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What is Yiddish?
Yiddish is a language with no homeland and no boundaries, no king, no politicians, no stamps, no particular place-yet it can still be found everywhere. It has a richness that English cannot help but borrow-in expressions such as 'schmaltzy', 'schlep' and 'chutzpah'.
Yiddish dates from around the tenth century and fuses Germanic dialects, Hebrew language and script and Slavic languages in what became the leading vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews across large swathes of Central and Eastern Europe roughly from Alsace to Bessarabia and Odessa to the Baltic States. Jewish immigrants, escaping pogroms at the turn of the last century brought Yiddish to the UK, Western Europe and the Americas along with its rich tradition of literature, song and theatre.

Why Yiddish Now?
During World War II, half the world's eleven million Yiddish speakers were killed by the Nazis and their allies. Those who escaped the pogroms in Russia and the Holocaust in Europe settled in five continents. Yiddish language and culture flourished all over for a time. Yet it was jettisoned in the march for progress, education and assimilation. Only small pools of native Yiddish speakers remain. As a living language it is dying. All is not lost, but time is running out. While there is still a link to the authentic Yiddish language and culture, the younger generation is striving to make that connection and learn what they can. Enrolment in Yiddish language programmes has grown steadily over the past two decades at many secular universities, including Columbia, (New York), Oxford and University College, London. Now at SOAS, JMI is providing a platform to bring the younger and older generations together to interact and transmit the essence of a culture that is fast disappearing.

Why is this important?
There is an urgent need to maintain knowledge of authentic Yiddish culture in all its aspects. As we get further from the actual language usage and traditions, there is more risk of these being idealised, and misrepresented as sentimental or even comic. For many, especially young people, the starting point in accessing Yiddish language and culture may be through the music. The rapid rise and spread of interest in klezmer music across the world, is awakening a deep interest in Yiddish song and dance. This leads in turn to a yearning to know the language and literature and in this way to connect with the culture and the life of Eastern European Jews. JMI appreciates the need to provide access to Yiddish culture, through the very best resources and instruction in music, song, dance and language, as well as preserving and celebrating the Heritage of Eastern European Jewish life in this country.

Abigail Wood, Joe Loss Lecturer in Jewish Music, SOAS, University of London explains Yiddish song thus:

For many people, the words "Yiddish song" conjure up old nostalgic favourites: Abraham Goldfadn's 'Rozhinkes mit mandlen' (Raisins with almonds) or Mark Warshawsky's 'Oyfn Pripetshik' (At the hearthside). Others might think of songs like Gebirtig's 'Es brent' (It's burning), which, though written in 1938, eerily anticipated the devastation of the Holocaust - or the Partizaner-Himn (Partisan's Hymn) which served as a symbol of Jewish defiance in song. These songs remain emblems of the Jewish experience in central and eastern Europe, and continue to play an important role in public Jewish culture. Yet Yiddish song is even more than this: from folk songs sung in the kitchen, through the commercial songs of the Yiddish theatre and socialist songs of the Lower East Side to twenty-first century hip hop - and in every kind of Yiddish, from "Yinglish" Yiddish-American parodies, to Hasidic songs steeped in spiritual yearning, to the poetry of Moshe Leyb Halpern and Y. L. Peretz. Through song, we hear the Yiddish everyday: about the beauty of evening and the ugliness of domestic violence; the teasing of children or the longing for love. Our ears open the doors to a rich exploration of Yiddish music and culture, not just stuck in the past, but kept alive through all of our singing - and in this way, more and more voices are added to the ongoing history of Yiddish culture.

last modified: November 13, 2010

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The Jewish Music Institute is an independent Arts organisation based at SOAS, University of London. It is an international focus bringing the ancient yet contemporary musical culture of the Jews to the mainstream British cultural, academic and social life. Its programmes of education, performance and information highlight many aspects of Jewish music throughout the ages and across the globe for people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.