Evolution Of Yiddish Language, Culture & Literature


Evolution Of Yiddish Language, Culture & Literature
By Daniel Harris


Yiddish is one of the only languages in world’s history that, at the height of its use was spoken primarily by a religious group across hundreds of nationalities all over the world. It is a language that was carried from generation to generation across Europe and into Russia. As Jewish history evolved, the Yiddish language came with it and of course, evolved into varying dialects. The language essentially became extinct during the darkest hour of Jewish history—The Holocaust. The evolution of the language directly coincides with a large portion of Jewish history and in effect helps in the understanding of many different changes in Jewish lifestyle, social interaction, economics, law and academic literature. In other words, historical trends in Judaism have roots in the evolution of Yiddish.

The choice of timeframe is very broad as the history and change of the language occurred over an extended time period. Generally speaking, the language was alive for roughly 1,000 years. However, changes in the language did not occur constantly, rather the evolution can be characterized into separate periods of Jewish history. Therefore, the resources below reflect that. The guide has a number of sources that touch upon the thematic changes in Yiddish literature, primary sources of those who had spoke the language and carried its history as well as historical sources that have a foundation in the various time periods that denote change in Yiddish history. They are group according to the type of source rather than the extent to which they are helpful in understanding certain aspects of Yiddish evolution. That is present in the subsequent annotations.

General Overview:

Howe, Irving, and Eliezer Greenberg, Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs, Diaries. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
-The wide range of subjects covered by the two authors gives a lackluster general overview of sociological investigation of topics ranging from Eastern European shtetl life to a survey of modern influences on Yiddish poetry in America all the way to social-psychological experiences of Yiddish scholars. Unfortunately, the writing is all commentary and research based and does not contain any primary sources to back up its findings. Still however, it provides some crucial historical background to the distinct periods of Yiddish history.

Weinreich, Max. History of the Yiddish Language. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980.
-The mammoth, almost encyclopedia-like source is valuable and helpful because it does what little other Yiddish historical writing does; exemplifying the complex Yiddish culture, specifically its historical-geographical roots, its relation to other Jewish languages and how it functioned as a dialect, mode of practice and mode of usage as it pertains to the use of the language and its interpretation. Weinreich’s writing provides vast commentary, translation mechanisms and its function in the great Jewish pastime, humor.

Weinstein, Miriam. Yiddish: A Nation of Words. South Royalton Vermont: Steerforth, 2001.
-Weinstein’s book takes the reader through the different generations of Yiddish history as it pertains to Jewish history. Along the way, she highlights key Yiddish phrases and quotes that define the various generations of Yiddish speakers. In an effective way, she brings in a number of historical Jewish characters ranging from The Ba’al Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) to famous Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich and highlights their contribution and impact on Yiddish culture.

Wiener, Leo, and Elias Schulman. The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hermon, 1972.
-Wiener’s extraordinary non-fiction book discusses anything and everything related to Yiddish literature. Sections on folklore, folksong, popular poetry, prose and chrestomathy highlight his dissection of different facets of Yiddish culture. Examples of writing help provide necessary examples. The source does an excellent job spanning through the multiple periods of the Yiddish language as well as the psychology behind the author’s motives. Obviously, the psychological factor of carrying their religion around Europe as they were persecuted holds great meaning in understanding Jewish culture.

Primary Sources:

Andrew Firestone. 2012. Anthology of Yiddish Poetry of Poland between the two world wars (1918-1939). http://www.yiddishpoetry.org/Anthol
-Firestone’s collection of Yiddish poetry dissects a beavy of poems pertaining to Yiddish culture during the early half of the 20th century. With translations in five different languages, the poems shed light on the miserable living conditions, bleak outlook and desolate attitudes of Jews during the time period. These poems come right before the Holocaust and are excellent examples of how terrible life was for Jews in Poland. A number of these poems are descriptive enough in their text to bring realistic and visual feelings to their readers. It is a valuable source that provides informative first hand accounts.

