It is 5 hours before Shabbos. I am staying in the capital of Lithuania: Vilnius. I call it Vilna because I am a Jew and I came here to study the Yiddish language. This language is over one thousand years old. Today, most of the people who speak Yiddish as a vernacular language are what many people call “ultra-Orthodox Jews.” They speak Yiddish because it was the language of their East European ancestors. It’s vernacular use separates sanctified Hebrew language from the profane realities in Bnei Brak and Brooklyn. They also speak Yiddish because no one really speaks it but them. It is their linguistic sandbar. The big irreverent world we inhabit won’t even want to dock at their shores if they got theyselves caught in that Yiddishe sandy muck before they even went walking onto modest Marcy Avenue. It’s Greek to me.
So many think that Yiddish is funny, ugly, weak or simply dead. It is funny. It can be ugly and beautiful, strong and limp. The world that spoke it was destroyed.
Now I’m living in a different insular world, where Yiddish is academic. It’s studied by people looking for their roots alongside Jews and non-Jews who swear they have only academic, often scientific, interest in the language and culture of East European Jews. I sit in classes where the word “Davenen,” to pray, is explained to bright eyed Polish college students straight off the sidewalks of Warsaw. Their eyes light up when a small Polish village is mentioned in a story. They, unlike the Jewish students from America and Israel, know exactly where it is and how to get there. The Jewish students read “Hislayvus” as “Hitlavut” and are corrected. In this world, Hitlavut, the modern Hebrew pronunciation, is simply mistaken. Some of those around me are studying Yiddish because they are looking for a meaningful connection to Jewish tradition without having to deal with, as many see it, the responsibility, chauvinism and insularity of religious life. An observant Jew is most certainly a Jew. A Yiddish speaking Jew then must certainly be a Jew. One wonderful girl grew up in a Bundist youth group in Australia. When our Czech-Jewish teacher asserts that Yiddish is a true language because it created a literature, she accuses him of having a Eurocentric attitude towards Jews. Here, I can understand how to read and understand the word “illuyi-kop.” It means, sort of, a “genius-head,” a remarkably sharp mind. That’s enough. To mention that my grandfather’s brother had one is irrelevant. I think it could make the non-Jews here feel alienated.
There are some things I think this place is missing. There is no component of the program that deals with the meaning of Yiddish in a communal setting. There is little public talk about people’s motivations for studying it, about the relationship between east European gentiles in the program and the Jews in the program. There is little talk of art and Yiddish. There are almost no opportunities to learn about the spiritual lives of East European Jews in Yiddish. There is no emphasis on popular culture. I get the sense that Yiddish is just a language. It really isn’t, and a young Jewish man walking around what was once hailed as the Jerusalem of Lithuania can feel the breadth and depth of this entire civilization. Will university gates and fortified ultra-orthodox shores forever guard this language? I hope not. It could be ours as well.