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GIVEN NAMES, JUDAISM, AND JEWISH HISTORY
4. DEVELOPMENT OF YIDDISH OVER THE AGES
4.2. A CULTURAL AND INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cities in East-Central Europe such as Cracow, Lublin, and Warsaw had become centers of Jewish life, and Yiddish had become the lingua franca of practically all the Jews of Eastern Europe. During the nineteenth century, the number of Jews speaking Yiddish increased greatly.
Since Hebrew was the language of the religious, of the learned Jews, Yiddish had long been scorned as a medium for authors, particularly in Western Europe. There were a few Yiddish translations of religious material for women and for the ignorant, and folk literature appeared in Yiddish between the 15th and 19th centuries, but literature in Yiddish did not begin to flourish until the middle of the 19th century.
The father of modern imaginative Yiddish literature was Shalom Jacob Abramovich (Mendele Moycher Sefarim, 1836-1917). He was followed by the humorist Sholom Rabinovitsh (Sholom Aleichem, 1859-1916), the mystical I.L Peretz (1852-1915), Mordechai Spector (1858-1925), and I.J. Linetzky (1839-1915), who is famous for his autobiographical "Polish Boy". Journals and newspapers in Yiddish began to make an appearance; these, more cultural and educational than most newspapers, furnished an outlet for Jewish authors. Yiddish drama was born when Abraham Goldfadden (1840-1906) founded a theater in Odessa in 1878. S. Ansky (1863-1920), author of "The Dybbuk" and Israel J. Singer (1893-1944), author of "Yoshe Kalb," proved that Yiddish can be a beautiful, as well as a colorful literary medium.
When the great migration of Eastern European Jews to other lands took place between 1881 and 1920, Yiddish spread to almost every corner of the globe. The Yiddish spoken in countries outside of Europe absorbed new words and expressions from each country in which Jews lived, but the absorption of new Yiddish names based in the foreign countries began to slow.
Yiddish journalism owes its fullest development to the immigrant Jews in the United States, where Abraham Cahan founded the Jewish "Daily Forward" in 1897. The most prominent American Yiddish writers were Sholem Asch (1880-1957); David Pinski (1872-1959), playwright, novelist, and short-story writer; Joseph Opatoshu (1887-1955) a master of the short story and famous for his novel "Polish Woods"; H. Leivick, who stressed the ethical value of poetry, and whose drama "The Golem," especially in its Hebrew translation, became a classic of the stage; the poets Abraham Reisen (1876-1953) and Solomon Bloomgarden (Yehoash, 1870-1927); and the lyricist and folklorist Mannie Leib. Famous hebrew writers such as S.S. Frug (1860-1916) and Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) wrote poetry in Yiddish in their youth.
The center of Yiddish cultural life before the First World War was mainly in Eastern Europe. After the massive Jewish emigrations from Eastern Europe and World War I, Yiddish experienced another intense burst of cultural creativity, and the US became another important center since most of the emigrating Jews went to the US. Journals, books, newspapers, and movies exploded upon Jews all over the world. The Yiddish theater flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, and there were over eleven million Yiddish speakers.
However, the destruction of most of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the strict limitations on Jewish culture in the USSR severely diminished the use of Yiddish as a spoken and literary language in Europe. Furthermore, after World War II, the technical, economic, and societal expansion which came about in the US (and other countries), and the accompanying rapid process of integration of American Jewry into society pulled second-generation American Jews away from their Yiddish-immigrant roots, and Yiddish went into a rapid decline in the countries to which European Jews had escaped.
More recently, there has been a revival of Yiddish literary activity in the US, Israel, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and England. YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut), the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Jewish research founded in Vilna in 1925, and now in New York City, has become the academy for the preservation and advancement of Yiddish.
In 1939, right before the Holocaust, there were about eleven million Jews in the world for whom Yiddish was their first language (75 percent of all Jews), but today after fifty percent of them were killed there are only four to five million still speaking Yiddish. Still, Ultra-Orthodox Jews use Yiddish as their everyday vernacular language at home, at work, and in the streets of Jerusalem, New York, and Montreal. Yiddish is still a living language throughout the world.