Berger, Shlomo. The Multiple Voices of Modern Yiddish Literature, Amsterdam: Menasseh Ben Israel Institute, 2007.
-The compilation of voices in this source touches upon many aspects of modern Yiddish literature specifically the likes of poetry written by both men and women. The addition of commentary from modern Yiddish and Judaic scholars helps to explain the background, motives and features of each poet and writer as they set out to elucidate various facets of Yiddish life through written expression.

Kalman, Floris, and Yisroel Shtern. “Literature with a Purpose….” The Yisroel Stern Project, N.p., n.d. 6 Nov. 2012. .
-Kalman’s translations of Shtern’s essay on Yiddish literature provides some historical context as to how Yiddish scholars were perceived by different European political parties. He also touches upon the Bund which was a political party that existed from the end of the 19th century onward for roughly 30 years in Poland. This source provides a valuable first hand account on the relationship between Yiddish writers, their writing and their relationship with a thriving political party in Eastern Europe during the final period of Yiddish enlightenment.

Zumoff, Barnett, and Emmanuel Goldstein. Yiddish Literature in America in 1870-2000.New York: KTAV Publishing House, 2009.
-The anthology covers excerpts of Yiddish literature in American poetry, essays and fiction. The collection of sources includes a number of famous Yiddish authors including Sholem Aeichem and I.B. Singer. It also includes a number of authors who are unknown to many because they have not been translated into English. During these years, Yiddish literature expanded and became a voice for generations of Jews across the world. The source provides extremely valuable primary source accounts of many Yiddish speaking Jews that provides valuable insight into their lives.

Electronic Sources:

Beer, Helen. “Yiddish Without Yiddish?.” European Judaism 42.2 (2009): 10-18. Religion and Philosophy Collection. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
-The article describes the richness of Yiddish culture prior to its demise during the Holocaust. It focuses primarily on Poland as the author Beer describes how the Jewish people were able to create an allegiance to the culture without any knowledge of the language’s past. As a native Yiddish speaker, her arguments seem to be egotistically based on the fact that she caries more Yiddish culture in her than the Polish did because she actually spoke the language and that in effect says that in order to understand the culture you must speak the language. It is a reliable and helpful source because it explains pre-World War II Yiddish life in Poland.

Ramos-Gonzalez, Alicia. “Daughters of Tradition: Women in the Yiddish Culture in the 16th-18th Centuries.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 12.2 (2005): 213-26.Boston University Library. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
-This article focuses primarily on women in Yiddish culture during the 16th-18th centuries. It discusses to what extent the language was a means for gaining knowledge for women as they spoke it in ordinary life, business relations and and social settings. There is an association between women and Yiddish literature that according to the article has gone without much discussion. This source helps because most literature on Yiddish culture does not focus on women and it is helpful to have a perspective on the opposing gender in such a patriarchal society.

Warnke, Nina. “Immigrant Popular Culture as Contested Sphere: Yiddish Music Halls, the Yiddish Press, and the Processes of Americanization, 1900-1910.” Theatre Journal 48.3 (1996): 321-35. Boston University Library. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
-Warnke’s writing provides insight into how Yiddish culture developed in America at the turn of the 20th century. At a time where immigrants were pouring into New York and all across America, the culture greatly evolved from 1900-1910. The article specifically critiques American theatre, music and literature that was performed and written in the Yiddish language. Unfortunately, the source is too specified and does not offer insight into a substantial enough time frame that my research encompasses.

Related Research Guides:

Taylor, Izabella. “Hebrew and Yiddish Language and Literature Research Guide.” – Rosenthal Library, Queens College, CUNY. CUNY Queens, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2012..
-The CUNY Queens guide provides a significant amount of related book, periodicals, articles and web sources that are effective supplemental sources. It also provides information on how to navigate the guide and which sources are more effective than others. Some of the relevant sources include writing on the History of Yiddish Literature, Yiddish Language and Folklore as well as a dictionary that contains popular Yiddish phrases and terms.