Oy meets world

Yiddish is a language of exile, a linguistic Darwin’s Finch that, over centuries, evolved into something unique, distinct from its origins or the sum of its parts - a synthesis of Hebrew, German, Aramaic, words appropriated from Slavic and Romance languages.

A century ago, Yiddish was the mame loshn (mother tongue) of between 11 and 13 million Ashkenazi (Eastern European origin] Jews (Sephardic Jews - those from Spain, Portugal, North Africa - had their own language called Ladino). It was exported to the Americas, and to Africa, by those fleeing persecution in the old world and seeking opportunities, freedoms, in the “new”.
It was a proud folk language with a long spoken tradition and a relatively short, but rich, literary one. It was the in-language of the outsider: funny-sad, often impossible to translate, lost in migration.

Even before the Second World War, when two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population (and more than 80 per cent of the world’s Yiddish speakers) were killed, Yiddish had come under attack: it was the vernacular of the Diaspora, both insular and secular, whereas Modern Hebrew was championed as the language of Zionism, pure, unassimilated. Yiddish was also, sometimes, a language of popular (and, therefore, unpopular) politics, spoken by artisans, workers, socialists and communists—

Today, it is estimated there are only between one and three million Yiddish speakers left, the majority of whom are ultra-religious Jews. It is a language that is dying and, yet, not dying; in some quarters, it’s even making something of a comeback, resurrected by musicians, academics, writers, filmmakers and poets.

One of the most exciting contemporary Yiddish projects is the recent translation of two Dr Seuss Books - Di Kats Der Payats (The Cat in the Hat) and Eyn Fish, Tsvey Fish (One Fish, Two Fish) - by American poet, writer and translator Zackary Sholem Berger, the oddly engaging cadence and diction of Dr Seuss’ classics lending itself perfectly to the Yiddish lexicon. Berger has also tackled HA Rey’s “Curious George”, and has so far sold nearly 10 000 copies of all three children’s books.

Keeping the language alive

Berger is “self-taught, with my true teachers being native Yiddish speakers” - a high-school English teacher who was a Yiddish speaker; later a “Yiddishist crowd” at medical school in New York. “Keeping the language alive is being done by everyone who speaks it,” he says. Berger now speaks the language at home, all the time, including to his children. “Yiddish attracts me because, to paraphrase Jeremy Dauber in a recent book, it is the internal yet other.”

Berger has recently released a book of original Yiddish and English poetry, Not in the Same Breath, and says there are “a number of other projects in the works”. 

The “Yiddish cat”, “Yiddish fish” and “Yiddish monkey” books are available online from www.yiddishcat.com. Not in the Same Breath is available on Amazon. 

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