Monday, August 24, 2009

Question & Answer With Yitz Of Heichal HaNegina - Learning Yiddish

A Simple Jew asks:

How did you go about learning Yiddish?

Yitz answers:

Firstly, I have to admit that I have a distinct advantage of having a "good ear." My hearing is very sensitive, and I often hear things that others in the same room, even right next to me, don't hear. I once met someone whom I only had spoken to over the phone, I had never seen him face-to-face, but when I heard his voice, I knew who he was! So, that certainly helped me to learn Yiddish.

Another thing that I found helpful for us English speakers is that Yiddish is Germanic-based, and English is also, to a large extent. Yes, there are many words in English that are not so - they are based on the Romance languages [Latin-French-Spanish-Italian, etc.] - but I think the Germanic influence is stronger. So it didn't take to long to figure out that "breng" is Yiddish for "bring," or that "a hindred / hoondred" is "a hundred," and so forth.

Another advantage I had is that my dear wife is actually a native Yiddish speaker. That is, it was her first language, being that her parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland. So hearing her speak to her parents [or others], or just being able to ask her what a particular word meant, was a boon to my learning of Yiddish.

Of course, to learn any language, motivation is most important. The story goes that some American GIs in World War II were notified that they were going to be sent to Japan within a very short period of time – a number of weeks [maybe 8 or 9 at the most]. They were given a "crash course" in Japanese, and the motivation, knowing that their lives might depend on their understanding of the language, enabled them to learn it in this short time period.

So with my entry into the religious-Jewish-yeshivish as a baal teshuva provided me with an impetus and motivation to learn Yiddish. Let me say that it opens vistas one never has known before: whether it’s a shiur from a gadol baTorah, a Chassidic discourse from a Rebbe, or just plain, everyday conversation between Jews, Yiddish is an invaluable asset. In addition, the straight-from-the-heart nature of Yiddish conveys Jewish feelings and humor the way no other language can.

So how did I go about learning it? Actually, it was a rather simple process. Rather than taking a course, or memorizing the dictionary, I decided that it would be best to learn Yiddish from something I wanted to learn anyway. And what better source could there be than Chumash with Rashi? So I bought a set of “Beis Yehuda,” with the Chumash and Rashi translated into Yiddish, and learned the weekly parsha from it. Of course, the fact that I had been through Chumash-Rashi in both Hebrew and English many times before was certainly a big help.

So, already knowing what the Chumash and Rashi were ‘saying,’ it was only a matter of enriching my Yiddish vocabulary, that I could do by studying the Beis Yehuda. As I learned the pasukim and Rashi’s commentary, I would peek over to the Beis Yehuda to see how he translated this word or that. And reading through whole pasukim or Rashis in Yiddish also gave me a background of Yiddish grammatical structure, which is similar [but not always the same] to German.

So there you have it. We Americans have a distinct disadvantage in learning languages compared to most of the rest of the world. That is, since the American culture is pretty much the dominant one in the world, English is spoken [or at least, usually, understood] throughout the globe. Also, America being such a large country, and bordered to the north by another mammoth-size English-speaking country, Canada, the need for another language is virtually not there. Compare this to Europe, where there are so many countries, each with its own language [or two or three]…or to Israel, where, besides Hebrew, there’s English, Russian, Yiddish, French, Arabic, Ladino, Amharic, etc. spoken, and you can see that Americans have a disadvantage.

But don’t be taken aback - with a little bit of effort, and as mentioned, motivation, you can do it! A groise hatzlucha - may you have a big success!


At August 24, 2009 at 12:23:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen said...

A sheynem dank - a beautiful thank you - Reb Yitzchak, for your heartfelt and inspiring comments.

At August 25, 2009 at 8:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

For more formal language study,
I don't speak Yiddish, but I've found some useful reference material.
Check out:

American Yiddish has picked up many words and other elements from English, but it's worthwhile to know the actual Yiddish versions.

At August 25, 2009 at 11:58:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Hi, and thank you both for your comments.
I've just noticed that
Google's translation site, also has an option for Yiddish [to and fro another language]. I've used it for Hebrew-English & vice-versa, has anyone tried the Yiddish?

At August 26, 2009 at 12:04:00 PM EDT, Anonymous schneur said...

Yitz's comments are excellent. He proves that rather than having a Chassidic movement or yeshiva switch to English the newcomers can easily pick up Yiddish with all the culture it transmits to its speakers.
In the early 1960;s the Rav switched to English because of 1 Ivy league graduate(I suppose in fact the swithc would have come sooner than later anyway) who came to hear his shiurim. I guess the rav did not have the akshonus to keep on speaking and teaching in Yiddish. Since then Yiddish has almost disappeared from YU and RIETS.
In the best known Chassidic movement in the US , English has supplanted Yiddish as the main language (many if not most peopel under 30 know only a smattering of Yiddish at best) which is a shame as the Rebbes, great chassidim etc all spoke and lived in Yiddish.
A greysen dank !

At August 26, 2009 at 11:55:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz said...

Thanks for your input, Schneur. I believe that Rav Soloveitchik conitnued to give the yahrzeit shiur [for his Rebbetzin] & some other yearly shiurim in Yiddish.

As to Chassidim, many of their yeshivos, in Israel, Europe & North America DO continue to learn in Yiddish. As the "international Ashkenazic Jewish language," nothing comes close to Yiddish. And the Chassidic world is perhaps the "last bastion" of where Yiddish is still going strong!

At August 27, 2009 at 12:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger Shmerl said...

Yitz: Gevaldik! Thanks for pointing out about Google translation in Yiddish!


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