Thoughts from Vilnius: a Ramble

A plaque on a plaster wall reads "Vilniaus Jidis Institutas."For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Vilnius (better known to Ashkenazi Jews as Vilna or Vilne), Lithuania, studying in a month-long Yiddish intensive. Most of the students in the program are in History or Jewish Studies PhD programs; a couple of weeks ago, when everyone was asking everyone else why they decided to come do this, I seemed to be the only one who fumbled for an answer. Professionally, I think it’ll look good on my resume, especially if I’m up for a cataloging job or if the library needs a departmental liaison, and I’m hoping that a good command of Yiddish may even someday land me a job in a Judaica library or as a subject specialist.  At the same time, though, I suspect that that’s kind of a long shot. So why am I doing this? Why am I paying all this money to study an endangered – perhaps dying – language? Every time I feel myself getting really excited about Yiddish, every time I find myself grinning because I went a whole two sentences without puzzling over a clause, I’m jerked back by this question.

I suppose, though, that I’ve studied much more widely-spoken languages – French and Spanish, mainly, and a teensy bit of Japanese – and it’s not like I have much of a chance to use those. French will be useful next time I travel to a French-speaking country, and when exactly is that going to happen? I live in Los Angeles and I barely ever speak Spanish, which is pathetic, but a fact. In the end, in my particular life with my particular circumstances, I want to use my French and Spanish the same way I want to use my Yiddish: to read literature. Despite the wealth of small presses operating in the US, the literary market often feels claustrophobic, with a few dozen writers drowning out everyone else (is anyone else absolutely sick of these 30-under-30 and 40-under-40 lists? I am, although jealousy is probably a significant factor), and I like the idea of being able to tap into the literature written in other languages.

And for this, Yiddish will be quite useful.  This week I reached the point where I can read Sholem Aleichem, very slowly, with frequent trips to the dictionary.

I want to produce Yiddish literature, too. I want to write in Yiddish! We write a brief composition most days for homework, and I’m getting more and more comfortable expressing myself, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can pick and choose my words, confident of the nuances I know they’ll create. (A significant milestone: our professor asked us to write about whether mankind is good at heart, and I struggled all evening and talked about Buddhism and desire and suffering and the character Khonen from The Dybbuk who starts out as a good yeshiva bokher but then begs Satan for gelt so he can marry Leah, and I turned in my paper convinced that it was all garbled gibberish but then got it back with only minor grammar corrections and “gut” written at the bottom. Of course, now that I write this, it occurs to me to wonder whether the paper was so bad that the professor didn’t know what to do with it.  No, no.  Surely not.)

I know producing new literature is even more of a pipe dream than working with a Yiddish collection is, though, because even if a significant readership wanted to learn Yiddish, not many people have the time to get good enough at it that reading in Yiddish would be in any way relaxing or enjoyable. But still, I think about it. Writing in Yiddish, rather than Hebrew or Polish or Russian or what have you, was for Y. L. Peretz and other Yiddish writers a very conscious, very political choice, a way of elevating the language, and the idea of helping to revive that tradition appeals to me. A friend of mine and I are already tossing around ideas for a bilingual Yiddish/English zine.  If nothing else, I could drop a few copies at the campus Hillel and see if anything happens.

description: a sign reading "Uzupio Res Publika," with several translations including Yiddish.Can a post-vernacular language like Yiddish become a living presence in Ashkenazi culture, even though people don’t speak it casually? During my layover in Dublin, I took in all the Irish street signs and ads and tram stops and imagined a community in which Yiddish is part of the landscape. But what, I wondered, would this look like? Then I visited Užupis, a neighborhood in Vilnius that a few years ago proclaimed itself an independent republic, and I saw that their multi-lingual border sign and constitution are translated into Yiddish. Yiddish was there, part of the landscape. And I felt a little hope.

