A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany

By Aya Elyada | Go to book overview

Six
The Thieves’ Jargon
Yiddish and Jewish Criminality

The image of Yiddish as the Jews’ “secret language,” serving them as a means to conceal their dishonest dealings and deceitful intentions, was significantly reinforced by the fact that Yiddish was not only the language of the Jewish merchants but also the language of the large Jewish underclass of paupers, vagrants, beggars, and criminals. The linguistic affinity between Yiddish and Rotwelsch, the secret language of the German underworld, further contributed to the association of Yiddish with criminality. This gave rise to “criminological” research on the Jewish language, usually, but not always as a by-product of the interest in Rotwelsch.

Poverty was a grave social problem in early modern Germany, and the Jews, as historian Derek Penslar notes, “were among the poorest of the poor”:

As a result of the expulsions from the empire in the 15th and 16th cen-
turies, the percentage of the poor among German Jewry increased dra
matically, and there emerged a class of impoverished vagrants known
as Schalantjuden, or, in Hebrew, archei-u-farchei (flotsam and jetsam).
In the 1500s, this group was relatively small, but by the end of the next
century, Jewish vagrancy had become a serious social problem for the
Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia.
High taxes, restricted settlement rights and occupational choices, natu-
ral increase, and waves of refugees fleeing persecution in Poland cre-
ated a mass of what came to be known from the late 1600s onward as
Betteljuden [beggar Jews]. In the mid-1700s, as many as two-thirds of
the sixty thousand Jews in Germany lived in poverty.1

The desperate economic situation induced growing numbers of Jews to engage in criminal activity focusing on crimes against property: pocketpicking, burglary, theft, and disposing of stolen goods. The fact that

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