Despite reports of its demise, Yiddish is alive, though perhaps its muscles are weakened due to diminished use.
However, if Miranda Cooper has anything to say about it, Yiddish will make a strong recovery, starting with her generation.
Cooper, 23, a native Pittsburgher who grew up in Fox Chapel, is a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. The center is a nonprofit working to preserve Yiddish culture and literature by rescuing books and supporting translation of books into Yiddish, thereby making it accessible to the larger Jewish community. The center also offers educational classes, museum exhibits and cultural programs.
Cooper manages the center’s Translation Fellowship Program, the primary means by which it supports new literary translations. She also has an opportunity to study the spoken and written Yiddish language. Also, the center publishes a quarterly magazine, and Cooper works on its annual literary translation issue.
A recent graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, Cooper majored in English with a concentration in Jewish Studies. It was when she took a class in her sophomore year called “Ethics of Jewish American Fiction” that she came to realize that the language used by some of the writers she was studying — Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer — was heavily inflected by Yiddish.
Cooper said she had an epiphany that everything that was true about underlying Yiddish in American Jewish culture was part of her heritage. “These protagonists who were Yiddish-speaking and the way they spoke English, the experiences they had, the way they viewed the world, the Jews they became, these were my stories as well,” said Cooper. These realizations piqued her interest in delving deeper into Yiddish.
After graduation, she took some intensive classes at Columbia College as well as a summer program at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which Cooper calls “the biggest, oldest and most important Yiddish academic institution in New York City.”
Cooper said that prior to World War II, more than 11 million Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, whether they were religious or secular. In the decade or so following the war, that number dipped to around 3 million. Though the Holocaust played a large role in its dissipation, shedding the Yiddish language was common, as Jewish immigrants attempted to integrate and assimilate. “Yiddish was a marker of the Old World,” she said, adding that another reason was the resurgence of modern Hebrew in connection with Zionism.
Like many Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora, Cooper’s great-grandparents did not pass along the Yiddish language to their children, so that by the time Cooper was growing up, the only Yiddish that remained in her household were occasional words or phrases, including a set of Yiddish refrigerator magnets. In fact, as a child, she didn’t realize that some of the words her mother inserted in language, such as tchotchke to mean knickknack, or schmutz to mean dirt, were Yiddish words. But once she started studying the language and hearing it in everyday usage, it confirmed her sense of purpose in studying Yiddish and how important Yiddish was to American literature.
Today, in addition to many Chasidic communities, there are some other enclaves of Jews who speak Yiddish, with a rising interest in those wishing to learn. “In the past decade, there has been a big resurgence, a big Yiddish revival, as more and more people like me have discovered it was their missing piece of identity. Yiddish is a tangible way to have a cultural Jewish identity,” she said.
For anyone interested in learning Yiddish (aside from taking in-person classes at select New York institutions), there are online classes, such as those offered by YIVO, as well as through the Workmen’s Circle. “Because the Yiddish studies world is small, teachers aren’t just adjuncts; these are the best Yiddish teachers in the country,” she said. Also, the language learning app DuoLingo is in the process of adding Yiddish to its platform of languages.
Perhaps one of the side bonuses of learning Yiddish is gaining an understanding of those infamous Yiddish curses, many of which are amusingly reminiscent of yesteryear. One of her favorites is: Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd! Translation: May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground!
When she completes her one-year fellowship, Cooper is considering graduate school in Yiddish, Jewish studies or comparative literature. With Cooper’s love of American Jewish literature, it is no wonder that her dream is to become a Yiddish literary translator. She hopes to make a dent in some of the more than 39,000 Yiddish books in print that have not yet been translated into English, noting that to date, only about 2 percent of all Yiddish literature has thus far been translated. She is also a freelance writer and has contributed to Tablet magazine.
Cooper acknowledges that it is up to her generation to keep Yiddish from becoming extinct and that it is her dream to raise her future children bilingually. “It’s a heavy burden to carry, and I hope that I can carry it, but I don’t see any other way. If we care about Ashkenazi culture and modern American Jews, then we have to care about Yiddish. If we’re prepared to let a language die, it’s like letting a culture die.” pjc
Hilary Daninhirsch can reached at