Professor Valeriry Dymshitz (photo by Nikolai Busygin, booknik.ru)
Yiddish in Post-Soviet Territory
It is virtually impossible to have a correctly academic conversation about the fate of Yiddish in the modern world. Only a detached observer with no emotional connection to the object of research, i.e., Yiddish, can put together a serious, impartial, “unaffiliated”, so to speak, analysis. But this observer will hardly be familiar enough with this language, including the problems of its current state. Whereas a researcher who studies Yiddish profoundly enough will be partial by implication, since the specific character of this language, the specific existence of its culture and literature, appeal both to the mind and the senses. Studying Yiddish and its literature and culture implies being engaged. To give an example, the Yiddish panel at a large Jewish Studies congress will as a rule work in Yiddish, not in any of the general languages of the conference. Moreover, instead of reverting to, for exapmple, English after the session, the participants will often continue communicating in Yiddish, thus proving their membership of a “party”. It is hard to imagine, say, two American Slavicists conversing in Russian in the lobby. The author of this article is also naturally biased and, while aware of that, cannot help it, and suggests the reader bears that in mind.
There is a widespread opinion that when we speak of Yiddish, we assume the issue will be some “remnants”, a slipping reality, a “dying” language. However, Yiddish is one of the few minor languages whose number of native speakers is quickly increasing instead of diminishing. Incidentally, the collective myth of Yiddish disappearing despite the obvious increase in the amount of its native speakers is another important fact in its sociolinguistic “biography”.
This opinion is connected, on the one hand, to the continuing disappearance of Yiddish on the territory of its birth and “classic” existence (i.e., Eastern Europe), and on the other hand – to the division of the modern Jewish world, in which the main speakers of Yiddish, the ultra-Orthodox circles, are more or less overlooked by the “cultural” world. However, the ultra-Orthodox community reciprocates to a great extent.
Considering the position of Yiddish in Russia and other states of the FSU, or in a broader sense, Eastern Europe, it really seems to be dying. The number of Yiddish speakers has decreased dramatically before our very eyes. There are less and less people speaking the language, and the language they do speak is often purely domestic, “vulgar”. Even less people are literate in Yiddish, usually those who went to Jewish schools – today’s octogenarians. Today it is more natural to encounter Yiddish literacy with a young enthusiast than an elderly native speaker.
However, the global position of Yiddish is substantially different. No less than 1,5-2 million people in the world speak the language today. Of course, in comparison with the pre-war 11-12 million, this is not much, but it surely lets us consider the rumours of the death of Yiddish “greatly exaggerated”.
For the core speakers of Yiddish, i.e., the ultra-Orthodox Jews, this language has a broad array of social functions: it is spoken both at home and at work, at school, out in the street; not just by old people, but by children as well. Due to a high birth rate, the size of this group is increasing rapidly: it is believed to be doubling every 20 years. The growth of the ultra-Orthodox population naturally means an increase in the number of Yiddish speakers.
Today Yiddish is a “sick” language rather than “dying”. Here is what I have in mind: a sick person with some, God forbid, inborn disease can live a very long life, longer even than some healthy people – but they will have no access to many important life functions, such as sports. They are not dying, but their existence is not of full value.
The same thing is happening to Yiddish. From a secular point of view, the highest degree of linguistic existence is culture: literature, press, theatre, cinema, etc. All this existed in Yiddish in such amounts and quality that many other languages and nations were left far behind. For example, the Yiddish literature, especially poetry, is one of the richest in the twentieth century. There was also a vast amount of press, theatre, and cinema.
Unfortunately, today the majority of Yiddish speakers – the ultra-Orthodox community – do not possess these cultural riches, nor are they aware of their existence. Every Jewish writer – Mendele to Bashevis – are “treyf-posul” for them, forbidden books. The “top shelves” of their culture are filled with traditional religious literature in “loshn koydesh” (“the holy language”), that is, Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic.
At the same time, a new mass culture is beginning to form in Yiddish in the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, especially in New York: more and more newspapers and magazines are appearing, teaching aids, popular science, and entertainment books are being published. All this produce is strictly censored in terms of modesty, and its artistic value is mediocre, but the tendency itself is noteworthy.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, primarily Chassidim, usually speak in forms of Yiddish that belong to its southwestern dialect. Consequently, these forms, while remote from the literary language, are now becoming increasingly significant.
