For about a third of the past 1,000 years, 66 percent of the Jewish population spoke Yiddish, yet the “mama lushen” — the mother tongue of Jews — appeared consigned to the dustbin of history, especially after the Holocaust and when Israel decided on modern Hebrew as its national language.
Yet Yiddish continues to flourish in pockets. Many of the language’s words have become part of the English lexicon, from bagel and knish to kvetch and schmooze. In the 1970s, the television show “Laverne & Shirley” introduced the world to schlemiel (an inept, clumsy person) and schlimazel (a very unlucky person).
Rabbi Art Vernon, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaaray Shalom in West Hempstead, said that only four or five of the synagogue’s congregants speak Yiddish, but he believes that interest in the language still exists because of its sense of nostalgia.
“There’s a fondness and there’s a recollection that this is a part of our culture and tradition,” Vernon said. “But the American Jewish community is a monolingual community that speaks English.”
Vernon, 72, grew up in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, the same neighborhood as Jacob Glatstein, an American poet and literary critic who wrote in Yiddish. Vernon said he doesn’t really speak the language, but he understands phrases and the appropriate ways to use them.
“My parents knew enough where they used it as kind of a secret language to talk about us kids,” Vernon recalled. “But the little Yiddish that they knew, we caught on and figured out what they were talking about.”
Yiddish was the first language for Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, of the Chabad of the Five Towns. “Yiddish is my mother tongue — I was raised talking Yiddish, and my father only speaks Yiddish,” he said, adding that when Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the founder of the Chabad movement, spoke, it was in Yiddish. Wolowik also noted that both times he has visited Russia, all the senior citizens he talked with spoke Yiddish.
“More than anything else, learning Yiddish is like another bridge to connect us to our heritage and the Jewish traditions,” said Rabbi Nochem Tenenboim, of the Chabad of Hewlett. “After all, Yiddish means the Jewish language.” The Hewlett Chabad occasionally offers Yiddish-related programs taught by Rebbetzin Rivkie Tenenboim, Tenenboim said.
Connecting with people and their memories is what Rabbi Shimon Stillerman, of the Chabad of Islip, said happened after a Yiddish program at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Public Library last November 2018. “It was an amazing response,” he said. “The part I most enjoyed was the reinterest, the rebirth in the language from those who were detached from it for a while.”
From there, Stillerman established the Long Island Yiddish Club this year. Armed with a 40-page guidebook that he said remains a work in progress, Stillerman is helping to reignite people’s interest in a language created in the 9th century.
“I thought maybe I’ll meet a couple of other Jews who have a similar interest in the language,” he said. “It ended up that there were people who came who weren’t even Jewish, and their connection was growing with neighbors and friends who spoke a little bit of Yiddish.”
That was the case for Ellen Edelstein, a retired teacher in Brentwood, who Stillerman called a “macher,” Yiddish for an important person. “To feel a connection with your family,” Edelstein said in explaining why she joined the Yiddish Club. “You remember stories your Uncle Eddie told you and you thought you understood, but you really didn’t. I listen to my Mickey Katz records with a new ear.” Katz was a Jewish comedian and musician. The actor Joel Grey is his son, and the actress Jennifer Grey is his granddaughter.
Yiddish, according to the rabbis, is a distinct language. “There are expressions that are expressed most uniquely in Yiddish,” Wolowik said, adding that there is a warmth associated with the language.
“There is something very, very nurturing about Yiddish,” Stillerman said, noting that the Israel TV show “Shtisel,” now available on Netflix, did justice to the language. “To explain one word in Yiddish, you need a paragraph in English,” Stillerman said. Both noted that the language has fostered generational bonds.
Vernon added that Yiddish is slowly becoming a part of American culture.
“It’s part of the phenomenon called acculturation,” he said. “It’s a [fond] memory of their native culture, but it’s not really practiced. It’s not a phenomenon that’s unique to Jews, because it exists from one society to another.”
After teaching more than 100 people in five different places, Stillerman said he is looking to expand his program. “The Long Island Yiddish Club is the best thing to happen to Yiddish since chocolate babka,” he said, comparing the group to the tasty dessert.
Nakeem Grant contributed to this story.