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Essay: Yiddish culture in Britain

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In order to process the effects Yiddish may have had on British culture or indeed, how British culture has affected Yiddish it is necessary to examine firstly, what exactly Yiddish is. Where did it come from? How did it develop? And how did it come to be present on our island spoken in small enclaves within our larger cities and be alive and growing after almost succumbing to a horrendous past.
During the Islamisation of the Iberian Peninsula, Aramaic-speaking Jews moved out of Spain and Portugal crossing through France and settled around the sources of the Rhine and Danube rivers about 1000 years ago. The Jews who settled in these regions were named Ashkenazim, a Hebrew word meaning Germanic. These settlers were also the inventors of Yiddish, which replaced Aramaic, the Jewish language of the day. Over a period of many centuries, like its ancestor Aramaic, it was to become the language of a great and varied literature. The Ashkenazim settlers of medieval Europe did not immediately begin to speak the German dialects of their neighbours, any more than their forefathers, the Judean exiles of Babylonia, began to speak the Aramaic of their new Babylonian neighbours in 600 B.C. Just as their forefathers, the descendants of Abraham who settled in Canaan refused to engage in the Canaanite vernacular of the second Millennia B.C. It therefore becomes apparent in all three events that the Jewish settlers native languages encountered the new language of their new neighbours and each time brought items from their own original language and therefore invented and created a Jewish fusion language. With the earlier two occasions these were limited to very small changes as all languages involved in the fusion were of similar Semitic origin. However, with Yiddish the clash of a language from the Semitic family with that of a very different Germanic variety created quite an occurrence. This fusion of Semitic and Germanic would come to be known as Yiddish. Taking into account such an obscure and unique combination Yiddish was to remain quite solid and stable through time and the fusion thus became the matrix for changes in the future, mostly Slavic, which would occur over the following centuries. The Jewish settlers of the German lands, the Ashkenazim flavoured their variety with many items from the language of their medieval German cohabiters. This particularly involved most of the lexicon and also good amount of Grammar. Furthermore, the Germanic elements became fundamentally ‘Judaized’ to the degree that Germans could instantly identify that their Jewish neighbours had a Germanic variety of their own (Katz 2004).
It is often necessary to trace a language back to its roots in order to examine the dialects of today and search for common elements. The oldest recorded Yiddish document in existence is the Worms Makzhor, a Jewish prayer book from 1272.The following inscription of Yiddish is illuminated inside a Hebrew word in the Worms Makzhor and reads as follows
”””’ ”””?? ”’? ”?? ””’? ”’? ”?? ?? ””” ”?? ” ””??
‘Gut tok im betage se vaer dis makhazor im beis hakneses trage’. (Worms Mikzhor 1272)
‘A good day cometh to he who carries this prayer book into the shul/synagogue.’ Examining and researching Western Yiddish varieties and comparing them to Eastern versions of the language, we find that many elements have remained constant over time. However, the fact of the matter is that these phenomena can only have taken place in the very beginning of the language and have continued to be the standard form since. Significant is that such fusions of Hebrew and German could only have happened as the language initially developed, and thus the Hebrew word for sun ‘shemesh’ or the German word ‘Mond’ could never be Yiddish and are exactly that, Hebrew and German. Yiddish uses the Hebrew word for moon ‘levone’ and the German word for sun ‘Zun’.
It is an interesting point that from the beginnings of Yiddish until the sixteenth century only Men had access to the writings of Hebrew and Aramaic, while women were strictly forbidden to access the holy codes. From the 16th century onwards many works were translated and published into Yiddish, including the ‘Bovobukh’ this was a translation of the Italian love story that became available in 1541. It became most sought after by Ashkenazi females, however, most Ashkenazi men did not endorse their Jewish wives and daughters reading stories of romance and within a short period of time, the ‘tsenerene’ appeared in 1554, a translation of the ‘chumesh’ the Pentateuch or the Torah. It would become known as the ‘women’s bible’.
From this point forth women were able to access to the writings of the Torah in their native Yiddish. The ‘tsenerene’ would not be an exact translation of the Torah but instead the writer had created a narrative with sources from the ancient stories and mythology of the Middle Ages. The stories of the bible were at the disposal of all to read in their native Yiddish.
