Why Yiddish is Worth Your Time

Shulem-Aleikhem, Raboysai!

One thing I really like about the United States (and many other areas of North America) is the fact that I usually don’t have to explain what Yiddish is. But in Europe, with some exceptions such as Poland (where the language is widely studied), usually I find myself having to tell people what Yiddish is.

In Germany in particular I hear things like “it sounds like a dialect I can understand sometimes, but that I don’t speak”, “sounds Bavarian”, “sounds Bohemian”, and sometimes, “I had no clue it sounded so similar to German!”

Sometimes I also get “how many people speak it?” (one consistent question I get with a lot of my under-studied languages), and it is very difficult to place a decent estimate, even if you are UNESCO incarnate.

What is even more interesting is that, given how many people study the language, I find myself having more conversations in Yiddish in many unexpected places than in most of the other languages I speak.

I would venture a guess that the two most popularly studied endangered languages today would be Yiddish and Irish (the latter of which I haven’t studied yet, although I’ve tried several times and intend to try again…probably when Duolingo’s Irish course is finally out…).

Millions of students across the globe study Yiddish, even those with no connection to Germanic Languages or Jewish culture at all. If you need some encouragement for Yiddish learning, you’ve come to the right place:


The extraordinary wealth of untranslated literature in the language means that you can potentially turn your interest in the Yiddish Language into something very lucrative indeed. Aaron Lansky, the legendary visionary behind the National Yiddish Book Center, often notes that well over 90% of Yiddish literature is not yet translated into English.

Who could uncover the next platinum ray of literary light that would emanate from this mysterious canon? Perhaps it could be you!

Yiddish’s similarity to English, in its sentence structure, vocabulary, and even some of its idioms—will be something that is more likely to come to you easily if you speak anything else in the Germanic Language family, especially English or any of the Scandinavian Languages. If you are American in particular, most Yiddish songs will make you think “I’ve heard that somewhere before!” and many Yiddishisms will carry more than just a whiff of familiarity.

The one thing that may make Yiddish difficult for you could be the Loshn-koydeshdike verter, the words from Hebrew and Aramaic, which carry historical pronunciation (each word has a unique pronunciation that must be learned separately). If you have ever spent time in an Orthodox Jewish environment, chances are you know a lot of these words already, even if you might know many of them with a more Sephardic-sounding pronunciation.

Despite these hang-ups, the idea that Yiddish is “easy” carries some weight. All prepositions take the Dative case (one primary difference between Yiddish and German)

However, the literary depths of the Yiddish Language will require many odd contexts to be learned, and some unexpected gems will surprise you in every which way. Be prepared to consult fellow translators or to outsource your confusions to Facebook in the oddest of cases. Yiddishists do this very frequently, as anyone who is connected to them on Social Networks will tell you!

All languages are not just ways of speaking (ask any polyglot at all!)—they are also ways of life. This holds true with Yiddish most spectacularly of all. As I heard from one of my professors, “The Yiddish Language is not a Politically Correct Language”

Another one told me “Google Translate supports all civilized languages, and even Yiddish, which isn’t so civilized” That’s a bit harsh—not civilized, definitely not. Attitude? Maybe. Edgy? Most definitely…but in a good way!

The German Language’s usage often seems tame in comparison to the no-holds-barred black humor utilized with a Yiddish soul. Some may deride it as the “language of the ghetto”, but once you learn Yiddish to a significant degree, your life is changed…

…the songs that you learn will stay with you—even if you can’t remember the tunes, the music will remain…

…it will make you more daring, it will heighten your emotional senses, it will give you a “cool” aura.

Most importantly, it will connect you with the soul of a people, one that has produced the most “densely populated” literary outpouring in all of human history, one that is begging for translators—and one that is asking for your support and your time…

A world with little worlds awaits! So what are you waiting for?

The Tale of the American Accent

“You’re an American, and everybody knows it…”

“When I first met you, I thought that you were Dutch/Norwegian/German…”

For the past year and a half, I have had to live with two versions of myself: the one who was unmistakably American, and the one who most Americans (and many others besides) thought was a foreigner (and who were surprised to find out that I was born in the U.S and lived there for twenty years).

Being a native English speaker certainly has its advantages—the fact that, just by virtue of me writing in this language, more people are likely to read what I have to say (even in the world of Google Translate). It has enabled others to treat me with respect and to turn to me whenever they need editing, help, or even a slight suggestion for what word to use.

There are other times when I am so unspeakably frustrated with having been born an Anglophone that I would trade it for literally any other native language on earth. If I were born a Scandinavian, I figured, then I could be seen as having excellent English skills and know a host of other languages perfectly, as opposed to the American identity, conflated with an idea of refusing to speak anything but English:


“It’s a well-known fact that Americans are bad with Languages…”

“But you speak German so well! Where did you learn it?”

“Jared speaks very good Yiddish” (Me, thinking to myself: “No, I don’t…”)


Because of this prominent idea that Americans are monoglots, I sometimes feel self-conscious when making any single mistake.

German grammar scrambled?

Hebrew verb mix-up?

Lapsed into Danish during the Swedish conversation hour?

“Ah well, I’m an American, after all…no one really expects me to be good at these…”

And then there are the pangs of insufficiency whenever I tried to speak in the local language and get answered in English. A few months after my most recent vacation (Naples, in February 2014), I noticed that there is a simple way around this: using complicated sentence structure and sentences that are clearly not phrasebook material.

But before I realized that, getting answered in English, wherever it was (outside of Anglophone countries, that is), made my heart sink. “Why did I have the terrible misfortune of being born into a nation imagined for being naïve, stupid and unworldly?”, I figured.

Especially when speaking languages associated with people who speak very good English (my next post will be on the value of learning the Scandinavian Languages!), I realized that I had to cleverly disguise my accent somehow.

I asked my friends from some other countries (especially Spain and Italy) what they do for accent reduction. The answer I most commonly hear: I don’t do anything. Why? “Because people like my accent”, I hear.

And there are so many times I have heard that American-accented anything sounds awful.

But interestingly, there is an advantage to having the accent: for one, American English does have a wealth of phonetic sounds in ways that many other languages do not. The various influences of American English enable me to see how many languages contributed to its development.

Last, but not least, the surprise factor from people when I hear “that’s very unusual for an American to be able to speak like that” is always enough to make me smile.

Just like any identity allotted in life, my American accent sometimes hurts, and sometimes it can be a source of comfort.

And one thing I’ve learned about staying in Germany especially is the fact that Americans are very much not the only people who go abroad and never bother to learn the local language to any degree. People of all nationalities tend to do this.

It is high time that we also stop trying to pretend that Americans can’t learn about the world, much less its many languages, when all such an endeavor takes is wise use of time, commitment, and media exposure.

I look forward to the day when my case of American polyglottery becomes the rule rather than the exception.