Old language's lover won't let it languish Yiddish: A professor works to prevent the loss of a language with much to offer Jews and non-Jews alike.

September 16, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Miriam Isaacs, a professor on a quest to save a dying language, wrote the Yiddish phrase schoen madel on the blackboard and asked, "What's that?

One of her students said "beautiful girl," and the linguist responded with a touch of Yiddish humor of the kind that has cheered the world for centuries: "Right. Many a child has been afflicted with that saying. Usually they want something from you when they tell you that."

A humorist -- such as Leo Rosten, author of "The Joys of Yiddish" -- Isaacs doesn't pretend to be. But her occasionally light approach helps advance a serious personal mission in Elementary Yiddish 101, a new for-credit course she offers to a tiny few at Baltimore Hebrew University.

"The hourglass on Yiddish is running low," Isaacs says of the 1,000-year-old tongue, the world's dominant Jewish language until late in the first half of the 20th century.

Monday night in Room 105 at the Park Heights Avenue college, the professor who also teaches at the University of Maryland learned again just how low the sand and how tiny the few. In her first Elementary Yiddish class there, she had three students -- a grandmother, a college student and a high school student.

All enthusiastic, but only three.

'Hoping to revive interest'

If the class doesn't reach 10 students quickly, the university's president, Robert O. Freedman, says he may cancel the course, although he has scheduled other Yiddish events this fall and the university has taught informal noncredit classes in Yiddish to elderly residents for several years.

"We're hoping to revive interest and make this go," Freedman says. "Yiddish is too important to let die."

Isaacs, 51, of Washington, D.C., who also teaches Yiddish at the University of Maryland, knows the task only too well. She has spoken Yiddish with her parents since her childhood in a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany. The family moved to Canada and then to the United States. For years she has studied Yiddish history, vocabulary, alphabet, dialects and literature as a serious subject.

"I have no illusions about what I can do to save Yiddish," says Isaacs, who cherishes its ability to evoke the Jewish spirit, indeed, the human spirit. "We love this language. It's so rich in talking of people and human character, so musical, so open to nuances in other languages, so humorous.

"But there needs to be a shift in attitude in the synagogues, museums and institutions. Yiddish is not a low-brow language that some say can't be too important because 'My Aunt Minnie spoke it and she wasn't too smart.' "

Isaacs' three students Monday had a lively time pronouncing the guttural R's and the soft L's and recalling some of the hundreds of Yiddish words that have entered American English, many with more than one accepted spelling, according to different teachers: kvetch (complain), schlep (drag), schnook (fool); schmooze (heart-to-heart talk); bubele (a term of endearment), and mensch (decent, honorable person), a word her students seemed to think described their teacher.

And of course, chutzpah (brazen nerve, as in the man who kills his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan).

"It is a remarkable fact," Rosten wrote in his 1968 book, "that never in its history has Yiddish been so influential -- among gentiles (among Jews, alas, the tongue is running dry)."

Grandparents' language

The three students, all from Baltimore, had their own reasons for being there.

Sara Fishman, the grandmother, received a master's degree in Jewish studies from the university 20 years ago. "I was brought up without Yiddish. I'm not a linguist, but have been interested in Jewish culture and Yiddish literature for years. I'm following the Jewish concept of spending a lifetime studying."

Noah Wollner, a third-year student at Baltimore Hebrew University: "I've always been interested in learning Yiddish. I went through the catalog and found this course."

Ben Miller, a junior at Pikesville High School who took four university courses last year and is taking two this semester: "My grandparents speak Yiddish and other languages such as Hebrew, Russian, Polish and German. I'd like to speak to them in Yiddish."

They all enjoyed Isaacs' story about the Jewish immigrant boy who is asked his name by an immigration official at Ellis Island. Silence. Finally the youth says in Yiddish, shoin fergessen (I've already forgotten). The bureaucrat says, "Oh, OK, Sean Ferguson."

Yiddish (for Juedisch, "Jewish" in German) has been spoken by Ashkenazi Jews for 1,000 years, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica.

It grew out of Middle High German among Jewish settlers along the Rhine River. They eventually were forced to migrate to Poland and other nearby countries. Yiddish predominated among Jewish languages until many Jews immigrated to the New World between 1880 and 1914 and began assimilating into American society.

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