By the 16th Century Yiddish had become the language of most of Europe’s Jews. The name Yiddish itself was not derived until the 1800’s and the language was known as taytsh, a word similar to, but not the same as daitsch the common word for German at the time. In fact, many named it ‘Vaybertaytsh’ which meant women’s ‘taytsh’ as women were only allowed to speak Yiddish and were not allowed to master the holy tongues of Hebrew and Aramaic which were reserved solely for the eyes of men. Yiddish developed into two major dialects at this time. Western Yiddish, which was spoken in the Lowlands, today’s Netherlands and Belgium and also in Germany and Switzerland and Eastern Yiddish, which was the vernacular of almost all Jews and was spoken in Eastern Europe. Western Yiddish started to rapidly lose speakers in the 19th century as the western Yiddish dialects being akin to Dutch and German and with commerce and industrialization developing with great speed, Western Yiddish began to assimilate into Dutch and German. By the end of the century, Western Yiddish had perished and although elements of it are still apparent in the varieties of Berlin German and Amsterdam Dutch the language itself it no longer spoken.
The opposite had and was happening in the East and Yiddish, which is spoken today, are all dialects of Eastern Yiddish. Yiddish in the East began to separate into two distinct dialects, Litvish and Poylish. Litvish, or North eastern Yiddish as it was known was spoken not only in today’s Lithuania, but stretched far beyond these modern borders to today’s Minsk in the Belarus Republic and almost to the city limits of Moscow. Poylish was spoken in Poland but not only. It spread through Slovakia Hungary Romania and Ukraine, and at the beginning of the 1900’s there were estimated 12 million Yiddish speakers world-wide and over 90% of these were in Eastern Europe. Yiddish culture grew extensively and with great speed and was enjoyed in all activities of life. Newspapers, Magazines, Literature and Poetry soon made an appearance and Yiddish Theatre produced numerous productions. Sholem Aleichem (1841 -1905) was the most well-known writer in the Yiddish World. He began writing stories at a very young age in the ever-increasing Jewish press. His tales of ‘Teyve, the milkman’, became known to all, and were enjoyed by both the secular and religious communities. They were later developed into the musical ‘Fiddler on the roof.’ With advancing socialism Yiddish became tied to the socialist movement. Zionism was at the same time the driving force for the development of Hebrew. The early 1900’s also saw a huge rise in the numbers of Jewish immigrants to North America especially to New York and Montreal and a Yiddish press began to develop on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It was also about this time where Jews began to settle again in the United Kingdom and particularly in the east end on London around Whitechapel.
In the late 1800’s Vilna in Lithuania had become the centre of Yiddish culture and was becoming the acclaimed centre of Yiddish literary and linguistic studies as well as Yiddish higher education. The most prominent contender in Yiddish studies, whose qualities were superseded by none was Max Weinreich who after gaining a doctorate in Yiddish Studies from Marburg University relocated to Vilnius and in 1925 founded the Yidischer Visnschaftlekher Institut also known by its acronym YIVO. The city of Vilnius, which had once been known as the centre of all Talmudic and religious study had now become the symbolic centre of Yiddish education. Weinreich who was a master in Yiddish linguistics later became famed for his research in language and dialect studies.
‘A shprakh iz a dialekt mitn armay un a flot’
‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy'(Weinreich 1945)
His research is studied widely in the fields of linguistics today.
Litvish Yiddish was to become the standard form of Yiddish throughout the secular world. It was displayed in music and drama from Novosibirsk to New York City. YIVO claimed the authority on the standardization of the variety and Weinreich who decided with his family to relocate to New York in the late 30’s with his son Uriel who later invented and composed the first Yiddish English English Yiddish dictionary, a copy of which should been seen on all Yiddish speakers bookshelves and several language courses for English speakers for learning Yiddish some of which have been used until recent times at many North American Universities.
At the beginning of World War II, there were 13 million Yiddish speakers. 6 Millions Jews had succumbed to the Shoah and many were natural speakers of Yiddish. This resulted was in the annihilation of Yiddish culture in most if not all of Eastern Europe.
