Yiddish Lives! Loshn of the Living Dead

Saul Noam Zaritt and The Editors

After careful independent research, and after consulting the leading Yiddish scientists (mad and otherwise), we are happy to make the following important announcement:

Yiddish has now been dying and coming back to life continuously for 220 years, at the very least. 1 1 In the 1790s, Isaac Euchel wrote a Yiddish play about a man who speaks in Yiddish in order “to exorcise the image of himself as a speaker of Yiddish,” according to scholar Sander Gilman.

We would like to emphasize that the above statement is in the tense so beloved among English speakers: the present perfect continuous. In other words, it is now a demonstrable fact that Yiddish is still, on this day as on any other, at once dying and being reborn. We note that this uncertain state persists despite the many efforts by statisticians, ideologues, and some governments to forcibly come to the end of the tragedy—or comedy—once and for all. At times we too, as devoted students and scholars of Yiddish, long for some kind of certainty—either a gravestone or a constitution will do. However, as fate would have it, all we’ve got are periodic statements from the ever-vigilant press reporting on both the death throes and the imminent messianic revival of the language. Well, which is it? Is the language living or dead? Far yugnt lebt men nit, far elter shtarbt men nit? 2 2 For the youth there’s no living, and for the elderly there’s no dying? Oder, vi in posek shteyt: loy omes ki ekhye—az s’iz nit bashert tsu shtarbn shtarbt men nit. 3 3 Or, as the bible says: “I shall not die, but live” (Psalms 118:17)—if you’re not meant to die, then don’t die.

And so we present to you, in listicle form, a century’s worth of reporting on the perpetual zombie state of the Yiddish language, a story that can only be told through chopped headlines and buried ledes.

1. “Two Tongues on Last Legs: Yiddish and Gaelic Appear to be Dying,” Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1928, by Frederic J. Haskin

“There is going on in this country a controversy and an evolution of absorbing interest and profound importance. It has to do with the passing into the limbo of dead things of an element which always hold a place of prime importance and that is the very medium of exchange of thought, to wit, language.”

2. “Yiddish Theatre Reborn,” The New York Times, 9 October 1955, by Murray Shumach

“In paced, tragic tones, [Maurice] Schwartz summoned up ghosts of old plays of the old Yiddish Art Theatre.”

3. “Living Waters,” The New York Times, 22 October 1967, by Curt Leviant

“The postwar years have witnessed a remarkable renaissance of interest in Jewish [meaning Yiddish] literature.”

Yes, a renaissance of interest—in BRAINS!

4. “Yiddish Theater, Lively Corpse,” The New York Times, 30 November 1977, by Richard F. Shepard

“The truth is that there are few practitioners of Yiddish theater who will concede the death of their art, although it is often announced by observers, whom they dismiss as doctors who do not make house calls. [...] [B]ut it survives in a form that is striving to adapt to the times. [...] The shows are usually pleasing to those who go to them.”

5. “The Yiddish Theater Refuses to Die,” The New York Times, 7 December 1980, by Murray Shumach

“If I’m buried, I don’t feel it.”

6. “It’s Not Dead Yet: Yiddish is the Common Language Nowhere on Earth, but it’s the Mother Tongue of Some Jews Seeking Their Roots,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1989, by Mathis Chazanov

“We lose people every year, simply because of the fact that people are dying [...] but somehow we find people who’ve exchanged playing cards on Saturday evenings for something more creative.”

7. “Staying Alive,” The Guardian, 11 July 1995, by Michael Simons

“[The Yiddish scholar] clings with not a little desperation to the notion [...] that the time is ripe for Yiddish. [...] The desperation comes with the shadow of death which, despite greatly increasing interest in the [Yiddish] institute’s activities, still hangs over the culture as a whole.”

8. “Oy Vey: Yiddish Has a Problem,” The Atlantic, 9 September 2014, by Tanya Basu

“The future of Yiddish is a mixed bag. [...] Language is the lifeblood of a people.”

Vi me zogt: es kokht in im dos blut—un es iz take zeyer geshmak! 4 4 As they say: his blood is boiling—and it’s actually quite tasty!

9. “Lingua Franca: Yiddish Dead? Dying? Not Yet,” The Jerusalem Post, 3 December 2015, by Greer Fay Cashman

“Mark Twain, who was then in London, penned a note that in the tail end of the concluding sentence claimed ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration.’ The same can be said of Yiddish.”

