In a sunlit, sparsely populated university classroom, professor Kalman Weiser grabs a piece of chalk and writes a phrase in Hebrew script, moving from right to left on the board. While his back is turned, one of his students tries to crack wise in beginner’s Yiddish. The joke elicits a few laughs.
Fardrei mir nit kein kop, Prof. Weiser replies, seizing the opportunity to teach a Yiddish rebuke. “It means, ‘Don’t make my head spin. Don’t make me crazy.’” Note the root, he says, drei is like dreidel, the spinning Hanukkah toy. It’s the kind of thing your mother would say, he adds.
The students smile as they return to the lesson in their textbook – the iconic College Yiddish, published in 1949 – now the principal point of contact with a language that was once among the five most common in Canada. According to the 2011 census, the number of Yiddish speakers has declined to the point of near invisibility. Although it’s still a primary language for ultra-Orthodox communities in Canada, elsewhere Yiddish has become a language spoken mainly in classrooms or dropped piecemeal into conversation for its salty and often humorous effect.
For the thousands now in their 70s and 80s who grew up around Yiddish, it remains a language of nostalgia, of a secular Jewish identity, an echo of an immigrant past. Its decline, revival and future is a complex story defined by the Holocaust, the founding of Israel and the integration of Jews in Canada. A language once integral to the preservation of a culture is itself now finding a way to survive.
In the 1930s, roughly 1.4 per cent of Canadians spoke Yiddish, a proportion equal to the largest non-official language today, Punjabi. Yet Yiddish is now the 51st most common mother tongue in Canada, just behind such little-known dialects as Malayalam and Bisayan. From nearly 150,000 first-language Yiddish speakers in 1931, the number has slipped to just 15,205.
When Al Reinstein was a child in 1930s Toronto, his world unfolded entirely in Yiddish. His parents, born in Poland, were among the last to arrive before the Canadian government closed the door to Jewish immigration. They lived on Grace Street, and in those days Yiddish could be heard from there to the commercial hub of Spadina Avenue, home to the garment trade, to the Jewish-owned shops of College Street where he trekked every Friday for fresh challah. He spoke only Yiddish until he went to kindergarten, but thereafter he and his friends never dreamed of speaking it on a streetcar or at a ball game. When he studied dentistry at the University of Toronto in the 1950s, a few Yiddish phrases were thrown around at lunch, but not much more.
Historian Harold Troper, who was born a decade later in Toronto, said Yiddish was still prevalent then as a language of home, but the pattern of use was changing. “My generation would hold a conversation with their parents by listening to their Yiddish and answering in English,” Prof. Troper said.
In the broader community, there was no incentive to speak any language other than English – in fact, it was discouraged, he said. For his father, who died “chained to a sewing machine on Spadina Avenue,” Yiddish was the language of home, of work, of his social circle. Prof. Troper says today he and his friends occasionally use a bit of Yiddish in the locker room at the gym, but it’s invoked for colour, for the Yiddish knack for nailing an essence in a single word – like schlock or glitch or klutz.
“A lot of them break their teeth, as the expression goes in Yiddish, in order to [speak it.] They have a phrase or a few words … It’s fun, but it’s a fun we can’t pass on to our kids,” he said. “It receded. You can’t unscramble the egg.”
In 1939, there were as many as 11 million Yiddish speakers worldwide. It was the language of the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, six million of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. A few years later, the new state of Israel decided that modern Hebrew, not Yiddish, would be its de facto official language. Yiddish – which translates as Jewish – was the most widely spoken language among Jews, but it was associated with the horror of the Holocaust and, with its Germanic roots, was a symbol of exile. It was deliberately sidelined. “It was something to be ashamed of, a backroom language,” Prof. Weiser said.