Those Yiddish speakers, who managed to elude the events of the holocaust and resettled in the cities of New York and London, were in search of a new way of living as far away as possible from the horrors of recent events. In a mere three decades the number of remaining Yiddish speakers amongst American and British secular communities had diminished to scatterings within the population. In the United States, many immigrants had resorted to speaking English with their children leading to a great loss of natural Yiddish speakers
Today YIVO is still in existence and continues to be the authority on Yiddish studies worldwide. It is no longer in Vilnius but has a residence in New York. Secular Yiddish has succumbed to modern society and is gradually dying out daily as most speakers find themselves in the latter stages of their lives. Within the orthodox society subjects of Hassidic persuasion use Yiddish as their main form of communication. These societies are mostly closed to the outside world and contact with them remains very difficult. It is also very complicated to estimate the number of speakers, but it is believed there are almost 1 million native Hassidic Yiddish speakers at present of whom approximately 40,000 reside in London. It is Poylish Yiddish that is assigned to the Hassidic community. This Yiddish is being flavoured with many religious elements and is changing at a rapid pace from standard Lithuanian Yiddish, and is developing in its own direction. With a tremendous explosion of the population within the Hassidic community, Yiddish is now again on the increase and might one day overtake the number of Hebrew speakers.
The History of Jews in The United Kingdom complies with the entire history of Britain itself and is the result of a successful continuous wave of migration to these Islands from the dawn of time. These migrants brought with them their cultures, languages and skills all of which has help to shape the United Kingdom, as we know it today. In 1656 Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England and allowed the open practice of their religion. This permitted ethnically different communities to become integrated and allowed them to keep their own customs and beliefs. The Jewish community in the United Kingdom is one of the oldest ethnic societies in existence from then to the present day. With the abolishment of the edict of expulsion (1290) in 1656, Jews from Southern Europe and the Netherlands began to settle again in London and were allowed to practice their faith as they wished. There were several Sephardic temples, the first in Cheechurch Lane and also a burial Ground at Mile End. Soon to follow were the Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. These communities flourished and in 1701 The Bevis Marks synagogue was opened with space for over 500 worshippers and this is the oldest synagogue in use in the United Kingdom today. Sephardim settlers quickly took on the tasks as jewelers, doctors, chemists and street traders, the most accomplished being Sampson Gideon who became a financier and lender of money to the government to finance its wars with France. The most well known of the Ashkenazim immigrants was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who originally founded businesses in Manchester in 1798 but relocated to London in 1801 and created the world’s finest and largest banking empire of the time. Many others remained poor and earned their living from the street markets in London or from traveling around the country selling their wares (Schonebohm 1987).
1773 was an important year for the Jewish migrants as the bill of nationalization commonly known as the ‘Jew Bill’ was passed allowing Jews to become British nationals without taking the Christian oath. This cause such an outcry that it was revoked the following year and not until 1835 were Jews allowed to become British nationals without having to take a Christian oath in order to do so. In 1835 the population of Jews was approximately 20,000, London being the largest community. The community gradually became wealthier, educated and integrated slowly into British society. In keeping with modernization the West London Synagogue was opened for Jews who wished to follow a more modern and developed way of life. This was the beginning of the reform movement of Judaism in the United Kingdom.
After the civil war politics in the United Kingdom were mainly concerned with the barriers which people faced who were not members of the Church of England and among these of course were the Jews who were striving to gain full political equality. Until 1829 Catholics were not permitted to enter parliament but the restrictions for Jewish citizens were not removed for some years later and in 1835 with the repealing of the ‘Jew Bill’, British Jews were on their way to social and political emancipation. David Salomons became sheriff to the city of London but it wasn’t until fifty years later did he become the Lord mayor of London. George Jessel was the first Jew to hold a ministerial role in 1871 when he became Solicitor General and later in his life Master of the Rolls. Many Jewish figures have continued to play a role in British politics from this time.