On the other hand, for the Yiddishists – the experts and connoiseurs of Jewish literature and culture – Yiddish is not a full-fledged social language. They live in the “larger” world, where they communicate in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Russian, etc. with their whole environment, workmates to spouses.
This unnatural situation, where the “body” and “head” of the language live apart, has existed for a long time and is only worsening. All this supports the view of Yiddish as a “sick” language.
The bulk of the Yiddish speaking population today, mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews, live mostly in USA and Israel, as well as Belgium, France, Great Britain, and several other states, whereas in the FSU the situation is entirely different. Here, Yiddish is almost extinct, but at the same time, having become a “virtual language”, it has preserved certain important cultural functions which will be discussed below.
In order to understand the current state of Yiddish on the territory of the FSU, we need to analyze its history in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in the last century.
At the end of the 19th century Yiddish was the first language for the absolute majority of Russian Jews. 94 percent of the Jews named it as such in the census of 1897. Excluding the non-Ashkenazis: the Caucasian, Crimean, and Central Asiatic Jews, as well as several small steadily Russian-speaking groups of Jews outside the Jewish Pale – the Jewish population of the traditional Jewish area, Eastern Europe, can be viewed as almost entirely Yiddish-speaking. It should be noted that today there are hardly any Jews in this territory who speak the language to a full extent, and not many among the Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire and USSR or their descendants speak it well either. That is to say, in a hundred years the Russian Jews have fully switched languages. A fascinating result in itself. Of course, the main content of Russian history in the 20th century was a monstrously hard modernization, which led to dramatic changes in the lives of the majority of the population: most of it morphed from urban to rural etc. However, the Russian nation at least preserved its language, whereas the Jews changed not just their habitat and lifestyle, but also their language.
Let us return to the beginning of the 20th century. The Russian Jews were then already displaying a tendency to be bilingual, speaking Yiddish and Russian. The same census of 1897 shows double the average amount of literacy in Russian among Jews than among Russians.
The process of Russian gradually replacing Yiddish was not stopped by the fact that in the 1920-30s Yiddish received notable state support. A big network of Jewish schools existed, comprising over a thousand schools, yet the Jews were not craving admission for their children, reasonably viewing a “minority” school as an obstacle to higher education. Only about half the Jewish children of Ukraine and Belarus went to Jewish schools in that period.
A major incentive for the disappearance of Yiddish was the quick migration of shtetl Jews to large cities and even out of the limits of the pre-revolutionary Pale of Settlement. On the one hand, the previous legislative restrictions were canceled, but on the other hand, the former shtetl, having lost its economic function, transformed into a social disaster zone filled with the unemployed and those deprived of rights. Therefore, in 15-20 years the Jews went from being a compact majority (70-80% of the population of the shtetls within the Pale) to a scattered minority (several percent of the population of the large cities). Naturally, this led to quick linguistic assimilation.
In different cities, of course, the resettlement of the Jews happened differently, which affected the speed of the disappearance of Yiddish. The comparison of two major Jewish communities of the Soviet Union – Moscow and Leningrad – can be a typical example.
After the Civil war, Leningrad was flooded with Jews from nearby shtetls of the Pale, predominately, North-Eastern Belarus: the provinces of Mogilev and Vitebsk which were closest to the city. Note that by the early 20th century the Jews of these towns (close to Pskov and Smolensk, that is, Great Russia) already spoke better Russian than most Jews in the Russian Empire. Over 200 thousand Jews lived in Leningrad before the war, yet it never became a Jewish city. The “housing problem”, the settlement peculiarities, were to blame.
A million people lived in Moscow before WWI, and about 3 million – in St.Petersburg. After the revolution and the Civil War, Moscow became the capital and overpopulated, while only 700 thousand people remained living in Petrograd. In the 20s and 30s Jews rushed from the shtetls to Moscow and Leningrad in search of work; the Jewish youth – in search of higher education.
