What is Yiddish?

Yiddish is a Germanic language that many Jews around the world have spoken continuously since the Middle Ages.  It is a Germanic-based vernacular fused with elements taken from Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as from Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. Yiddish is written with a fully vocalized alphabet based on the Hebrew script. Yiddish speakers produced vibrant early modern and modern literatures and cultures in Europe and beyond that spread and developed through sustained contact with neighboring languages, religions, and ideas.  Yiddish speakers also played a central role in the development of American popular culture in English, especially music, theater, and film.  Prior to the Holocaust, there were over 10 million speakers of Yiddish; 85% of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers.  Today, there are nearly 1,000,000 Yiddish speakers spread out across the globe—from America, to Europe, to the Middle East—a population that is growing exponentially due to the use of Yiddish as the vernacular language of most Hasidic Jews.

Those seeking a broad overview of the history of the Yiddish language may wish to peruse this “Basic Facts About Yiddish” document compiled by the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research.

Yiddish in the Chicago Area

Chicago has long been home to Yiddish language and culture.  Beginning in the 1870s an influx of Eastern European Jews into Chicago prompted the establishment of Yiddish periodicals in the city.  The earliest Chicago Yiddish newspaper was the weekly Israelitishe Presse, founded in 1877, which was succeded by the Yiddishe Presse.  Neither of these early papers met with success, but by 1893 there were two major competing Chicago Yiddish daily newspapers, the Chicago Yiddish Tageblatt and the Daily Jewish Currier.  Yiddish press flourished in Chicago with dailies, weeklies, and journals catering to a wide political and cultural spectrum. Yiddish radio also thrived in Chicago, with Yiddish programs featured on WCFL, the station of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and elsewhere.  Chicago was also home to Yiddish supplemental education, such as Workmen’s Circle schools and Sholem Aleicehm Folkshuls, as well as Yiddish cultural institutions including labor unions, mutual aid societies, synagogues, and Yiddish Theater.  Among the most famous Yiddish contributors to Yiddish culture in Chicago were Dina Halpern (1909-1989), distinguished star of the Yiddish-speaking theater who resided in Chicago from 1948 until her death in 1989 and performed starring roles at the Douglas Park Theatre at Kedzie and Ogden Avenues.  She was the founder and artistic director of the Chicago Yiddish Theater Association.  The works of artist Todros Geller (1889-1949), published and publicized by cultural activist L. M. Shteyn, illustrated the intersection of Jewish tradition and modern-day Chicago.  His works appeared on stained glass windows, bookplates, community center walls, and Yiddish and English books.  Avrum Matthews, a well-known Chicago cantor, was famous in the Chicago Yiddish world for his theatrical, operatic performances.  Paul Muni, an Academy Award winning English-language stage and screen star, got his start as a boy named Muni Weisenfreund performing in his father’s Yiddish theater on Roosevelt Road near Halstead Street.  Labor activists Sydney Hillman and Bessie Abramowitz, Yiddish-speaking immigrants who resided in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, helped to devise the system of collective bargaining and arbitration as leaders of the United Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.  Other famed Yiddish-speaking Chicago residents include author Meyer Levin, novelist Saul Bellow, heavyweight boxing contender King Levinsky, community organizer Saul Alinsky, con artist Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, movie impresario Michael Todd, and radio legend Studs Terkel.  Today, Chicago remains a major city on the American Yiddish map with cultural activists celebrating and furthering Yiddish language and culture.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research focuses on East European Jewish Studies, Yiddish language, literature, and folklore and the study of the American Jewish immigrant experience.

Spertus invites people of all ages and backgrounds to explore the multifaceted Jewish experience through its public programming, exhibitions, collections, research facilities and degree programs.

The Klezmer Music Foundation offers education, performances, and public programs about klezmer and Yiddish musical traditions.Yiddish at the University of Chicago

Yiddish at the University of Chicago

The Chicago Center for Jewish Studies an inter-divisional center in the Divisions of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Divinity School whose aim is to nurture dialogue among the many disciplines, scholars, and students engaged in Jewish Studies at the University.  There, students may find courses relating to Yiddish language, history, literature, and culture.

In addition to Yiddish language courses, the Department of Germanic Studies hosts a regular Yiddish tisch where students can practice their speaking skills.  The Yiddish listserv https://german.uchicago.edu/news/events/yiddish-tish is where members of the University community can learn about Yiddish-related events around campus and beyond.

The University of Chicago library's research guide for Judaica and Hebraica (many resources are restricted to UofC students)

The Newberger Hillel Center caters to students from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and offers formal programming as well as a variety of on-site resources.

Yiddish Publications

Launched in 1897, the Yiddish Forward/Forwerts is a weekly news magazine published in separate Yiddish and English editions.

Der Algemeiner Zhurnal is an Orthodox journal in Yiddish.

Dos Yideshe Kol/The Yiddish Voice is a Yiddish-language radio show serving Boston's Yiddish-speaking community as well as a Yiddish internet resource serving the world.

Der Yiddisher Tam-Tam is a Parish Yiddish Newsletter for Students of Yiddish.

Mendele is a moderated mailing list dedicated to the lively exchange of views, information, news and just about anything else related to the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature.

Der Bay is an international Anglo-Yiddish newsletter. 

Vaybertaytsh is a feminist podcast in Yiddish.

In geveb is a scholarly journal and blog devoted to Yiddish studies scholarship and pedagogy.

Cultural Organizations 

International Association of Yiddish Clubs (IAYC) provides a list of Yiddish Clubs worldwide.

Living Traditions, founded in 1994, is dedicated to the celebration and continuity of community-based traditional Yiddish culture.

The Leyvik House serves as the home for the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel, the H. Leyvik Publishing House, and the Israeli Center for Yiddish Culture.

Today's Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring propagates community, Jewish culture and social justice nationwide.

Yugntruf ("Youth for Yiddish") is a New York-based Yiddish youth organization. 

Arts and Media

Di Velt fun Yiddish (The World of Yiddish) includes audio recordings of selections from Yiddish literature, the text of the Yiddish translation of the Bible, and a number of Yiddish scholarly reference tools.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre is the longest running professional Yiddish Theatre in America.

The Yiddish Radio Project is a celebration of the "golden age" of Yiddish radio in the 1930s to '50s.

Zemerl features Yiddish songs (lyrics and audio). 

The Digital Yiddish Theater Project is a research consortium dedicated to the application of digital humanities tools and methods to the study of Yiddish theatre and drama.

The Judaica Sound Archives is a center for the collection, preservation and digitization of Judaica audio recordings.

Yiddish Instruction and Research

The Historical Jewish Press project hosted by the National Library of Israel is home to digital versions of Jewish newspapers published in various countries, languages, and time periods. Those interested in newspapers may also wish to consult the Union List of Digitized Jewish Historic Newspapers, Periodicals, and e-Journals

Zachary Baker’s annotated bibliography Resources in Yiddish Studies offers a wide array of resources for Yiddish linguistic, historical, and cultural research, both print and digital.

The National Yiddish Book Center is a non-profit organization working to rescue Yiddish and other modern Jewish books and celebrate the culture they contain.  Resources include a vast library of digitized Yiddish books and recordings, oral history interviews, as well as a wealth of educational resources and opportunities.

The Medem Library, located in Paris, is the largest Yiddish language library in Europe.

Bar-Ilan University’s Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies, founded in 1984, is the largest university center for Yiddish language instruction in the world.

The Vilnius Yiddish Institute (VYI) provides academic and cultural programs for the preservation, enrichment, and continuity of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research is dedicated to the history and culture of Ashkenazi Jewry and to its influence in the Americas.