Throughout the late 1800’s many Jews were facing increasing persecution and economic hardship, initially due to the pogroms and increasing anti Semitic sentiments in Eastern Europe and Russia. A great number of Polish and Russian Jews fled these hardships and many decided to settle in Great Britain. All were in flight in the search and hope of a better life. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 Many Jewish Stetls were subject to violent mass attacks and ambushes many of them instigated by the state. From 1881 till 1914 more than 2 million Jews left the Russian and Polish lands as well as many from the Habsburg Empire. Many of these headed to North America but approximately 150,000 settled in Britain. Most settled in the area around the London docklands in close proximity to where they arrived. Many others moved to the industrial centres of Manchester. Newcastle, Leeds and Glasgow. Most of these settlers made their living from low paid jobs such as tailoring and joinery but their presence had a huge impact and influence on the Jewish community in the United Kingdom. Along with them they brought their language, ‘Yiddish’ and all forms of it poured into the overcrowded dwellings of the East End. Whole families lived in one room and many of them worked there too. Yiddish became the local vernacular and many non-Jewish people began to speak it too. Newspapers and books in Yiddish were a common sight in East London and were readily available and with it the Yiddish theatre flourished.
As more and more immigrants arrived by the boatload the existing Jewish community reacted by setting up charities to aid those in need of help. The Jewish free school in Whitechapel had at one point over 4500 pupils making it the largest school in Europe. It was responsible for the education of both boys and girls in both secular and religious studies and worked meticulously to teach English to the immigrant children in order that they would be absorbed rapidly into British society. With very large numbers of Jews arriving from Eastern Europe many began to face hostility in some areas and there were pleas to the government to stop immigration. As a result of this the Aliens Act was passed in 1905 to reduce and restrict Jewish immigration to the United Kingdom. Jews did still come in smaller numbers and with the outbreak of World War I Jewish entry to Britain came to an immediate halt. The Aliens Act was introduced after a determined campaign to prevent the immigration of ‘pauper aliens’ to the United Kingdom. The newly arrived Jewish settlers were blamed for a variety of inner city problems such as taking jobs away from the English and by working for lower wages and under much poorer conditions. This Act allowed the government of the United Kingdom to prevent access to the country of people who could not demonstrate visible means, skills or financial support and ability to earn a living. This act was the first to be passed during peacetime to restrict immigration to the United Kingdom and it was primarily aimed at the most prominent immigrant society, the Jewish immigrants of Eastern Europe.
Many of the new Jewish immigrants took part in the first World War and signed up to fight with the armed forces. However those of German and Italian decent became prisoners’ of war and were either kept on the Isle of Man or at Alexandra Palace in London. In 1917 Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary at the time, sent correspondence to Rothschild offering support from the parliament for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This correspondence became known as the Balfour declaration and although one year later with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine became under the British Mandate it was another 30 years before the state of Israel was founded.
From the time when Jewish immigrants began arriving in the United Kingdom in about 1880 until the 1930s London had become a centre of Yiddishkeit, Yiddish language culture and politics. London was by no means a passive halfway stop between the lands of continental Europe and the lands of mass immigration as North and South America, Australasia or South Africa, but exercised both a centrifugal and centripetal power by admitting large amounts of people amid its centre but also by quickly assisting the moving on of masses of people. It would have been most unusual if a cosmopolitan powerful magnet like London had not succeeded in doing so to people of immense imagination and character. In order to correctly comprehend the importance and impact of Britain and moreover London as a centre of Yiddish one need only investigate the masses of individual transactions.
Hirsh Volofski spent a short time in England around the turn of the century before emigrating to Canada. In Canada he founded both the leading Yiddish newspaper ‘Der Kanader Odler’ and the Canadian ‘Jewish Chronicle’. (Nayer Leksikon fun der Yidisher Literatur Vol3: 263 ‘ 264)
Hirsh Volofski became the greatest known editor of the Jewish press in Canada and had modeled his Canadian Jewish Chronicle on the London Jewish Chronicle, a newspaper founded in 1841 and the widest read Jewish press in the United Kingdom to date.
The Ohel Theatre director Halevy hired Moris Shvarts to direct Yoshe Kalb in Tel Aviv after seeing Shvarts’s Yiddish production of his play in London, where it was a great box office success.