In the empty Leningrad, the Jewish migrants settled all over the city, becoming sine qua non attributes of the huge communal flats in the former “generals’ apartments”, and they quickly vanished in the surrounding Russian population. In Moscow, where there was no spare accomodation, the migrants (mostly Ukrainian expatriates) created Jewish settlements on the outskirts and in the suburbs of the city, where even in the 50s and 60s Yiddish was not just used by old people to speak at home, but by people of different ages to communicate in the street.
At the same time, when the government patronized Yiddish in Leningrad in the 20-30s, that did not help much. Thus, a Jewish theatre was not created in Leningrad even in these favourable years, although there were numerous attempts to do so. Typically, the GOSET, which went on to become famous, originated in Leningrad, but moved presently to Moscow.
In Leningrad, Jews to a man became “Russian intelligentsia”, while in Moscow some still remained “a bit Jewish”. To simplify the situation a little, we can say that in Moscow Jewishness long remained not just a religion and an idea, but also an ethnic (and linguistic) part of everyday life.
To some extent, the disappearance of Yiddish in the USSR was decelerated by the fact that during WWII large territories with primarily Yiddish-speaking populations entered the country, such as Bessarabia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia, Western Volhynia, Western Belarus, and the Baltic states. However, even this could not substantially put the brake on the process of linguistic assimilation.
Obviously, WWII stroke a crippling blow to Yiddish. It was the population of the shtetls which could or would not evacuate, that was first destroyed by the Nazis. At the same time, the Jewish population physically suffered less in the regions that were under Romanian occupation. About 50% of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina survived the war, as did most of the Jews of the so-called Transnistria – the Western areas of the regions of Vinnytsia and Odessa – which were turned over to Romania by the Germans. About half the Transcarpathian Jews who were under Hungarian control survived the war as well. Some communities, especially in the medium and large cities of Ukraine and Belarus, were partially restored after the war due to the return of the Jews from the army and evacuation.
After the war the linguistic assimilation process kept accelerating. This was helped along by the post-war state anti-Semitism, as well as the migration from the former shtetls into cities, continuing throughout the post-war decades. Although migration did not always lead to the disappearance of the language. Say, in Chernivtsi, the restored Jewish community was formed mainly from ex-inhabitants of neighbouring Moldavia (Bessarabia) and Podolia. Their density temporarily halted the extinction of Yiddish in this city.
Still, by the collapse of the Soviet Union Yiddish had practically vanished in the larger cities. Only individual members of the older generation, who did not constitute any social environment, spoke it. To some extent, Yiddish had preserved its social function in the smaller towns where it was the language of Ukrainian (especially of the Vinnytsia region) and Moldavian Jews, and not just the older people. It was only 10-15 years ago that it has begun to fully disappear in these regions.
The history of Yiddish in these ethnographic “preserves” merits a more detailed discussion. The following conclusions are based on the results of field research in the shtetls of Podolia – Mogilev-Podolskiy and Tulchin (Vinnytsia region) and Balta (Odessa region)i.
As mentioned above, the Jewish population of the former shtetls of South-Western Podolia survived WWII. Therefore, after the war, the South-Western part of the Vinnytsia region and the North-West of the Odessa region in Ukraine became two of the few regions with remaining “ethnographic” Jewish communities. In the 1970s the percentage of Jews in the population of the towns in these areas was still virtually the highest in the Soviet Union.
It should be noted at once that today Yiddish is almost extinct as a full-fledged communication language in these, once most “Jewish”, towns of the FSU. Even the elderly Jews prefer to converse in Russian. There are only individual families where the aged spouses communicate in Yiddish, more often, a mixture of Yiddish and Russian.
People whose youth and childhood were spent in a fully Yiddish-speaking environment find difficulty speaking it today, and plead not having practised it for a long time, having forgotten it, etc. Still, Yiddish preserves several crucial social and cultural duties.
Before we move on to describing these duties, we should overview the main landmarks of the history of Yiddish in the former shtetls of Podolia during the past seventy years. This evolution of the language’s existence consisted of several stages, not all of which by far are noticed enough by modern researchers.