10. “Yiddish Has Not Yet Said its Last Word,” Times of Israel, 26 January 2016, by Robert R. Singer

“[Yiddish] is the antidote to assimilation, an expression of belonging and of reclaiming tradition.”

Warning: Yiddish is both the cause of and antidote to Zombification!

Special Feature: Excerpts from the Revivalist Writings of Joseph Berger

New York journalist Joseph Berger has been on the Yiddish beat for some forty years now, and we offer here just a small selection of his great feats of necromancy!

11. “The Survival of a Hardy Mamaloshn,” Newsday, 6 November 1980

“The signs of Yiddish’s vigor are impressive considering the language came to the United States as a stateless refugee 100 years ago next year with the first wave of Eastern Europeans and has survived without a country all that time. [...] [T]he mood is one of rebirth, of renaissance.”

Warning! All this talk about Yiddish’s vigor and rebirth may cause something other than the dead to rise up! Please contact a medical professional if this rising lasts longer than four hours!

12. “For Yiddish, a New But Smaller Domain,” The New York Times, 11 October 1987

“David G. Roskies, who teaches Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has no illusions that he and the sprinkling of other Americans who are raising their children in this Jewish vernacular are sparking any major revival. [...] Still, people like Mr. [sic] Roskies constitute a rosy speck on what might otherwise be a bleak horizon for Yiddish.”

Beware! That rosy speck might be the first signs of the Zombie Yiddish virus!

13. “No Need to Kvetch, Yiddish Lives On in Catskills,” The New York Times, 25 Nov 2010

“Everyone seems on a mission to recapture and resurrect, but the work is not just about mining the past.”

And finally, it may only be March, but there’s already been several Zombie Yiddish sightings this year:

14. “Keeping Alive a Haven for Yiddish Culture in Modern Romania,” The New York Times, 15 January 2017, by Kit Gillet

“With few Yiddish speakers left in the country, audiences have been reluctant to see performances that seem so alien to today’s Romania.”

Yiddish Lebt, the Sequel: Aliens and Zombies unite!

15. “The Revival of Yiddish in Music and Literature,” The Economist, 13 February 2017

“For all the catastrophes perpetrated against its speakers, Yiddish has endured. In fact, it is undergoing a renaissance.”

So it appears that without a doubt there has been an ongoing revival/renaissance/reincarnation/reanimation/exorcism/undying of Yiddish that simply cannot be kept out of the headlines. And this selection is only from the North American press of the last 100 years! We can only assume that Yiddish Zombies have spread the world over: zombi-yidish in ale lender!

How can we explain this unnatural phenomenon? What about Yiddish seems to invite the metaphor of the living-dead?

Certainly over the past two centuries there have been many attempts to provide Yiddish with a final resting place. We are all familiar with these stereotypes of the language: Yiddish as a dead language of the past that must be laughed at or mourned for, a source of laughter or tears, but never an essential living part of contemporary life, Jewish or otherwise. And yet, Yiddish continues to inspire: Yiddish as the model for radical utopian futures, the language of a new borderless world; or Yiddish as the language of growing Hasidic communities.

But if we can learn anything from the ridiculous image of Yiddish in the American press, painted again and again over the years, it’s that Yiddish refuses to be boxed in, pun intended! Our work at In geveb has revealed that Yiddish is all of these things and much more.

What these articles seem to express, then, is an uneasiness about a language that holds on to all of these possibilities at once. Zombie-Yiddish appears to be the only way that popular culture can explain the way that a fusion language of Jewish migration doesn’t really conform to expectations. Here at In geveb we take this unexpected undeadness as a challenge: not to apologetically or reactionarily prove the enduring vivacity of Yiddish but rather to explore the ways Yiddish culture defies normative definitions of how a culture lives or dies.

So in solidarity with Brooklyn squirrels, Gaelic speakers, and the lively corpses of Yiddish, we say: zol lebn der yidisher zombi!

Zaritt, Saul Noam, and The Editors. “Yiddish Lives! Loshn of the Living Dead.” In geveb, March 2017:
Zaritt, Saul Noam, and The Editors. “Yiddish Lives! Loshn of the Living Dead.” In geveb (March 2017): Accessed Jun 15, 2021.


Saul Noam Zaritt

Saul Noam Zaritt is an associate professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. He is currently a peer review editor at In geveb and one of the site's founding editors.

The Editors