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Yiddish: Celebration of life, language of remembrance

Yiddish enthusiasts around the world are kvelling and plotzing at the revival of their favorite language in recent popular culture. But what makes Yiddish so unique and exciting?

Many people are gaining extra skills during the coronavirus crisis — discovering new prowess in the kitchen, performing improvements on the home, or simply perfecting the act of washing hands. Some are using the extra time they’ve got on their hands to learn a foreign language, using remote learning tools, language apps or just dusting off old instruction books.

One language that has been enjoying some growing interest is Yiddish, which was starting to rear its head in popular culture even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus. The renewed popularity of klezmer music in recent years and the penetration of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism in popular culture with TV shows like Unorthodox and Shtisel have made Yiddish something of a cool language — even a cult language — to know, attracting people from all walks of life a thousand years after its first recorded use.

Netflix Series Unorthodox (Netflix/Anika Molnar)

The Netflix series Unorthodox gave a glimpse into a language, which no longer is heard every day in Europe

Read more: Socalled: A rapper sings Yiddish folk songs

The Yiddish language is very expressive, full of interjections that show how the speaker feels. Because of its roots in Middle High German, for many Germans, Yiddish is at once strange and familiar, and that combination is fascinating,” Alan Bern, Founding Director of Yiddish Summer Weimar and the Other Music Academy in Weimar, told DW.

“A similar sense of strange and familiar is there for many Jews whose grandparents or parents spoke Yiddish but didn’t pass it on to them. For many people, exploring Yiddish is a way to deeply explore their own sense of identity.”

The sound of music – and much more

Bern, a composer and musician, has been devoted to sharing the Yiddish language and culture with contemporary European audiences for 20 years. His annual “Yiddish Summer Weimar” festival has grown to one of Europe’s leading event exploring the richness and importance of Yiddish today.

“After World War II, people tended to associate the city of Weimar with Buchenwald [ed: the Nazi concentration camp]. So, when the city was named European Capital of Culture in 1999, it invited my band, Brave Old World, to give a short workshop on klezmer music — partly to convey a more positive Jewish presence and message. In a few years it grew into Yiddish Summer Weimar,” Bern explains.

Yiddish Summer Weimar l | Alan Bern and Sveta Kundish (Yulia Kabakova)

Alan Bern (l.), seen here with singer Sveta Kundish, says his love for Yiddish culture is his driving force

By that time, Germany had become “one of the most important centers for Yiddish music,” Bern stresses, saying that it was chiefly through music that Yiddish has reclaimed its position as a European language over the past two decades:

“Unlike Jewish audiences in the US, German audiences in those days had few preconceptions about Yiddish music but a great interest in it,” he tells DW. 

“Those are great conditions for artists to develop creatively. It was not always easy, but artists don’t run away from pain. They run away from boredom.”

Yiddish Summer Weimar (Shendl Copitman)

Musicians from all over the world descend unto the annual Yiddish Summer Weimar

A language that survived death

Twenty years on, Yiddish Summer Weimar still attracts people from over 20 countries each season, and will even hold events in 2020 while observing social distancing measures. According to Bern, the mission of the month-long festival is to create an immersive experience that provides “a doorway to the complexity and relevance of Yiddish culture for past, present and future.” 

Some linguists and language enthusiasts fear that Yiddish could in fact be a dying language, with only around half a million native speakers estimated. Before World War II, there were an estimated 13 million, and 85% of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust spoke Yiddish as a native tongue.

Yiddish prayer book from the 13th century (picture-alliance/AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

While considered a Germanic language, Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet as seen in this prayer book from the 13th century

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