Moris Shvarts born in Ukraine arrived in London age 11 on the way to meet his father who had settled in New York. He remained in London for several years supporting his means by working in factories and also by working for a chazan, a cantor. At 15 he finally made it to New York and began his career in the theatre and before long he was directing, translating and adapting plays to Yiddish needs. In 1918 he was to become the founder of his own arts theatre and his productions would take him worldwide. In 1924 he brought his troupe to London and again in 1935 1938 and 1939. It was during his time in London in 1935 that his following productions Yoshe Kalb adapted from Y. Zingers Book directed and adapted by Moris himself, Gin’s ‘Got, mensh un teyvl’ Sholem Aleichem’s ‘ Teyve der Milkhilker’ and ‘Shver tsu zayn a yid’ appeared at His Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket. Shvarts portrayed the value of serious Yiddish theatre. A man with enormous energy and talent he performed in English, Hebrew and Spanish but his great love was of course Yiddish, which he returned to time and time again. He wrote a great amount about the Yiddish theatre in New York and Buenos Aires but also in London in the Yiddish newspaper ‘di tsayt’. In 1941 his memoirs ‘Moris Shvarts derzaylt’ appeared in the ‘Yidishe Forverts’, New York’s only surviving Yiddish secular newspaper to this day.
The Yiddish theatre in Britain, in its course of a century experienced dramatic growth but also a dramatic struggle to survive. Artists were transient coming from the distant corners of Romania through Hungary to London and on to the brighter lights of New York and America. Yiddish theatre was created overnight almost singlehandedly by Abraham Goldfaden in the mid 1860’s when his ‘Purim spil’, (Purim play) gained momentum in Romania. It became popular throughout the Yiddish speaking world and soon after many Yiddish productions began to appear across the Lands of Yiddishkayt. Theatre blossomed from here on until in 1883 Russia’s government outlawed the performances of Yiddish productions and along with other groups of persecuted people, left for London and North America. At the climax of its success, there were no fewer than 5 productions filling venues in London each night. The theatres were also the first stop of many North American artists on their way to the great venues of the European continent. It was a well-known fact that in the late 1890’s Jewish Theatre had its ups and downs.
Yiddish plays are often performed by traveling Jewish companies. The Novelty Theatre in Great Britain St. has had several. Some years ago I played many a visit to an East-End Yiddish theatre, which was open on Sundays as well as weekdays, but this I suppose was too Parisian for our insular tastes ‘ at any rate it exists no longer’ (Jas. Platt, Jr. in NQ XI, 19 June 1897, 493-4 (International oxford Journal)).
Theatres opened and closed very randomly and after a false alarm of fire led to a stampede killing 17 people at a performance at the Hebrew Dramatic Club, a regular event for performances, Yiddish theatre began yet again to periodically decline. From 1925 ‘ 1939 an increase of theatres were beginning to appear again and the Grand Palais became a permanent Yiddish theatre and that very year Moris Shvarts returned with his Yiddish Arts Theatre company. In 1939 with the declaration of war between Britain and Germany, times evolved into a downward spiral for Yiddish theatre. It did however carry on throughout the war in order to increase morale but many Yiddish Eastenders were evacuated to the countryside and bombs destroyed most of the theatres. Immediately after the war Yiddish theatre prospered briefly due to the influx of a few refugees from the continent but by 1951 only the Grand Palais was still presenting plays in Yiddish and astonishingly continued to hold performances until it was closed in 1970. Today as in the past a few Yiddish theatre companies still visit London from Israel, the United States, Poland, Romania and the former states of the Soviet Union but have no fixed venue.
In Britain as elsewhere, Yiddish literature has been closely related to the labour movements and many authors of pamphlets being themselves workers plagued by industrial struggles. It evolved alongside the press. When the first edition of the Poylisher Yidl appeared on the 25 July 1884 no one expected it to last. Indeed on the front page was the following commentary
An di leyezr der poylisher Yidl! Az ir derzayt lemoshl dise tsaytung un git a shokel mitn kop un a mak mitr hond un zogt zikh kloymersh in zikh. vi lang vet dos doyern. Yidishe tsaytungen veren in England al pi rov entfer glaykh geboyren toyt ‘ vi a nefel ‘oder zey lebn nor a por vokhen.
When you see this newspaper, shake your heads wave your hands and say to yourself. How long will this one last? Yiddish newspapers in England are already born dead or at most die after a few weeks.
These comments were off course aimed at the three newspapers, which preceded the ‘Poylisher yidl’. The first was the ‘Yidishe-daitshe tsaytung’ from 1867, the second the ‘Hashoyfer’ from 1874 and the third the ‘Londoner Izraelit’ from 1878, none of which lasted more than 3 weeks although examples of the first and third are in existence. There are no extant copies of the ‘Hashoyfer’. The Yiddish press in the United Kingdom was possibly the most significant cultural institution from the standpoint of maintaining a language. It at any rate respects and reflects the life of the Yiddish speaking United Kingdom more directly and accurately than any other medium. However certain considerations must be taken into account when dealing with printed matter. There may be no direct link of measurement to the number, size and frequency of a publication to the importance of its written material and the cultural aspects it describes. The large amount of publications created by Jewish anarchists does not represent a large libertarian proletariat. This simply informs us that the anarchists were somewhat more articulate than the social democrats with their pragmatic ways. Not to mention that a large number of Yiddish speaking anarchists were in the printing trade and gave them therefore more access to distributing their ideas. In spite of this with the exception of a few daily newspapers most written matter by groups remained small.
When the ‘Yidisher ekspres’ was created in 1895, it was the first weekly periodical that not only displayed material in Yiddish which could otherwise also be found in English it produced material specifically focused at its readers. The newspaper was born in Leeds and relocated to London in 1904, Furthermore it was quoted and cited by other Yiddish newspapers from across the globe. The Ekspres was taken over by ‘di Post’ in 1926 to compete with ‘Di Tsayt’ but was discontinued in 1935. Di Tsayt remained in print until 1950. The success and survival of ‘di Tsayt’ was the result of the energy and devotion implemented by its editor Morris Meyr. It was indeed the most successful Yiddish newspaper in the United Kingdom to date. Meyr, whose cultural interest included the theatre and politics, was a Yiddish journalist with a broad political spectrum. After his death in 1944 his son continued with the newspaper until it became the ‘Yidishe Stime’ in 1951, which continued to publish until 1967 in spite of an ageing and dying readership.
It is a known fact that London was the cradle of the Yiddish radical press and it was also the birthplace of the periodical ‘Der arbeyter freynt’ It survived from 1892 ‘ 1932 mainly as a result of its editors like Avrom Frumkin and S Yanovski. Frumkin was the most important literary person in the Yiddish anarchist movement. As a printer by trade he translated just as many works as he had set among others, Gorki, Andreyev and many more. He published Moyshe Shapiro’s ‘Underground Russia’ at weekly intervals. He was an intellectual with many skills, not least a journalist, essayist and editor. He was resident in London from 1895 till 1914 when he made New York his home. He was editor of ‘Arbeyter freynt’ and ‘Der Propogandist’. (Ref Avrom Frumkin 1940 in friling fun idishn sotsyalism zikhroynes fun a journalist). Shoyl Yoysef Yanovski was also co editor of the ‘arbeyter freynt’ and after relocating to New York he became the most important voice in the Yiddish anarchist movement and became editor of the ‘arbeyter stime’ in New York. He was profoundly influenced in his youth by Henry Thomas Buckle. (Ref Abe Gordin, SY Yanovski zayn lebn, kemfn un shafn Los Angeles 1957.)