The first important mark was the shutting of the Jewish schools in 1938. This essentially meant that Jews born after 1928-1930 had hardly any possibility of attending a Jewish school. Consequently, today the overwhelming majority of Jews under 80 can neither read nor write in Yiddish. This means that Yiddish, while remaining the language of communication in the following decades, functioned more as an oral language every year.
Today the generation of the Soviet Jewish school graduates has almost all departed. We can therefore say that the stratum of people whose first and fully functional language was Yiddish is almost gone.
The closing of Jewish schools had another repercussion. Instruction in these schools was in the literary, so-called “common” language (klal-schprach). Since 1938, Yiddish began its plunge into dialect speech. All the Yiddish-speaking Jewish population of the former shtetls of South Podolia of today uses only the local patois of the Volhynian dialect of Yiddish, known as “tote-mome-lushn”. The few surviving Jewish school graduates distinctly realize the difference between their language and what they call “literarisch”, and are able to speak both. For most, however, literary Yiddish is “inexistent”, moreover, they do not always recognize it as Yiddish, taking it by ear for German or some other language.
The next important landmark in the existence of Yiddish in South Podolia was the war and occupation. The Jewish population was driven into Romanian concentration camps and ghettos. The Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, deported by the Romanians to Transnistria, joined the locals. Their arrival “revived” Yiddish in a certain fashion, as the Bukovinians spoke no Russian, and only the older generation among the Bessarabians, the former Russian citizens, could make themselves understood somehow.
Besides, the Jewish families that by the 1930s already mainly used Russian – those belonging to the local bureaucracy and intelligentsia – found themselves in direct contact with “plain” Jews, who continued speaking Yiddish. Many informants reported having learned Yiddish as children in a Romanian ghetto.
Throughout the post-war period (up to the early 90s) the main life tendency of the Jewish population of the ex-shtetls, displayed first of all by young people, was migration into larger cities, regional centres and capitals. However, this migration was gradual and, paradoxically, could lead not just to a decrease, but to a temporary growth of the Yiddish-speaking population of the regional centres.
In this period, Jews migrated from small and very small shtetls with populations of several hundred to 1-2 thousand Jews into regional centres, and that had a key effect on Yiddish. This migration mostly took place in the late 50s – early 60s. Before the war the minor shtetls had begun to be turned into big villages, where most Jews became kolkhoz members. The kolkhoz members received passports in the late 50s, thus gaining the possibility to move to the city. At the same time, regions were being enlarged – three or four previous regions were now merged into one. Many regional centres became villages, which meant the cancellation of a number of vacancies requiring the presence of local authorities. This also motivated the Jews to move at least to the nearest regional centre.
By the mid-60s the number of Jews inhabiting former minor shtetls had decreased drastically. New migrants joined the ranks of the Jewish population of the relatively large regional centres. These settlers were often of a poor education, mostly Yiddish-speaking; frequently, their second language was not Russian but Ukrainian, not very much in demand in a “real” city. This way, the total number of Jewish communities was decreasing, but the Jewish population in the most viable centres remained virtually constant.
The next landmark of the history of Yiddish in former shtetls were the late 1980s-early 1990s, when two key events took place:
1. The bulk of the generation of people born in 1900-1910, whose first language was Yiddish, passed away. They were the parents of today’s 60-70-year-olds. Since that moment most of the present oldest generation of local Jews have ceased to use Yiddish for everyday communication, as it was the language they used to speak to their parents in, prefering to converse both with their children and grandchildren and among themselves in Russian. Thus, many Jews of the former shtetls have had no everyday language practice in Yiddish for the last 15-20 years. After the death of their parents the informant has stopped speaking Yiddish – this is a very frequent phrase in interviews.
2. The mass emigration of the Jewish population of the small towns of Ukraine to Israel, the USA, and Germany. The amount of Jews in these towns decreased ten or more times in the early 1990s. The circle of Yiddish speakers contracted accordingly.
Still, the number of Jewish inhabitants in the small towns of South-Western Podolia (mainly regional centres) is several dozens to several hundred. The linguistic competence of the local Jews in Yiddish depends on their age, biography, family, and personal aptitude, and varies from full bilinguality to hardly any command of the language. However, as was already noted, even those who are fluent in Yiddish are usually unable to read or write in this language and rarely use it in their everyday life. On the other hand, Jews who claim they speak no Yiddish whatsoever often use numerous Jewish words and expressions in their everyday speech.
What, then, are the functions of Yiddish in the former shtetls today? We think them to be threefold.
1. Jewish glosses.
A Jew who speaks no Yiddish and does not understand it, willingly inserts into his speech Jewish words and expressions related to certain areas of “Jewish” reality, such as: terms of religion, customs, family life, cooking.
Not only do the Jewish words and expressions play the part of “technical” terms, but they also have a distinct symbolic purpose. The speaker demonstrates their “Jewish” competence.
In the towns of South-Western Ukraine Yiddish is considered a sign of Jewish – and therefore urban – culture. For this reason, even the old-timer Ukrainian city residents like to include one or two Yiddish words into their speech, displaying thereby their distinction from village-born recent migrants.
2. Language of the ancestors.
Yiddish is the language spoken by the parents and grandparents of today’s small-town Jews, and generally the language of the departed older generation. Speaking of the past and quoting a character’s direct speech, the narrator will usually reproduce it in Yiddish even if a minute earlier they claimed they knew it not or could not speak it anymore. The whole narrative can be in Russian, and still the deceased relatives will be quoted untranslated.
3. Language of communication with the dead.
At their parents’ graves (usually visited before Rosh-ha-Shana, before a wedding, if either of the betrothed is orphaned, or in case of a close relative’s illness), the visitor will address the deceased in Yiddish, asking for their intercession before the Almighty. Following a certain common pattern, the appeal will still preserve an element of improvisation, where the visitor will improvise according to personal circumstances.
The text of the appeal is widely known and has repeatedly been recorded during our expeditions. It is used both by men, who precede it with the kadish (if they know it), and women, who naturally do not say the kadish.
Here is an example of this kind of text:
Papa, I ask of you, run and ask for the children to be healthy, for all to be well with them, for them to have earnings, for them to be healthy, for the world to be peaceful. This is your son coming, and your daughter-in-law has come, your grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter have come. I beg of you, run, so that everyone will be healthy, so that everyone will be healthy. I have also a child in America, let him be healthy too. I ask you, please, that all the children, all your children, and all your children’s children be healthy.
The appeal is almost always pronounced in the language the late parents “understand”, that is to say, Yiddish. Texts similar to the above, always in Yiddish, have been recorded many times from elderly Jews living in former Podolian shtetls by expedition members in 2004-2006.
The living speak to the dead in Yiddish, and the dead use it to address the living too. One of the most popular stories about a dead person appearing in a dream has to do with the deceased helping parents pick a name for a baby. The late relative always speaks Yiddish to the dreamer.
Therefore, while Yiddish has almost lost the function of household communication, it still preserves several peculiar cultural functions in the everyday life of the Jewish population of the former shtetls of Podolia.
What happened to Yiddish in the last fifteen years in the big cities, where, as we said above, it has practically disappeared as an everyday language?
In the late 1980s, when the first legal Jewish culture societies began appearing, part of their organizers, especially older people, seriously considered the revival of Yiddish an urgent necessity. However, these initiatives were promptly wiped away by the young leaders of the Jewish movement, who emerged from the Jewish underground. On the one hand, they viewed the revival of Yiddish as a return to the Soviet – and by that virtue compromised – model. On the other hand they had no personal connection to Yiddish; most of the “young ones” were drawn to Hebrew and Israel. The present arrival of Israeli and American sponsor organizations and foundations to the post-Soviet territory imparted serious institutional shapes to the Jewish movement. Nevertheless, there was no room for Yiddish in the cultural and educational structures they created, either. The main emphasis, following the American example, was on supporting Israel, with the Zionist and pro-Zionist establishment by force of habit viewing Yiddish without compassion, often even purely negatively. Nor did Yiddish find support with the new Russian Jewish foundations created in recent years.
Yiddish was not represented in the newly founded Jewish schools. Both religious and secular ones are guided by the American-Israeli pattern, i.e., teaching Hebrew. The Jewish higher education system in Moscow and St.Petersburg has Yiddish represented only formally: it is impacted by the lack of teaching aids and instructors as well as by its deliberately secondary place in the curriculum. Academic Jewish studies have developed notably in Russia and other post-Soviet states in the last 15 years, but here, too, Yiddish has a feeble position. For example, the Yiddish language and literature panel at the traditional conferences organized by the Sefer Centre is always very weak. Obviously, Yiddish has received only minimal support in the making of the new Jewish cultural infrastructure.
Still, the situation is not completely hopeless. The downside to the establishment of a powerful, developed, institutionally Jewish infrastructure is a certain “formality”. Yiddish has become the banner of the (still sparse, mostly young) groups who are trying to find their own way, unordered by the Jewish “management”. Part of the Jews who are not intending to leave Russia soon, yet seek a conscious Jewish identity, have adopted Yiddish as the centre of the crystallization of this identity. Of course, these enthusiasts have few possibilities for studying this languge, for, as mentioned above, Yiddish has weak institutional support. Yiddish has not and probably will not become the language of their daily communication, but it has certainly turned into an important symbolic value, a kind of cultural code. The new “Yiddish community”, apart from the few language study groups, concentrates around two centres: klezmer music and the Internet.
More and more musical bands performing klezmer music and Jewish songs have been appearing in the FSU over the past decade. The first klezmer festival took place in St.Petersburg ten years ago, and now such fests are held in Moscow, Kazan, Kharkov, and Kiev. Turning to Jewish music is inevitably followed by turning to the general ethnic culture of Eastern-European Jews, and therefore, Yiddish.
Yiddish has also found a new, rapidly developing, niche on the Internet. The numerous international and Russian forums dedicated to Yiddish allow the geographically dispersed conoisseurs of the language to unite. Since the internet is a self-organization tool, it opposes the institutional initiatives “from above”, and creates new perspectives for Yiddish. Today, with the globalization of culture, the dying out of national borders, and the perfection of means of communication, Yiddish – a people’s language, not a state language – has gained an unexpected advantage.
A generation of young people who are interested in Yiddish although it is not their mame- or even bobe-loshn in the direct sense of the word, is currently forming, though still sparse, on the post-Soviet territory. These young people learn the language independently, often through self-instruction manuals, sometimes in little Yiddish study groups. As far as I know, today such groups exist only in Moscow and St.Petersburg. The more advanced learners manage to attend summer courses, mainly in Vilnius, New York, and Jerusalem. A significant part was played by the summer programs organized by the late professor Gershom Viner with the support of the Israeli Yiddish Committee, which for several years took place in Ukraine and then in Poland. This generation of “post-Yiddishists” has as their meeting places various Internet forums, as well as numerous klezmer festivals and rare specialized Yiddish seminars. There is even a young growth of writers and poets among these widely scattered representatives of the young generation who have consciously turned to Yiddish. For example, the St.Petersburg-based philologist and poet Isroel Nekrasov publishes an annual called “Der neier freind” (The New Friend). Two issues have already seen light.
Another stimulus for studying Yiddish in the recent years is the interest in Eastern-European Jewish history and culture, which has appeared in the framework of the regenerated academic Jewish studies. Sometimes the turn to Yiddish is dictated by the researcher’s concern with a concrete scientific problem. The need to read a certain book or document, the collection and research of folklore, often requires knowledge of Yiddish. Having begun learning Yiddish for professional needs, people gradually join the community of Yiddish culture enthusiasts.
What is the future of Yiddish in the post-Soviet realm? Unsupported by any state, Yiddish has lost the competition with national languages, state languages, whose well-being is propped up by the Ministry of Education, usually with the participation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. On the one hand, the generation of Yiddish speakers unaffiliated with the peculiarity of Chassidic districts in the USA and Israel, of plain Jews who spoke Yiddish in the streets of Eastern-European towns and shtetls, will be gone in twenty years. On the other hand, the interest in Yiddish is slowly growing among the “advanced” – not just Jewish – youth, enticed by the “hidden treasure” of the Eastern-European Jewish culture.