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31 Responses to Thoughts from Vilnius: a Ramble

  1. This is a lovely post. I wish I had time to say more, because there’s a lot to say about it, but I don’t. So I will just say again that it is lovely.

  2. 2
    chingona says:

    I also enjoyed this post, especially because my father’s father’s father’s father hails from Vilnius, but I know that I’ll probably never go there. I’ve always found learning languages to be its own reward. I learned a rather obscure Amerindian language when it was in the Peace Corps, and it’s not very useful outside that country. (I’ve actually been made fun of for listing it on my resume.) But when I’m learning a language, I can feel my mind growing and stretching. And when that sentence comes out fully formed for the first time … it’s an amazing feeling.

  3. 3
    Shoshie says:

    This post made me smile.

    My grandmother came to the States from Lithuania when she was very young. Yiddish was her first language. Some of my favorite childhood lullabies are in Yiddish (Ofen Pripitchik and Tumbalalaika) and I totally plan on singing them to my future children. I don’t speak more than a handful of words of Yiddish– I’m much more familiar with modern Hebrew and even Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew– but it’s part of my heritage, so I cling to it.

  4. 4
    Anonymous says:

    Try coming to Israel sometime where Yiddish is the vernacular of many communities. Their reasons for using Yiddish include: increased control/isolation of women from the mainstream (only men get to learn some Hebrew), contempt for “modernity” and its accompanying openness of information and immodesty, separation from Sephardim, who are perceived as dirty and stupid, and the enforcement of a fantasy that they are living under the harsh conditions of European exile (hence that they call police officers, who wish to stop them from rioting, “Nazis”).

    Yiddish is not good or bad in and of itself – no language is – but it has this really cute and nostalgic reputation that doesn’t really acknowledge how Yiddish is and has been used as a tool of oppression.

  5. 5
    Ben David says:


    Try coming to Israel sometime where Yiddish is the vernacular of many communities.

    That’s the only part of Anonymous’ post that is accurate.

    S/he is referring to the “haredim” (AKA “ultra” orthodox). And there isn’t a man, woman, or child in these communities who is not thoroughly fluent in modern and biblical flavors of Hebrew – in fact, given the protean nature of Yiddish, you may not understand many words that have been borrowed from modern Israeli slang.

    This community has also worked with major Israeli unis to develop courses that let women study everything from computer programming to medicine and law – including daycare, breast-pump breaks, flexible course hours, and other mother-friendly features that feminists would ‘kvell’ about if we were discussing an aid program in Sri Lanka instead of (gasp) Judeo-Christians… Indeed, most folks like Anonymous complain out the other side of their mouths that “the haredim send their wives out to work.” I guess consistency matters less than winning the sound bite…

    Israeli police are only called “Nazis” when they do things that evoke the Nazis – like several well-documented instances in which Jews were arbitrarily beaten and Jewish sites disrespected, and when police turned on Jewish victims instead of tackling Arab aggressors in Jerusalem. A politicized police force leaves itself open to such criticisms.

    But yes – they are likely the only community left in which Yiddish is a living language.

  6. 6
    Ben David says:

    BTW – I’m a college educated American “modern orthodox” Jew who has lived in Israel for over a decade, and worked with male and female haredi programmers in Israeli hi-tech… And you, “Anonymous”?

  7. 7
    chingona says:

    @ anonymous … for me, that’s all the more reason to be glad someone is keeping Yiddish alive outside the charedi community.

  8. 8
    Eva says:

    Julie – thank you so much!

  9. 9
    Hershele Ostropoler says:

    I wish I spoke Yiddish (as my handle suggests). I live a block from Borough Park; if I could travel to Vilnius to learn it, I would (also, Lithuanian).

  10. 10
    Robert says:

    Yiddish is pretty cool, and that you can go study it professionally is even cooler. I wouldn’t call it a dying language; WWII certainly gave it a bit of a blow, what with killing off most of the speakers and all, but it seems to be strong in Eastern Europe, declining slowly in the US as Jews assimilate, and growing in Israel.

