Yiddish: New York’s Lost Language

I’ve heard it said that every language in the world is spoken in Queens, New York. While this may not be a proven fact, hang out on the streets of Jackson Heights or Woodside and you might get an inkling of how it could be true. I like to count languages when I’m on the street, waiting for someone or I try and identify as many distinct sounding languages as I can in a given time when I’m on the bus. Twelve in ten minutes is my best. New York is the great melting pot, the gateway to the United States, where the Statue of Liberty welcomes all of those diverse speakers to begin a new life.

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Even here though where the language bank is constantly being replenished, some still shrink and disappear. German was once so prevalent in the city that over 50% of the population spoke it. Believe it or not, Old Dutch was as common in the Bronx as Spanish is today, even Gaelic speakers in the Five Points as regular as Cantonese in China town. Today is all about Yiddish. Read on to learn more about where it comes from and its presence today.

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Language comes and goes

By the early 20th century Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe came to New York in droves, bringing with them a few things that became quintessentially New York: bagels and cream cheese, comedic theater, a proclivity for arguing, and the Yiddish language. By 1910, the seven Yiddish language newspapers had a daily readership of over 500,000 people! There was a Yiddish theater district where klezmer music played night and day. The lower east side, gentrified now to look like any city, everywhere once bought, sold, and thrived on Yiddish.

The origins of Yiddish are contested within the scholarly community. It is generally agreed on though that it came about in or around the mid-12th century when Jews who spoke a romanticized (as in from the Latin-based languages Old French or Old Italian) Hebrew or Aramaic migrated into the Germanic language area. This old Yiddish schismed into Western and Eastern Yiddish while all versions retained the Semitic vocabulary needed for religious purposes.

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Yiddish took heavy blows as a language around the same time. Israel formed and took on Hebrew and Arabic as its official languages. World War II and the Holocaust almost eliminated the 10 million Yiddish in Europe. While in New York, even as it speakers continued to fill out the tenements of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, it was abandoned by first generation immigrants who wanted to fit in to the post-war USA.

Oy Vey

Some Yiddish words are so enmeshed in the New York patois that residents use them without giving any thought to their origins. Words like bubbe (grandmother), chutzpah (confidence, guile), mentsh  or mensch (a stand-up guy, the origin of Superman is from an earlier comic called UbberMensch), nosh (to eat), spiel (a long, drawn out story) are in common use all across the country thanks to directors like Mel Brooks and TV producers like Larry David.

The American entertainment industry owes a huge debt to Yiddish. Not only were many of the first writers, directors, and producers of films Yiddish speakers, but many of the first scripts were adapted from Yiddish theater and the 4-4 joke telling cadence that is the backbone of American humor was born in Yiddish; think Henny Youngman, Alan King, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jeffrey Ross in hilarious chronological order.

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Nowadays you don’t hear Yiddish on the streets in New York so much outside of the large Hasidic area in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but it lives on worldwide in small strongholds in countries as diverse as Australia, Sweden, and Mexico.  In the Tri-state area though even a goy can kvetch like a yenta about a klutz who got schmutz on his suit without sounding mishigas, capiche?