The History of Yiddish

A page from the Worms Maḥzor, 1272. This page contains t…

Hebrew, also known as “the holy tongue,” was not used for everyday communication between Jews in Eastern Europe. It and another ancient language, Aramaic, were used for study and prayer, and for official records and documents. Highly educated Jews also used Hebrew in written correspondence.

It was Yiddish that served as the vernacular language of Ashkenazic Jews (Central and East European Jews whose origins were in German-speaking territories known as Ashkenaz). Yiddish was also used for some types of popular literature, especially bible translations for women,who until the twentieth century usually did not receive formal schooling. Yiddish was also the basis for personal and family names.

In the nineteenth century, intellectuals, including adherents of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, began to see Yiddish as the best vehicle for disseminating their ideas among ordinary Jews. A modern Yiddish literature, press, and theater developed. In 1908, scholars, writers, educators, and political activists who sought to raise the prestige of Yiddish relative to Hebrew gathered for an international conference in Czernowitz and proclaimed Yiddish the national language of the Jewish people.

By this time, the linguistic situation of European Jews was undergoing great change. Increasing numbers of Jews were educated in Russian, German, and other languages of the countries in which they lived. This process intensified as the century wore on. On the eve of World War II, however, there were still millions whose main language remained Yiddish.

After the war, Europe was no longer a center of Jewish life and Yiddish declined. Many Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to the United States and Israel, eager to assimilate, did not teach the language to their children. More recently it has enjoyed a small resurgence, especially among religious Jews. Today there are an estimated one million Yiddish speakers worldwide, mostly in the United States and Israel.

Read more about Yiddish.

Children's Literature

This slideshow showcases some of the great Jewish illustrators and writers of children's literature.

SLIDESHOW: Children's Literature

Fun with Language

“The Messiah Has Arrived.” Satirical postcard with a car…

Jewish authors have never been afraid to poke fun at their fellows, whether in parody, satire, or riddles. Among the most famous examples of such self-deprecating humor are the stories of the wise men of Chelm, a city of fools. While such a legend is common to many European folklores, Jewish writers imbued the city of Chełm with their own brand of wit, spinning tales around outlandish acts of stupidity. In one story, a town resident asks the rabbi, “Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” The rabbi snaps back, “The moon, of course! It shines when we really need it.”

A number of Yiddish writers, including Yitskhok Leybush Peretz and Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, the founder of modern Hebrew and Yiddish artistic prose who used the pseudonym Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Mendele the Bookseller), incorporated the folkloric themes of the Chelm tales into their own humorous and satiric stories. In Mendele’s Yiddish version of Don Quixote, The Travels of Benjamin the Third (1878), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appear as two small-town Jewish fools, traveling through Poland on their way to Israel.

Read more about Humor.