    You want to talk languages in peril, think of the poor Scots Yiddishers.

    Reading Isaac Asimov as a boy, I was struck by how much great humor there was in Yiddish, and it made me almost try to learn it. But even plain German is a tongue- and mind-twister for me, let alone the bastard offspring of Middle High German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Mixed-Bag-of-Romance-and-Slav, so I’ve had to settle for just knowing a few words. I kvetch because I’ll never be a maven, boychik!

  11. 11
    Krupskaya says:

    I speak Russian, German and French — I feel like if I could just pick up a little Hebrew, I’d get Yiddish as part of the deal. I’d love to learn Hebrew or Yiddish.

  12. 12
    Octi says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever commented at Alas before, but I feel like I have to join in on the Lithuanian love. My great-grandfather was from Vilna, and since my father had a falling out with his dad before I was even born, I never got to know that side of my family. I’m simultaneously drawn to all things Litvish and uncomfortable claiming it as my heritage because I wasn’t raised knowing anything about it.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    If you speak German, my understanding is that a basic grasp of Yiddish is relatively trivial to attain – mostly just some vocabulary. Go for it!

  14. 14
    chingona says:

    My grandmother used Yiddish to understand and be understood when she lived in Germany in the late 50s. (I wish I’d asked her more about how that went down at the time, but Alzheimer’s has taken all of her speech in any language now.)

  15. 15
    Julie says:

    Hi all! There’s a lot I want to say in response to all your comments, but for now I’ll just proselytize a little – if you’d like to learn Yiddish, you should look into local classes. I started with a beginning class at American Jewish University’s extension, and then took a class at the local chapter of Arbeter Ring, which is quite generous with scholarships. There are online classes, too, although those are a little more expensive. I’m a big fan of the pedagogy that most Yiddish instructors seem to adhere to, which doesn’t rely on textbooks so much as songs and poems.

  16. 16
    anonymous says:

    chingona: Huh, great point!

    In light of the comment that I must have said what I did because I’m not Israeli enough, yes, I’m Israeli, and have close hareidi family here.

    Let me describe one of these “Nazi” incidents. Some hareidim have a weekly Shabbat protest by Bikkur Holim hospital. They try to block off the road to prevent cars from driving, despite the fact that it’s by a hospital and that many of the drivers are visibly Arab (not bound by halakhah!). When the police come and take away the roadblocks – nonviolently and without speaking – the Hareidim shout “Nazim!” and spit at them. This is something I’ve seen with my own eyes on three occasions, since I live close by and can hear them screaming “Shabbos!” at the cars.

    I’ve also gotten lost in areas where when I asked for directions, people would not respond to me in Hebrew, only in Yiddish. Hebrew got me curious stares. Now I’m sure a healthy amount of that was faking it up, but the fact remains that these communities discourage Hebrew (which they see as fake, anyway – there’s only “lashon hakoidesh,” which is Ashkenazi-inflected Hebrew, and Yiddish) and encourage Yiddish. I personally know a hareidi woman whose big liberal innovation in her education was that she was instructed in Hebrew rather than Yiddish.

    It’s not nearly all hareidim who do this, and many look down upon such protestors and adamant Yiddish-speakers, but a particular brand of hareidi hasidim is very intent on it. They’re quite real.

    But anyway, this is a derail. Back to your thread on Yiddish!

  17. 17
    Tara says:

    German will get you pretty far towards understanding and speaking Yiddish (depending on the dialect), but it’s still written in Hebrew characters.

  18. 18
    chingona says:

    I would think, though, that it would be easier to pick up the Hebrew alphabet and learn Yiddish if you already knew German than it would be to learn Yiddish if you knew the Hebrew alphabet/Hebrew language but didn’t speak German. It’s a little bit of a hurdle to getting started, but probably not as much of a hurdle as finding time to study and opportunity to practice (and motivation beyond a “gee, that would be neat” type of motivation).

