Yiddish takes another blow

Citing budget troubles, U. Md. likely to cut faculty position

  • Miriam Isaacs, who was born in postwar Germany and knew Yiddish as her first language, says the courses she has taught at the University of Maryland for 15 years tend to attract "students who have relatives who speak Yiddish and ... who also want to see it stay alive."
Miriam Isaacs, who was born in postwar Germany and knew Yiddish… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
December 28, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | matthew.brown@baltsun.com

It survived Hitler, Stalin, the decision to make Hebrew the official language of the State of Israel and the adoption of English by immigrants to the United States.

Now Yiddish, for 1,000 years the everyday language of European Jews, is facing another threat: budget cuts.

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.

"This is not about Yiddish," Lapin says. "What this is about is responding to the budget crisis and actually cutting back on just about all of our visiting faculty and programming, So we have less Bible than we had. We have less history than we had. We have less or no Yiddish."

Professor Miriam Isaacs, who has taught elementary and intermediate Yiddish at Maryland for 15 years, worries about a future without the language.

"It's not just at Maryland that I'm concerned," says Isaacs, born in postwar Germany, where Yiddish was her first language.

"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?"

Dating back to the 11th-century Jews who settled along the Rhine River, Yiddish employs the Hebrew alphabet but is essentially Germanic in grammar and structure. Words derive principally from German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic sources.

Dozens of those words - klutz, chutzpah and shmuck among them - have entered the American lexicon, many courtesy of the Borscht Belt wits who dominated the golden age of radio and early television comedy.

Their mention makes Spiro wince.

"I come from New York, and I understand," he says. "But what bothers me is that people think Yiddish is inherently funny, or it's a good language for dirty jokes. 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."

Spoken by both the ordinary and the elite, the language gave rise to a vibrant press, a theater that in the early 20th century was considered among the most advanced in the world, and the literature that spawned the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"This civilization that the Jews built in Eastern Europe, it is a culture among cultures," says Jonathan Brent, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, a leading center for the study of the language. "If you want to read some of the world's great literature, you have to read Yiddish."

Before World War II, the number of speakers worldwide was estimated at 11 million. But half were killed in the Holocaust, and postwar pogroms in Stalinist Russia and migrations to the United States and Israel also took a toll. The number of speakers today is estimated at fewer than 2 million, largely in Orthodox communities in New York, Jerusalem, Antwerp and a few other cities.

Brent sees growing interest in the language, both in post-communist Eastern Europe and in the United States, where it can be a way for younger Jews to connect with their heritage.

"There's a vast world for young people to discover that their grandparents and great-grandparents and people they never heard of created," he says. "And they're the inheritors of it."

At Maryland, Isaacs says, the Yiddish offerings have attracted mostly Jewish students.

"They are rarely Jewish studies majors, because the Jewish studies majors have so much Hebrew they have to take that they hardly ever have room to take Yiddish," she says.

"So it tends to be students who have relatives who speak Yiddish and want to connect to their relatives. And who also want to see it stay alive, and who enjoy the culture, and have good associations with the language."

The intensive elementary course in the fall typically fills up, Isaacs says. But given the difficulty of the material, she says, only some students go on to the intermediate course in the spring.

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