Yiddish As A First Language In Ultra-Orthodox Term Paper


¶ … Yiddish as a first language in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, compared to the use of local vernacular (for example, Hebrew in Israeli-Based Jews, or English in London and New York-Based Jews): in Hasidic Jews, the use of Yiddish is widespread, whereas in other Jewish groups, the local vernacular is more common. This paper discusses the reasons behind these differences, and looks at the functions that Yiddish serves in these Hasidic Jew communities. The paper also looks at the effects of outside pressures has on the use of Yiddish, and on issues of identity in general.

The paper also looks at the religious issues related to the use of Yiddish, and at heritage issues in general. The paper also looks in detail at the use of Yiddish as a cultural isolating mechanism, as a way to create barriers between Hasidic Jews and non-Hasidic Jews, and also Hasidic Jews and non-Jews (gentiles).

The paper also includes reflections upon the issue of the use of Yiddish by Hasidic Jews in more general sociological terms, in terms of language and ethnicity, the use of language to determine group identity, and the use of language to define religious identity.

In terms of the issue of language and ethnicity, and the use of language to define religious identity, Fishman (1997) in his introduction to In Praise of the Beloved Language says that for Hasidic Jews, Yiddish defines their ethnicity, such that Yiddish has sanctity: for the Hasidics, it is where their language and their religion meet. For Hasidic Jews, Yiddish is seen as a holy language, through which God's word is spread.

In addition, Yiddish is seen by the Hasidic Jews as having been hallowed by the Holocaust itself, just as it had previously been hallowed by the veritable saints of every generation, who in previous generations would mix Yiddish exclamations into their Hebrew-Aramaic prayers, and would formulate their innovative interpretations of God's words in Yiddish and Loshn-Koydesh (Fishman, 1997). The Hasidics believe that no other vernacular has absorbed so much of the sanctity of the Torah, and so much of the process of learning the Talmud, as has Yiddish (Fishman, 1997).

In In Praise of the Beloved, Fishman also argues that one's native language offers the people speaking that language instant kinship associations, and that as kinship is the core of ethnicity, that a shared language offers people feelings of being and belonging (to an ethnic group), feelings of being as belonging. He argues that the use of Yiddish by Hasidic Jews serves exactly this purpose, such that it's use - and its exclusive use in some sectors of some Hasidic communities - offers Hasidic Jews a way in which to identify themselves, and to identify themselves as themselves.

Fishman goes further, to argue that the Hasidic children 'absorb Yiddish and Yidishkeyt (the traditional Hasidic Jewish culture) together, the one being the carrier of the other'. As Yiddish is the language of religion, and as Hasidic Jews are so deeply, so practically, such a religious people, such that their culture is defined by their religion, for Hasidic Jews, Yiddish does indeed envelop it's speakers within the Hasidic culture, by its very nature.

This leads us on naturally to the sociology of language, in terms of the essentiality of language to identity, which is illustrated perfectly by the Hasidic Jews. Their culture, their religion, their identity, is encapsulated in the words that make up the Yiddish language, and as it is spoken by Hasidic Jews in their communities, the reinforcement of their religiosity, of their identity, of their culture, grows ever stronger.

In addition to Yiddish serving to reinforce the Hasidic Jews' identity, this quote from a Hasidic leader in Fishman's In Praise of the Beloved Language is interesting: 'Yiddish is out language, and will remain our language it is a bulwark against assimilation." The Hasidic Jews, then, are very much conscious of the importance of their use of Yiddish, indeed, of their need to use Yiddish, as a defence against an attack against their culture, as a defence against any passive slipping away of their culture.

Indeed, it can be seen that Yiddish grows ever stronger, with Yiddish literature and journalism, and theater growing ever more popular. There has been a mighty cultural endeavor to preserve, and also to give life to, the Yiddish language, and to Yiddish arts. Another quote from Fishman's In Praise of the Beloved also...


It is fully alive, deeply rooted and at full strength amongst the people. The time has come to say to ourselves, and the world, Yiddish is our language, and will remain our language" (Shtif, 1920). This quote is oft-repeated amongst Hasidic Jews, and used was for opening speech for the Yivo Institute, an Institute dedicated to the Yiddish language, and to the Hasidic culture.
In addition, it could, and has, been argued that the use of Yiddish is so widespread, because the Hasidic Jews feel that something is owed to the Yiddish language, the language that 'accompanied us from the first breath of life, accompanied the birth pains of our mothers' and in which the 'Martyrs wailed prior to their death in the gas chambers' (Shamir, 1992). Shamir continues, 'This in itself made Yiddish into the holy tongue. We, the remaining generation of Byalistokers must be proud of our rooted Yiddish and exert ourselves to maintain it for as long as we live. The tragedy that has befallen us and our language is inestimable; we must always remember it and remind others of it and hand it (our language) on to coming generations'.

There is therefore, very much a sense of Yiddish as a holy language, in the religious sense, but also as a language made holy by the trials it's speakers have gone through throughout the history of the Hasidic Jews. It is not difficult to imagine that Hasidic Jews feel the immense weight of the need to preserve Yiddish at all costs, for the people who died so that they could live.

Now we shall look in a little more detail at the history of the Yiddish language, and how this itself reinforces the use of Yiddish in Hasidic Jewish communities today. Yiddish is one of the major diaspora vernaculars, alongside Hebrew and Aramaic; in history, Yiddish was not used as the language of worship (this was Loshn-Koydesh, a combination of ancient and Medieval Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic), but rather was used as the language of conversation, of Talmudic Law, of song, of literature. Yiddish has therefore been important to the daily lives of all Jews (not just Hasidic Jews) for centuries, and indeed Yiddish is central to the Jewish way of life.

Yiddish was used, but was not, however, liked, by the majority of Jews. Yiddish language books of ritual or religious significance were banned until the 18th century. By the 20th century, however, Yiddish was an article of faith for many Eastern European Jews, which was seen as a new threat to the non-Yiddish speaking Jews; the Orthodox defenders of Yiddish, however, continued to see Yiddish as a glorious and romanticized language, which left the Hissidic Orthodox Jews to reign uncontested in Eastern Europe. This fervour became tied in to the diaspora cultural-autonomist pro-Yiddish movement which developed in the Eastern European countries, in response to the increasing threats from Nazism and Communism.

In concert with these developments in the Yiddish movements, after World War I, when 'the jewishness question' began to be discussed, and when the Zionist movement became stronger, Yiddish began to be rejected by Hebrew-speaking Jews, who were seeking to return to the country that would become Israel. Zionists preferred Hebrew, and as an answer to the Jewishness question, they would return home, speaking in their Hebrew tongue.

This historical movement thus left Yiddish speaking Hasidic Jews aside from worlwide developments in the 'Jewishness question', and from this, it has been suggested that strength for the support of the Hasidic culture began to be developed, in terms of deciding to adopt Yiddish-only education, and to adopt the exclusive use of the Yiddish, not vernacular, language in Hasidic communities.

This is an extremely interesting idea, as it is said by many Hasidic Jewish leaders (particularly those of Williamsburg in New York) that their continued use of Yiddish is in order to defend their children against corruption, from non-Hasidic Jews, not from non-Jews. This quote illustrates this nicely. 'If a goy does not behave as a Jew, we tell our children not to worry about him because he is a goy, but if a Jew doesn't behave as a Jew should, what can we say? We can't tell our children it's because he's a goy. We have to tell them that he's a Jew, but a different kind of Jew, a Jew that doesn't observe the yidishkeyt. Once we have to make this distinction, that there are Jews and Jews, we have a real problem with their upbringing' (Spokesman for the Hasidic…

Sources Used in Documents:


Abraham, J.E. (1985). Perceptions of English Learning in a Hasidic Jewish Sect.

Abrams, D. And Hogg, M.A. (2000). Social Identity: Constructive and Critical.

Belcove-Shalin, J. (1995). New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America.

Ben-Rafael, E. Language and Social Division -The Case of Israel.

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