02 January 2010

Maryland: University to drop Yiddish

Yiddish is on the budget chopping block at the University of Maryland.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the language, Yiddish dates to the 11th century and those Jews who settled along the Rhine River. It is written with Hebrew characters, uses German grammar and structure and its vocabulary incorporates German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic.

While the 1,000-year-old language of Ashkenazi Jews has survived the likes of Hitler and Stalin, the switch to Hebrew in modern Israel and the assimilation of immigrants to America, there are few universities that offer it (Brandeis, Harvard, Columbia and a few others).

Not to get too far off track, but Tracing the Tribe believes it is even harder to find a Ladino course - anywhere - for today's generation of Sephardic students. No matter the language - Yiddish or Ladino - it is a shame to lose any part of one's heritage!

But in Maryland, funding is the problem.

I'm sad that our family lost both Yiddish and Russian in 1905, when my great-grandmother proclaimed to her children that they were now Americans and must speak English. While Yiddish remained the family's "house" (and community) language and my grandmother and her siblings were fluent, my mother was fluent as a child but gradually - through disuse - lost her ability to speak it. She understood it, but answered questions in English. Our generation knows even less and is familiar only with a relatively small number of words that we use correctly.

I've had the opportunity to take an elementary Yiddish class and also a beginning Russian class, so perhaps I recognize more than most, but nothing near the level I'd like to have achieved.

Growing up in New York City, of course, many Yiddish words are part of New York-speak, and many immigrants of other ethnicities don't know the origin of words they may use every day.

This Baltimore Sun story by Matthew Hay Brown covers the University of Maryland situation.

At the University of Maryland, which has stood alongside Harvard and Columbia as one of the nation's few schools to consistently offer instruction in the Germanic tongue, the recent announcement that the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies would be dropping it in the fall shocked area enthusiasts.

"U- Maryland has had the biggest commitment to Yiddish as a language anywhere in a hundred-mile radius," says Harvey Spiro, president of Yiddish of Greater Washington, which organized a letter-writing campaign. "We're not a particularly political organization, but this kicked us in the gut."

The center now has cobbled together the money to pay its longtime instructor through the next academic year. But after that, director Hayim Lapin says, it is unlikely to continue funding a full-time faculty member dedicated to the language.
Said Lapin, it isn't about the language but about the budget crisis resulting in fewer visiting faculty, less Bible, less history and less or no Yiddish.

Born in postwar Germany where Yiddish was her first language, Professor Miriam Isaacs has taught elementary and intermediate Yiddish at Maryland for 15 years:

"We're at a critical point in that the generation of Holocaust survivors, my parents, they're not around anymore," she says. "Or if they're around, they can't do a lot of translating. So if nobody learns it, you know, the Holocaust Museum archive is full of Yiddish materials. The University of Maryland has been acquiring Yiddish books galore. Who is going to read them? Who is going to be able to have access to them?"
And what about those Yiddishisms currently in use in English? Spiro says that because so many comedians used the words, people believe the language is funny or for dirty jokes, while he says, that isn't his Yiddish:

"The Yiddish that I read and the Yiddish I speak is a language for everyday communication. I read novels in Yiddish. I read the Yiddish newspaper."
Yiddish culture incorporated an active press, popular theater and literature - it wasn't just the world of Borscht Belt comedians. World War II decimated Yiddish speakers. Prior to the Holocaust, there were some 11 million speakers. Half were killed, others lost in pogroms and immigration. Today fewer than 2 million live in mainly Orthodox communities in a few cities.

However, in some communities, it is considered a way for today's generation to connect with their heritage. In Poland, the US and in Israel, there are language programs and summer institutes to help them learn.

Isaacs says that, at Maryland, mostly Jewish students register. These include students who have Yiddish-speaking relatives and want to see it remain alive. She says the intensive elementary fall course fills, but a much smaller number continue with the spring intermediate class.

The language has fallen victim to budget problems derived from lower returns on endowments. The center is trying to at least schedule the classes on a per-course basis for those interested. According to experts quoted in the story, Hebrew is required in a serious Jewish studies program, although Yiddish isn't, but should be.

On the other hand, for Sephardim, it is even harder to find a Ladino course than for Ashkenazi to find Yiddish courses.

Read the complete story at the link above.


  1. Chassid4:30 AM

    Don't forget, amongst many chassidic communities, Yiddish is still alive an well. My children spend half their day studying in Yiddish. Hopefully we will not loose this precious language.

  2. Paul Hosse9:16 PM

    That's so sad! I love Yiddish. It's such a wonderfully expressive language with an amazing history.

  3. Fritz Neubauer12:58 PM

    It says in the blog,

    Yiddish "uses German grammar",

    which is wrong ..., unless GermanIC grammar is meant? It is true thast Yiddish is a Germanic language, but its grammar is different from any other West Germanic languages such as English, Dutch, German or any of the North Germanic languages such as Danish or Swedish. Yiddish just has a Germanic grammar of its own!

    With kind regards

    Fritz Neubauer