Yiddish, Nearly Lost, Is Reviving Even in Israel, Where Hebrew Is Prescribed, the Jews' Vernacular Tongue Regains Usage

Article excerpt

A SYNCOPATED rhythm pounds behind an electric guitar in what sounds like a concert of modern music. But the words are an anachronism: They are sung in Yiddish. Mendi Kahane, a young Israeli composer, has launched a style until now unheard of: Yiddish rap.

"Yiddish is very much alive. Millions of people still speak it. I'm not trying to revive a dead language," says the musician, who also studies Yiddish at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "I see it as looking at a living thing and trying to become more alive myself by using it."

Mr. Kahane's creation is symptomatic of a renewal of interest in Israel - and in the rest of the world - in a language that was thought to be disappearing over the past 50 years. An increasing number of theater and film festivals and concerts are trying to save one of the Jewish world's richest heritages. At the same time, hundreds of students at universities in England, France, the United States, and Israel are learning about a 1,000-year-old culture that played a crucial role in preserving the patrimony of European Judaism.

Yiddish will probably never fully recover the status and vitality it enjoyed before World War II, when the majority of the 11 million European Jews then alive were using it daily. Specialists cannot give precise figures of the number of Yiddish speakers around the world today. "But we know that Yiddish is still a language of communication particularly in many ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, Antwerp, Paris, and in Israel," says Alain Alvarez Pereir, who studies oral Jewish languages for the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Yiddish carries a people's history. Born in the late 9th and 10th centuries in the Rhine region of Lotharingia (a former kingdom that included the Alsace-Lorraine area of modern France), Yiddish's evolution testifies to the fate of the European Jewish communities throughout 1,000 years.

The steps in the formation of Yiddish, a so-called language of fusion, correspond to the major events, persecutions, and migrations that affected Jews. Yiddish began as a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, which remained the Jews' holy languages, and the dialects of the cities where they were then settled: mainly Germanic languages in south Germany and Romance languages in northern France and Italy.

Starting in the 13th century and the massive migrations toward the East, some elements of Slavic languages started to influence Yiddish. Five centuries later, Yiddish was spoken from Switzerland to the Baltic Sea and from Alsace to Russia.

IN the 19th century, pogroms, anti-Semitism, and hard economic times brought about new waves of emigration from Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jews went to North and South America, taking their language with them. Despite a period of intense literary activity in the 1920s and '30s, however, Yiddish seemed doomed to disappear. It was largely overwhelmed by brutal repression in the former Soviet Union, by assimilation in the American melting pot, and by annihilation in the Holocaust. In 1948, Yiddish was spoken by only 5 million to 6 million people.

Paradoxically, Israel dealt Yiddish its final blow. Yiddish lost the language battle in which it was pitted against Hebrew. The fight was particularly fierce within the Zionist movement over the choice of a language for the Jewish people and its future state. …