For three decades, Paul Azaroff has been teaching Yiddish to hundreds of students at synagogues and Jewish community centers in South Florida. Now 83, he’s had a longstanding emotional connection to Yiddish: It was the language he, his family and his friends spoke while he was growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
“All of them are gone now, so speaking Yiddish is a way of keeping in touch with my past,” he says. “When I read a Yiddish book or find myself using an expression my mother used, it has an emotional charge for me. It’s like getting into a cocoon: It gives me a very warm, very comfortable feeling. Many of my students feel the same way.”
The Yiddish language, sometimes referred to as “Jewish,” developed in the 9th or 10th century among Ashkenazi Jews in the Rhine region of Central Europe. (Sephardi Jews also developed their own language: Ladino.) Yiddish is a fusion of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, and is written in the Hebrew alphabet.
In the late 10th century, the use of Yiddish spread to Eastern Europe and eventually — thanks to Jewish immigration — to other parts of the world. The number of Yiddish speakers has dwindled drastically since World War II, however. Many people consider it to be, if not a completely dead language, one on life support.
I addition to speaking Yiddish his whole life, Azaroff has had formal training in the language. He attended Yiddish schools as a child, and studied at eight-week summer programs in Vilnius, Lithuania, and at Oxford University in the U.K. and Columbia University in New York.
AmazingJews spoke with Azaroff about his love of Yiddish, his experiences studying and teaching the language, and what he sees for Yiddish in the future:
Yiddish is often described as a German dialect. Do you agree with that characterization?
Yiddish is as much a dialect of German as English is a dialect of German. Both are Germanic languages that have moved on. In Yiddish, the vocabulary is largely German with a great deal of Hebrew, plus Slavic language words to a lesser degree. The grammar is primarily Slavic. Students from Poland or Russia find Yiddish grammar quite easy, but the vocabulary is very difficult for them. On the other hand, the German students I studied with found the vocabulary easier and the grammar more difficult.
Before the Holocaust, Yiddish was important in creating cohesiveness among various Jewish communities. How many Yiddish speakers were there back then?
Before the Second World War, 11 million people worldwide spoke Yiddish. Until the 19th century, Yiddish was spoken only in Eastern Europe; in the 1890s, however, tremendous Jewish migrations took place to America, Mexico, Argentina, Australia and other places. In a 20-year period at the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish became a world language.
What has caused the demise of Yiddish?
There have been three main factors. First, the Nazis exterminated the vast majority of European Yiddish speakers. Second, there was the rise of Zionism, with its emphasis on Hebrew. The third factor has been assimilation. A huge number of European Jews migrated to places — especially America — where they assimilated into the general culture.
After Israel was founded in 1948, why didn’t the state’s early leaders make Yiddish the official language?
If you’re going to create a new country and bring together Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia and Morocco and Iraq — in addition to Yiddish-speaking Jews from European countries — you can’t tell them they have to speak an Eastern European Jewish language. They would say, “That’s not our language.” Hebrew was the only unifying language of the Jewish people all over the world. That’s why Zionist leaders chose to make Hebrew the national language.
I know that in the early years, Israelis looked down on Yiddish. Has that attitude changed?
When I lived in Israel in the 1950s, there actually were language police roaming around. If they came upon people speaking Yiddish, they would berate them. Yiddish books and newspapers were pretty much prohibited. That kind of attitude is a thing of the past, for the simple reason that Hebrew won out. There’s no doubt that Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish state.
Now that the linguistic battle is over, Yiddish books, newspapers and theater are doing well in Israel. Courses in Yiddish are being given all over the country. Interestingly, I have a friend who taught Yiddish at Tel Aviv University, and most of her students were Sephardic Jews who didn’t have any Yiddish in their backgrounds.
Nothing similar is happening in America?
Not really. People here say, “Why are you studying a dead language?” They pooh-pooh it. On the other hand, a relatively small number of American Jews have a true nostalgic feeling toward Yiddish and a strong desire to preserve it. They want to keep the language and culture alive. My students come from that group.
Have you had many young students studying Yiddish or have they all been older folks? What about non-Jews?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had many young students or any non-Jews in my classes. However, I have had some quite interesting experiences with the non-Jewish students I studied with when I was a student.
Can you share some of them?
When I was at Oxford there was an Indian woman — she wore a sari and had the Hindu dot on her forehead — who was studying Yiddish. She was writing her PhD thesis on comparing the Sikhs of India to the Satmar Hasidim of New York. She realized the only way she could interview the Hasidim was by speaking with them in Yiddish.
How was her Yiddish?
It was very good. It was a learned Yiddish, though. You must understand that Jews who speak Yiddish usually have an accent from some region of Europe or another. But people who study Yiddish in a university are “accentless.” They don’t use colloquial Yiddish; they use the formal Yiddish they learn from textbooks. In a way it’s Yiddish without neshome [soul], but it is Yiddish.
Also at Oxford, there were two Japanese men studying Yiddish. When they spoke to me in English I couldn’t understand a word they said. But when they spoke Yiddish, understanding them was no problem. [Laughs]
Why were they studying Yiddish?
Both had been teaching courses on American literature at Japanese universities, and they discovered that a lot of American writers were Jews. They explored further and realized Jews had a language and literature outside of general American language and literature, so they started studying Yiddish. One of them later taught Yiddish at Tokyo University.
I’ll give you one more example. On my first day in Lithuania I was in this wonderful old building with a beautiful curved staircase. We were registering for the summer Yiddish program, when all of a sudden coming down the staircase were six young men singing loudly in Yiddish.
From their features, I could pretty much tell they were Slavs. In any event, I was sure they weren’t Jews and wondered what their story was. A few nights later I was sitting next to one of them at a dinner and said to him in Yiddish, “Are you Jewish?” And he said no. When I asked about his interest in Yiddish, he pointed to an older man at the table and told me the guy was the group’s boss.
