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A Mother Tongue Without a Country : Yiddish Is the Common Language of Many Jews Seeking Their Roots

September 17, 1989|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Yiddish has been dying a slow death for at least 50 years, but lovers of the Jewish language of Eastern European villages and East Coast immigrant slums still cling to the mame-loshn , their mother tongue, even in Southern California.

They go to literary lectures, informal discussion groups, classes and songfests. Orthodox Jews sometimes debate the Talmud in Yiddish. Old people on bus benches in Jewish neighborhoods gossip in the language of their youth. And a small but growing number of younger Jews who grew up speaking English are turning to Yiddish studies.

This much activity might have surprised the pioneers of the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club, who drew up a 50-year charter when they staged their first evening of tea and cake in 1926. Even then, Yiddishists were worried that America would prove rocky ground for their transplanted tongue .

Sixty-three years later, the club still stages a formal program every Saturday night from October through June at the Institute of Jewish Education on 3rd Street in the Fairfax District, but no one knows how long it will last.

In fact, no one really knows how many Yiddish speakers there are--either in Southern California, home to an estimated 700,000 Jews, or in the world at large.

"While the use of the language as a primary vernacular has been declining, interest in it, both sentimental and seriously intellectual, has been rising," says the Jewish Encyclopedia. "(T)he measurement of the present knowledge of Yiddish . . . requires tools far subtler than those of ordinary censuses."

But there is no doubt that the number has been shrinking. Joshua Fishman, a sociolinguist who teaches at Yeshiva and Stanford universities, said there may be 3.5 million Yiddish speakers in the world today, including about 1.25 million in the United States, compared to an estimated 12 million worldwide and just under 3 million in this country on the eve of World War II.

Yiddish (the name literally means Jewish) has its roots in the Dark Ages, when Jews who lived in southern France and northern Italy migrated into what is now Germany.

They spoke their own language, similar to the Romance languages of that day, but exchanged it for a form of medieval German, adding words from Hebrew and using the Hebrew alphabet.

Modern Yiddish emerged as they gradually moved to Eastern Europe. It is distinct from modern German, with words folded in from Hebrew and the Slavic and Romance languages like so many raisins in a New Year's koylitsh (egg bread).

From the early 1800s on, as more worldly Jews became a part of the cultures around them, some looked down on Yiddish as a zhargon, the language of ignorant village folk.

But that ignored a rich literary tradition that goes back at least as far as 1272, and a secular Yiddish literature that flowered from the middle of the 19th Century on. Novels, plays, poetry and newspapers appeared in the language, along with prayer books and translations from the Bible.

In waves of emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, about 7 million European Jews spread the language to the United States, Canada, South America and what is now Israel.

But others stayed behind. Most of them were gassed or shot or died of cold and hunger in concentration camps after Nazi forces conquered the Jewish centers of Eastern Europe. Of the 6 million Jews put to death during World War II, about 5 million were Yiddish speakers, Fishman said.

By then, Hebrew had become the language of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. In Stalin's Soviet Union, Yiddish and all other aspects of Jewish culture were stifled. And in the United States, Yiddish was often discarded as worn-out baggage from the old country.

"The emphasis was Americanization," recalled Irving Teitelbaum, 67, a building contractor who arrived in Chicago from Poland 50 years ago. "One week after I came to this country my brother schlepped me to night classes and said, 'Learn English.' "

Now, except for some ultra-religious enclaves in Israel and the East Coast, and a small circle of secularists in New York whose Yiddish-language nursery school is so popular that it has a waiting list, there is nowhere left where Yiddish is the common language.

Which is not to say that Yiddish is quite dead yet.

The kultur klub (pronounced "cool-toor kloob") has extended its stay indefinitely at the Institute of Jewish Education, and classes at the Workmen's Circle, Santa Monica College and the West Valley Jewish Community Center had 147 students at last count.

"We lose people every year, simply because of the fact that people are dying," said Moshe Cohen, 78, president of the Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club. "But somehow we find people who've exchanged playing cards on Saturday evenings for something more creative. We have a half-dozen young people too."

About 100 senior citizens gather there once a week for lectures, musical programs, tea, cake and a chat.

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