    Tangentially, as a Spanish-speaker, I can understand most of the Ladino I’ve heard (which is, admittedly, not much – a few songs and a few YouTube clips). Poking around the Internet last night for more info on Ladino, I came across the expression “mazal bueno,” which I now intend to use at every opportunity.

  19. “Mazal bueno!” That is just great. I needed the smile that gave me. :)

  20. 20
    Doug S. says:

    I find myself compelled to link to Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.

  21. 21
    Eva says:

    Doug S., I wish you had restrained yourself.

    I was just tolerating the video you posted until I saw the ‘Rabbi’ in the video picking up a penny, complete with a pointer with the word penny in capitol letters and a long shot of the penny in the characters hand for all to see.

    Such a stomach churning stereotype.

    I expect an apology at least,
    and, moderators, deleting the comment might be appropriate as well.

  22. 22
    chingona says:

    I’m pretty sure the penny thing was supposed to be a joke on the stereotype, not a joke promoting the stereotype, though that kind of thing is hard to pull off well, and this was a fairly clumsy example of that.

    I thought the video was kind of inappropriate in this thread, but more for the overly cutesy way it uses Yiddish.

  23. 23
    Hershele Ostropoler says:

    The problem is compounded by the fact that Weird Al isn’t Jewish. Not that it would magically be ok if he were, but it would be a lot clearer that he was mocking the stereotype rather than using it. If he was.

  24. 24
    chingona says:

    The song includes a whole verse about bargains and what-not, but the video isn’t a Weird Al video. It’s some kid doing Weird Al’s song. Though I didn’t realize Weird Al wasn’t Jewish.

  25. 25
    Julie says:

    It’s tricky for me to watch videos while I’m abroad, but I’ll watch it and make a decision as soon as I can.

  26. 26
    Doug S. says:

    There’s no official video for Pretty Fly for a Rabbi, so I went with what looked like the best fan-made one. I guess I should have watched the whole thing before linking to it…

  27. 27
    Brian Barker says:

    Thanks for an interesting article.

    You may be interested to know that the World Esperanto Association now enjoys consultative relations with the United Nations and is using its position to speak out in favour of the need to protect endangered languages.

    See –

  28. 28
    Doug S. says:

    Maybe I should have linked to Mel Brooks as the Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in Blazing Saddles instead?

  29. 29
    Julie says:

    Doug S., I think it’s clear that you don’t mean to offend, but your comments point, I think, to a bigger problem surrounding Yiddish: namely the perception of it as a cutesy, kitschy language and culture with no real emotional depth. A couple of months ago I posted a Yiddish-related Facebook update, and in response one of my friends wrote “Oy vey?”, which was about as appropriate as writing “Howdy, partner!” in response to a post about the English language.

    I don’t mean to lay all this on you personally – like I said, it’s a wider phenomenon (see also Anonymous’s comment). I really wish more people knew about Yiddish poetry and love songs, Ashkenazi avant-garde movements, etc.

  30. 30
    Eva says:

    I just picked up a graphic book called Yiddishkeit edited by Harvey Pekar (who also wrote a number of the entries) and Paul Buhle. Ampersand (AKA Barry Deutsch) wrote and illustrated a cartoon in the collection called The Legend of Zero, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Not only is the book a great read but it is chock full of resources for further reading on the depth of Yiddish-speaking culture.

  31. 31
    chingona says:

    Heard a review of a new documentary about the life and times of Sholem Aleichem (Laughing in the Darkness) on the radio this morning. I couldn’t find the review itself online, but the reviewer talked quite a bit about how Yiddish and Sholem Aleichem himself are both viewed as cutesy and nostalgic (and asked the obvious question – if the shtetl was so great, why did all our grandparents leave?). He said the film shows how Aleichem’s work actually documented a world on the cusp of profound change, was very forward-looking, and helped establish Yiddish as a legitimate language of cultural expression and intellectual endeavors. It sounded interesting.