It turned out the boss hated Communists. During the communist regime in Russia, he resolved to learn about a culture that was oppressed by the Communists — and even though he wasn’t a Jew, he decided it was going to be Yiddish culture. He went to a bookstore and found a book in Yiddish: the autobiography of Leonid Brezhnev, of all things! [Laughs]
Then he found an old Jew who taught him how to read the book, and he went on to learn to speak Yiddish. After communism fell, he started a business and hired workers. He told them he would employ them on one condition: They had to learn Yiddish and speak only Yiddish at work. Every summer he sent his employees to Vilnius to take Yiddish courses. They would go around the streets of Vilnius singing Yiddish songs.
Did they like Yiddish?
They absolutely loved Yiddish.
Many Yiddish speakers seem to absolutely love the language, which is reputed to be very rich, descriptive and colorful. So much so that people say certain Yiddish expressions are almost impossible to translate.
Right. I’ll give you a couple of examples. A Yiddish author once described someone as looking “like it was after n’eela,” which is the final service of Yom Kippur. Unless you know that, unless you know that Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and that by the end of the fast you feel weak and look pretty lousy, the expression really doesn’t mean anything.
Here’s another example: There’s an expression that literally means, “Don’t bang me a teakettle.” In Yiddish the expression is “Hock mir nit keyn tchainik.” What does it really mean? Once you get steam going when you boil water for tea, the top on the teakettle jumps up and down and makes a racket. So people who talk a lot are like a teapot that’s boiling: They, too, make a racket. Again, the actual Yiddish expression doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless you know the context.
How do you translate an expression like that? How do you find an English equivalent? Yiddish is full of ethnic and religious concepts that are very hard to translate.
Hassidim continue to speak Yiddish among themselves — correct?
Can you communicate with them in Yiddish?
Sure. But they speak Yiddish very badly. They don’t use correct grammar for example. And if you’re a Hassid in America, a lot of English words creep in. In my opinion, Hasidim don’t love the Yiddish language, which is why they don’t protect it.
Why do you say that?
Hasidim love the Hebrew language, because to them it’s holy. It’s sacred. They use Yiddish only for a utilitarian purpose: It enables them to avoid speaking Hebrew for day-to-day activities. Speaking Yiddish keeps them from using the language of the Torah in ways they consider to be profane.
They don’t particularly know anything about Yiddish culture, either. Traditionally, the culture has been very anti-religious. Most the great Yiddish writers were socialists who were critical of the rabbis and the old religious ways. So ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t read Yiddish literature or go to Yiddish theater or any of that.
If Hasidim in America don’t want to speak Hebrew on a day-to-day basis, why don’t they speak English to one another?
Because they want to live a life apart. They don’t want to fully integrate into American society. Speaking English could open doors for them and their children that they really don’t want opened.
As long as ultra-Orthodox Jews speak Yiddish, is it not the case that the language will never die out altogether?
Yes, but it goes beyond that. If you look at the biographies of all the great Yiddish writers, they came from observant families and attended Orthodox yeshivas. Then they moved away from that religious world and entered the secular world. In my opinion, one hope for the future of Yiddish is that young people raised in Yiddish-speaking religious homes who leave the fold will take the language with them and use it in a new way.
Any evidence that’s happening?
I think it is to an extent. One day while I was taking a Yiddish course at Rutgers University, I sat outside at a fountain on campus. Also sitting there was a group of very young people, 18 or 19 years old, speaking Yiddish. When I asked them who they were, they told me they were former members of different Hasidic sects. They said Yiddish was the only thing they still had from their old lives that they could continue to use.
You mentioned Yiddish theater…
At one time there was a very strong Yiddish theater in Europe. Stanislavski, the famous Russian actor and director who developed Method Acting — who was not a Jew — loved Yiddish theater and taught his techniques to the actors. When they came to New York and established Yiddish theater on Second Avenue, non-Jewish actors from Broadway would go to the performances even though they didn’t know Yiddish. They just wanted to see Stanislavski’s methods in action. The fact is the Yiddish theater in New York was responsible for introducing Method Acting to America.
When was the heyday of Yiddish theater in America?
The 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the ’30s it was going downhill.
Last question: In your opinion, what is the most we can hope for Yiddish in the future?
It’s hard to know which way things will go. People say Yiddish is dying, but there’s a strong movement to keep it alive. Yiddish is being taught at universities all over the world; the national Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, is thriving. Still, it’s undeniable that there are a lot of strains on the language. Any notion that millions of Jews will again speak Yiddish someday… sadly, that’s just not going to happen.
The Jewish Backstory
As already noted, Paul Azaroff was born and raised in Brooklyn, in a Yiddish-speaking family. (He didn’t speak English until he enrolled in kindergarten.) His mother was born in Poland and immigrated to America in 1929 when she was around 23. His father was born in America of Jewish parents from Belarus.
Azaroff made aliyah to Israel at the very young age of 15; he lived there until he was 23. While in Israel he was a shepherd on a kibbutz and fought with the IDF in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. In addition to speaking Yiddish, he speaks Hebrew fluently.
Years ago he and a friend translated a Yiddish novel — “The Women Shopkeepers or Golde-Mine, The Abandoned Wife of Brod” by Lithuanian Yiddish writer Izak Meyer Dik — into English. Their translation was published by Edwin Mellen Press.
In addition to teaching Yiddish, Azaroff has taught a range of Jewish studies courses through the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. He is highly knowledgeable about all things Jewish.
The opinions expressed in the interview above are solely those of the interviewee. They do not necessarily reflect the views of AmazingJews or its staff.