Discourses in Dying Languages: My Story With Yiddish
A report on the talk by Miriam Isaacs at the National Museum of Language
by Tom Braslavsky, National Capital Language Resource Center

On January 25, the National Museum of Language hosted University of Maryland Professor Miriam Isaacs. as part of the Marian M. Jenkins Memorial Speaker Series. A Visiting Assistant Professor of Yiddish in the Jewish Studies Program of the University's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish studies, Isaacs spoke about her family history and how she became interested in the Yiddish language. Born in a post-war refugee camp in Germany in 1946, Isaacs grew up in Montreal with parents who exclusively spoke Yiddish at home. Isaacs recounted a story of how one day, when she was 10, her father explained why it was important for her to know the language.

"He told me that that I was an intelligent girl and that I could learn English well anyhow," Isaacs said. "But if I didn’t speak Yiddish at home, I wouldn’t know where I came from."

Since that conversation, Isaacs said, she has had an interest in sustaining the Yiddish language and other fading languages of ethnic minorities. Isaacs gave a brief history of Yiddish in modern times, starting from the late 19th Century. She said that as the Enlightenment spread throughout Europe, Ashkenazi Jews (Jews living in Europe) underwent large and quick changes in lifestyle, transforming from a life focused on religion and community to one much more cosmopolitan.

"Jewish thinkers were foremost in understanding the implications of modernity, both good and bad," Isaacs said. "Included in their ranks were the first linguists and anthropologists."

With Modernity, Yiddish had been transformed from a vernacular into a sophisticated language of literature and theater. There were and still are Yiddish authors, Yiddish newspapers and Yiddish plays. Yiddish was also involved with significant political movements in Europe and the United States.

Isaacs expanded on the question of whether Yiddish is a "dying language". She said that its position as the primary language of most Jews was permanently damaged by the Holocaust, in which 5 million of the 6 million Jews killed were Yiddish speakers.

Isaacs also recounted the decades-long 20th century struggle between Yiddish and Hebrew, a struggle to define the linguistic identity of Jews. Hebrew speakers often considered Yiddish to be a remnant of the Diaspora – a language of persecution that did not deserve pride. Yiddish speakers, on the other hand, wanted to retain a part of the spoken and literary heritage of the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe.

Now, while Hebrew has become the native language for millions of Jews in Israel, Isaacs said that Yiddish is the primary language for only some tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Hasidim. However, the language is taught at some universities, and there exist a number of organizations that try to preserve Yiddish.

Isaacs also brought up the interesting fact of non-Jews learning and speaking Yiddish. On a Yiddish program in Lithuania that Isaacs attended last summer, about half of the students and teachers were not Jewish.

"While Yiddish has gone out of fashion for many Jews," Isaacs said, "quite a few non-Jews have begun to study it."

In Poland, Germany, Lithuania and other European countries, there are Yiddish-centered cultural institutions and university courses in the language. Isaacs said that one interpretation she has for this desire to study Yiddish is as a "gesture of good will."

"There’s an awareness that Yiddish was brutally destroyed in Europe, and that this is a way of showing in a very meaningful way a respect for the language," Isaacs said.

Isaacs also discussed how her involvement in the preservation of Yiddish has endeared her to the struggles of other people trying to preserve their languages. She described the pains of a native Lakota teacher who was interested in the revival of the Hebrew language.

"When I described the process," Isaacs said, "That it had taken dedicated effort for the better part of a century to bring Hebrew to where it is as a modern language, he became disheartened. Lakota, he told me, did not have that much time."

Isaacs said that too many schools were not interested in preserving the languages of their minority cultures, and merely tried to make everyone learn English. She saw a similar assimilationist attitude during a recent trip to Mexico. While there, Isaacs met a family of indigenous Zapotec speakers in Tenochtitlan. Isaacs said a man told her how his children were embarrassed to speak Zapotec, and that the parents have to send them to a Spanish-language school in another city, Oaxaca.

"What really struck me was the sense of shame on the part of the kids – that they’re embarrassed by their parents, and how frustrated the parents are that this is the reality that they have," Isaacs said.

In Mexico City, Isaacs visited a Spanish-language Jewish school that also teaches Hebrew and Yiddish. When the students at the school asked her why they should be learning Yiddish, Isaacs responded that having its own language gives a group a feeling of peoplehood and shared heritage.

"It occurred to me that when we speak a different language, it’s how you define ‘us’ and ‘them’. And when your own language becomes a ‘them’ language, then you’ve cut yourself off from prior generations – in attitude as well as in comprehensibility," Isaacs said. "People are perfectly capable of being multilingual… But in order to keep multilingualism going, one must give those languages a purpose."