Life & Culture

So you vant to learn Yiddish?

Is our man meshuggeneh to want to get to grips with his forebears’ language? Will they be kvelling at his progress?


The words I’m struggling to enunciate are not entirely unfamiliar. I recognise the letters, and separately the sounds, but neither one quite seems to belong with the other.

No, I’m not having a stroke. I’m sitting in a Yiddish class trying to understand what the hell is going on.

I’ve always been interested in the lingua franca of the shtetls, the ghettos of eastern Europe over centuries of discrimination. Languages ebb and flow, they’re colonised and they die, but like the Jews, Yiddish remains.

But despite my interest, I never thought to actually learn Yiddish when I was growing up.

My dad is Israeli, and so modern Hebrew, the language of Jewish renaissance, of vibrancy and strength, was the obvious choice. Yiddish was the vernacular of the Old Country. I felt drawn to it, but I also associated it with torment, with expulsions, with pogroms, with death.

But Yiddish is once again, coming back. The pandemic happened, and we had time on our hands. People turned to baking in lieu of socialising — (banana bread joke here) and Jews began learning Yiddish. In droves. This phenomenon, combined with the fact that the British Jewish community is on the path to being majority Charedi in my lifetime, led me to reconsider.

And their interest has not abated. I have now met many Jews, of all ages, who are learning Yiddish and last month, I followed suit. It was, I decided, time to try to learn the language of my forebears.

My first port of call was an organisation called The Worker’s Circle. Set up in New York in 1900 by Yiddish-speaking immigrants from eastern Europe, the organisation, then called The Workmen’s Circle, first acted as a mutual aid society, helping Jewish immigrants adapt to their new life in America by providing life insurance, unemployment relief, healthcare and general education.

It was subsequently joined by the more politically focused socialist Bundists who advocated the anti-assimilationist idea of Yiddish cultural autonomy, led by education in Yiddish and socialist ideals.

More than 120 years later, The Workers Circle is still promoting Yiddish ideals, but on Zoom.

And it is still based in New York, which meant I had to wait up until 1am for my class to start.

For this reason, on the Thursday evening when I took my first Yiddish class, I was unsurprisingly the only Brit online.

And with the exception of one Chabad rabbi from Birobidzhan, a Russian-Jewish enclave near the Mongolian border, everyone else in the virtual classroom seemed to be an Amercian Jew. Including my teacher, the smiling Baruch.

His class was fast-paced and it forced me to recall a surprising amount of my GCSE German, a language I thought I had forgotten in the dark recesses of my aging brain. But even through the crackly speakers of my laptop, bells rang. The German sprecht (speak) became the Yiddish sprayk, bisschen (a little) morphed easily into bissel.

And my smattering of Torah Hebrew helped too: milchamah (battle) became milomah, for example.

I coped, let’s say, and certainly did better than some of the New York snowbirds.

After the class, I spoke to Nikolai Borodulin, The Workers Circle’s Director of Yiddish Programming.

He moved to New York during the dying days of the USSR and has now been teaching Yiddish in the city for nearly 30 years. From the woman who took her first class at the age of 87, to a cadre of Japanese students fascinated by Yiddish as an academic pursuit, Borodulin has, he says, seen it all.

And he loves it all. He describes his work as “passing a treasure le dor va dor (from generation to generation)”.

And while my particular class was dominated by Americans. there is actually a big geographic spread among Workers Circle students. It now has 1,000 people from 25 countries, including the UAE, New Zealand and Wales, on its books.

But what about those who use Yiddish not as an academic pursuit, or as means to connect with something bigger than themselves, but to clock up the likes social media? Arieh Smith, known to his three-and-a-half million followers as Xiaomanyc, is that rare thing, a tiktoker with talent.

A polyglot who's learned languages from every continent, he was raised in an orthodox home in New York City. And after hundreds of videos, he finally turned his talents to Yiddish.

Late last year, a video of Smith visiting a kosher butcher in a Chasidic area of Brooklyn and addressing the staff in fluent Yiddish went viral. His followers were probably as transfixed by the staff as they were by Smith.

In the video, the Chasidic staff reacted with astonishment, surprised that someone without Peyot or a Hoiche hat is using Yiddishe words.

Smith wasn’t surprised. “it was actually one of my most requested videos, I always got emails on like, a monthly basis from people being like, hey, you gotta gotta learn Yiddish.

“And I had kind of resisted doing it for a while, because it, it felt like the Charedi community kind of has a reputation for being really separate from the secular world. And I just wasn't sure what kind of reception they would have to me learning Yiddish.

“But it ended up being extremely positive. Learning it felt like it definitely felt different. It felt like you know, holy shit, you know, these are like shul words that I'm learning when I'm studying this language, it’s a really incredible experience. It's different.”

I’m not sure if Arieh knew it at the time, but he’d accidentally hit on why learning Yiddish feels different to learning Hebrew. Like it or not, despite its biblical roots, Hebrew is fused with the modern State of Israel. And that, unfortunately comes with strings attached.

In a climate where there is no-one left that’s ambivalent to Israel, learning Hebrew feels like a political statement rather than an expression of Jewish faith - even though to many, that’s exactly what it is.

This sentiment was echoed by all the Yiddish teachers I spoke to, who broke all their students down into three rough groups. There’s language nerds, who regardless of their background, find the mishmash of Hebrew and German intriguing, Borsht boomers, older learners who have a sentimental connection to Yiddish from their youth and finally there’s the Yidsters- young, usually leftwing, sometimes antizionist Jews who want to express their faith without any of the baggage.

So in search of this elusive group, I did something I haven’t done in nearly a decade - go to a classroom. I wanted to join people who were both learning Yiddish, but also crucially weren’t alive when the Berlin Wall fell. I joined Dr Sima Beeri, a Yiddish lecturer at UCL at her Monday morning class to find out who the young people that were spending their time an a largely dead language.

The class was at the more civilised time of 10am, and after two hours in Dr Beeri’s class, my overwhelming impression was that the future of Yiddish seems to be in safe hands. The students, who were far more proficient than I’d imagined seemed largely like any other postgrad students, though with a slight flavour of student politics.

Their Yiddish reading material, an account of conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, was far from cheery, though.

It reminded me of why I’d never thought seriously about learning the language before now. The stench of death clings to Yiddish.

I left the class thinking that I’d been right to leave it to others and that I’d probably be better served signing up to a virtual ulpan to improve my Hebrew.

That was until a couple of weeks later. On a work trip around Germany, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Jewish music festival.

Sitting in the audience at one of the events, a concert at a former synagogue in the border town of Gorlitz, I found myself swept up in the performance of Roman Grinberg, one of the most accomplished Yiddish musicians in Europe.

As his klezmer band played in a beautifully restored synagogue, the only one in the whole of Saxony to survive Kristallnacht, I looked around at the audience. It was neither as old nor as Jewish as you would have imagined, but everyone there was swept up in the music, with some openly emotional at the songs of their childhood being played in such a meaningful setting.

It was then I realised that while Yiddish might not for me, it’s unfair to think of it as just a language of death and misery. It’s far more than that, it’s a language of survival. 

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive