Preface / Ruth R. Wisse
Introduction / Goldie Sigal
The Collection
Historical Background
Joe Fishtein and his Milieu
The Yiddish Language
Soviet Orthography
The Flowering of Yiddish Literature
The Catalogue
The Indices
Archival Items in the Collection
Technical Aspects
Table of Name Equivalents

The Catalogue Entries
Search the Catalogue
Browse by Topic
Browse by Index
(Author, Title, Illustrator, Periodical, Series)


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The Yiddish Language

Yiddish, the mam'e loshn (mother tongue) of the East European Jewish immigrants, is a '"diaspora language", one of sixteen or more such languages created in the various lands of the Jewish dispersion (Goldsmith, 1976, p.27). A diaspora language is written in Hebrew characters, with which most Jews were familiar, and was created to meet the special needs of their particular way of life. It formed a kind of linguistic bridge between the vernacular of the host country and the revered Hebrew-Aramaic of the Bible and Talmud, which was reserved primarily for prayer and scholarship. Some other examples of diaspora languages are: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish (Judezmo or Ladino) and Judeo-Persian.

Yiddish, the creation of the Ashkenazi Jews, was the most widespread and generative of all the diaspora languages. The word, Yidish, means "Jewish" in the language itself. In 1939 there were an estimated eleven million Yiddish speakers in the world, comprising 65 to 70 percent of the world Jewish population (Weinreich, 1971, col. 789). In 1915 the Yiddish press of New York City alone had five daily newspapers with an approximate circulation of 525,690 (Soltes, 1950, p. 24), and the world Yiddish periodical literature in 1939 amounted to more than 400 publications (YIVO, 1946, p. 9).

Yiddish is generally thought to have originated about a thousand years ago in the upper and middle Rhine basin. It is believed that the Jews who lived there fused elements of old French and old Italian with various dialects of medieval German, and interlaced them with the Hebrew or Hebrew-Aramaic of the liturgy and of biblical and rabbinic study, which permeated so much of their lives. As Yiddish-speakers migrated through Central and Eastern Europe, the language continued to grow and transform itself, incorporating elements of Slavic and other tongues along the way. A fusion language, that absorbed and adapted words from other languages, Yiddish developed into a unique, fluid, zesty tongue which was an expression of the Ashkenazi way of life, of Jewish ethics and values.

The status of the language, as the twentieth century approached, was still considered suspect by many intellectuals, who often referred to it as the jargon of the common people. Advocates of various ideologies, whether they were propounding the virtues of Haskalah, Zionism, or Bundist socialism, originally preferred to communicate their messages in established languages like German and Russian, or in the case of the first two movements, in the respected but not yet colloquial modem Hebrew. It was soon realized, however, that to reach the people, one would have to speak to them in their own familiar, intimate Yiddish. The non-Zionist sections of the Jewish Labour Movement, in particular, came to regard Yiddish as an asset of intrinsic cultural value.

Yiddish was standardized from several fluid dialects and transformed into a modern literary tongue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the Yiddish periodical Kol mevaser (1862-1871) contributed to the standardization of Yiddish orthography and the refinement of modern Yiddish literary diction. The earliest work of the Zeyde (Grandfather) of modern Yiddish literature, Mendele Mokher Sefarim (1835-1917)   (3), appeared in its pages. (The name, which means "Mendele the Book Peddler", is the pseudonym of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh [romanized].)

The work of Mendele, along with that of the other two klasiker (classic writers, or "Fathers") of modern Yiddish literature - Isaac Leib Peretz (1852 or 1853-1915) and Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) - was critical in the forging of literary Yiddish. ("Sholem aleykhem", a Hebrew-Yiddish form of greeting, which means literally, "Peace be upon you", is the pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovitsh [romanized].) The process of literary honing continued through the appearance of two landmark publications: the Yidishe folks-bibliotek (Jewish People's Library) (1889-1889), edited by Sholem Aleichem in two anthologies, and the literary annual, Hoyz-fraynd (House-friend) (1888-1896), edited by Mordecai Spector.

The first Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference was held in that city in 1908 to address the role of Yiddish in Jewish life, and to mark its national significance. The conference formed a milestone in the history of Yiddish. Attended by leading Jewish literary and cultural figures of the time, and representing all shades of Jewish opinion, the conference did much to bolster and galvanize the acceptance of Yiddish as a literary language.

It is interesting that many of the early modern literary figures were bilingual - in Yiddish and Hebrew - and sometimes trilingual - in Russian or Polish as well. For most writers, embracing Yiddish as a mode of creative expression did not mean abandoning Hebrew. The noted Yiddish literary critic, Samuel Niger, like his predecessor, Baal-Makhshoves, speaks of the tsveyshprakhikeyt (bilingualism) of Jewish literature - one literature expressing itself in two languages at various times in history, and most notably in Hebrew and Yiddish [# 1705; 1706]. Mendele is considered to be the "Grandfather" of both modern Hebrew and Yiddish literatures. Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz deliberately chose to write in Yiddish even though their work was first published in Hebrew and Russian. Authors would sometimes translate, or rather recreate, their own works into Hebrew from Yiddish or vice versa. Outstanding poets, like Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Uri Zvi Greenberg, were productive in both Yiddish and Hebrew. The distinguished Hebrew writer, Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, and the Israeli Nobel laureate, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, also wrote in Yiddish.

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Goldie Sigal
Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries