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 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
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. …