massacres, the death scenes in the ghettos and in the concentration camps serve as themes for numerous short stories, novels and poems. They also form the subject of many historical works, written as literary memorials to numerous Jewish communities which were scattered in the former great centers of Jewish population. Yiddish literature was also affected by the arrest and liquidation of some of its most important writers who lived and worked in the great Jewish centers of Europe behind the Iron Curtain.

    At the same time, Yiddish literature developed a new and immediate tie with the State of Israel. The acquisition and rebuilding of the country are serving as central elements in Yiddish literature. The efforts of the haluzim life in the kibbutzim are the themes of stories and poems.

    While at the beginning of the 19th century modern Yiddish literature was transferred from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, its main centers today remain those of the United States and Israel. Yiddish literature served not only as a medium for social and cultural progress but was also a definitive force for unifying the Jewish people scattered throughout the world.

    Get High on Yiddish

    Learning Yiddish can enrich your life and expand your horizons. It can be the key that opens the door to new and exciting experiences and adventures. An interest in Yiddish can mean new friends, new activities to share, an important bridge between generations, and a new world of books, music, and family history. There is a never-ending store of Yiddish folklore, history, music, and literature to explore. An interest in these things as well a a fascination with Yiddish theater, immigration, history, or Yiddish politics brings many people to the study of Yiddish, and the study of Yiddish opens the door to a wide variety of interests and activities.

    Knowing some Yiddish can provide you with the chance to meet and communicate with people from different countries and cultures.

    Yiddish is fun, joyous, and exhilarating... Get high on Yiddish.

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Credit:Text and images related to hebrew caligraphy:Rabbi Yisroel David Berger