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Professor Kalman Weiser teaches a Yiddish class at University of Toronto this week. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Professor Kalman Weiser teaches a Yiddish class at University of Toronto this week. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

LANGUAGE

Yiddish finding a way to survive in Canada Add to ...

As Israel became central to Canadian Jewish identity, Jewish day schools shifted their teaching to Hebrew. Outside the classroom, parents – focused on seeing their children succeed in the mainstream – stopped speaking it much in their private lives. Its image in this period was one of “greenhorn lack of sophistication and lowbrow humour,” according to one Jewish encyclopedia.

“It’s clearly not the vehicle to success,” Prof. Weiser said. “Even if they spoke Yiddish they weren’t going to invest in it with their children.”

But Yiddish was still a major language in many Canadian cities through the 1950s, particularly Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. Michael Wex, author of the bestselling book on Yiddish Born to Kvetch, grew up farther west in Calgary and Lethbridge. He earned 50 cents a time reading issues of the Yiddish Daily Forward to elderly neighbours (the Daily Forward is weekly now; “That’s the Yiddish ethos, everything is slightly ironic,” Mr. Wex said.)

Later he documented the parts of the language that were disappearing, particularly the off-colour, colloquial stuff. Previous generations tended to be too prudish to write those phrases down, he said. And Yiddish has remarkable expressive power. Take the word schmuck: it has passed into English as a mild insult, but was originally an evocative word for penis. “Schmuck in English has the sense of jerk, but the basic meaning is much ruder than that,” Mr. Wex said. “A 60-year-old man would be hit by his father for saying it in front of his mother.”

Lawrie Cherniack grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, where he attended the radical, secular I.L. Peretz school founded by his grandparents. He was taught in Yiddish, but by the 1970s the Peretz school began splitting instruction between Hebrew and Yiddish. Enrolment kept dropping and the school was forced to amalgamate. Mr. Cherniack, one of its trustees, continued to study the language. “My family were Yiddishists,” he said. “To them it was the definition of being a Jew. They didn’t believe in the religion but they believed in the culture, the history, the commitment to learning and thinking.”

To this day, a Yiddish show continues to air on community radio in Winnipeg, and there’s a class for children at the Jewish private school. Mr. Cherniack says there’s something of a revival under way. He hopes more will have the opportunity to study the greats of Yiddish literature, such as Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. To Mr. Cherniak, there was “a 50- to 80-year flowering of literature that is among the greatest that I’ve ever read.”

There are now Yiddish courses at McGill, the University of Ottawa, the University of Manitoba, York and the University of Toronto. Prof. Weiser, 39, teaches history at York and is filling in for a colleague teaching beginner’s Yiddish at the U of T. He grew up in Brooklyn with a father who spoke Yiddish, but didn’t become fluent until he immersed himself in graduate school at Columbia.

There are nine students in his class on this late autumn Thursday at the U of T, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s. About two-thirds are Jewish, he says; some have a parent or grandparent who spoke Yiddish and want to connect with their roots.

The class runs through the basics of grammar: when to use the dative, how to form possessives. As they leaf through the textbook, they come across an outdated word for African-American. A hand shoots up. “Is this the preferred term today?” the student asks. No, Prof. Weiser replies, the current usage is Afro-Amerikaner. It’s one of the problems with relying on a nearly 65-year-old text, but it’s still the best there is, he says.

The talk of a Yiddish renaissance began in the 1970s, centred on a burst of interest in klezmer music, Prof. Weiser says. By the 1990s, studying Yiddish was popular with those who saw themselves as marginal to the Jewish mainstream, particularly gays and lesbians. Taking an interest in Yiddish was a political statement: It’s secular, not associated with Israel, but a very Jewish pursuit. It’s a way of asserting a different kind of Jewish identity.

For students in Prof. Weiser’s class, there will never be a place to go speak Yiddish, save perhaps some Hasidic neighbourhoods. But they are motivated. The arguments about whether Yiddish is alive or dead (often in English, ironically) have died down. Its future is somewhat dependent on universities and community associations, but people like Prof. Weiser, who speaks Yiddish to his infant daughter, are committed to its future. It’s a way of passing on an inheritance. Yiddish remains a living language, much reduced but in no danger of disappearing, with perhaps half a million speakers worldwide.

“It’s a small community,” Prof. Weiser says, “but it’s not as small as you think.”

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