As part of the international publishing scene many Yiddish writers from around the world have been translated into English. Many of these gave no reference to their nationality or native language. Sholem Ash was such an author. He would never have considered himself as Polish, the place of his birth nor as a citizen of the United States where he lived for many years. In spite of him writing in Yiddish many of his works were published primarily in English and furthermore many were never published in Yiddish. Ash spent many years living and working in London where his daughter Ruth lived. He was acquainted with many of the local booksellers in the St John’s Wood district during the Second World War and although most of his writing years took place in the United States he came in 1952 with his wife to London and intended to stay and died in London in 1957. Ash was quite a controversial figure in the Yiddish world mainly due to the Christological aspects that occurred in many of his works for example the opposition to the brith milah (circumcision). In other words writers like Ash of whom there were many may be called wandering Yiddish writers and international figures. In the world of Yiddishkayt pro and contra Ash ideas were made very vocal. In 1940 Moris Mayr in an edition of ‘di tsayt’ hailed Ash as a great contributor to the Yiddish literary world and as a defender of Jewish ideas. This was Mayr’s greeting to him on Ash’s 60th birthday. On the other had Ash was under continuous criticism from Yoysef ‘ Hillel Levi with his many counter Ash attacks, which appeared in ‘di Yidishe Shtime’. His main area of interest in his novels was Eastern Europe, the Ancient Near East and the United States where he spent many years of his life. In ‘di goldenekeyt’ (1952) he wrote ‘Harbst in Ridzhent Park,’ (Autumn in Regent’s Park) which is signed Sholem Ash, Miami Beach. This was an unusual piece as although Ash had many followers and readers in the United Kingdom he seldom wrote about Britain. Ash was best known in the United Kingdom for his dramatized novels and the plays he wrote for the Yiddish theatre in particular the works such as ‘Got fun Nekome, Motke ganev, Kidesh hashem and undzer gloyben’ to name but a few. In spite of Moris Mayr being impressed with most of Ash’s works he was of the opposite opinion and was not very impressed with the release of ‘der landsman.’ In spite of Ash producing and publishing over 80 works many of which appeared translated in English, in many reference works such as the Leksikon fun der nayer Yidisher literature’ that Ash spent many years in London or indeed Ash’s London experience of London at all fails to be mentioned.
That English influence of Yiddish or moreover the Anglicisation of the Yiddish lexicon would begin to materialize was on a matter of time, particularly in the areas where a lack of vocabulary was available in the native Yiddish speakers repertoire. There is much proof of such changes taking place and evidence of such appears already in the 1890’s. Words such as ‘sekuriti’ instead of the Yiddish ‘zikherkayt’ were creeping into general use. In the play ‘Velken froy darf men gloybn’? which played at the pavilion Theatre in 1928 the Play poster showed the following ‘Yedes tseyne a tril,’ (every scene a thrill) which displays the Anglicised word tril for thrill as there was no original Yiddish word to describe this thing. In ‘di Tsayt’ in 1828 the headline read ‘ Der kenig krank/ Vos di fizishons derkleyren’ fizishons being an anglicisation of ‘doktoyrn’. In the East End may stores advertised their wares and it would soon no longer be uncommon to see advertisements such as ‘gefreyte fish’ instead of the Yiddish word ‘gepregte’ for fried.
Technically English Yiddish should be the term applied for Yiddish spoken in England, however for many years it has been confused with Jewish English, which is English, which has been influenced by Yiddish. Of course the best Yiddish speakers in the United Kingdom were those who spoke their varieties with little or no outside influence from English. The Hassidic communities of London who created enclosed eruvim (close-knit Jewish communities) were able to preserve their Poylish Yiddish in its original form. In spite of many non Ashkenazic Jews being present in the Anglophone world the presence of a ‘Jewish accent’ is generally associated with having a Yiddish accent. The American sociologist Howard Brotz wrote a paper in 1959 in which he contrasted the effects of Yiddish from both American and British Jews on English.
Though there are large enough concentrations to give a Jewish cast to certain districts of London (as well as to one or two resort cities and districts of provincial cities), Jews do not make a visible impact at the center of things. Then, too, because of both the small size of the Jewish community and the more restrictive ‘party manners’ atmosphere of England, English Jews, even among intellectuals, would not, for example, feel free to use Yiddish expressions in the presence of non-Jews as American Jews would in comparable circles here. Te degree to which certain comedians in America freely use occasional Yiddish words, which surely must account in great measure for the penetration of several such words into the general vocabulary, is not equaled in England. (English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish dialects, of course, are very much a part of the British comedian’s stock in trade.) Absent from the English radio are the minority-group family series, such as ‘the rise of the Goldbergs,’ which make their appearance on the American radio and television partly as a matter of right. (The position of Jews in English Society, The Jewish Journal of Sociology 1:1 (1985) 105-106)
It is quite common knowledge that the main source of Yiddishisms in British English has entered English not by means of British Yiddish speakers but from American English and may even continue to do so well into the future. Sol Steinmetz, an expert in the field of Jewish English has commented in ‘Yiddish and English’ (1986).
From the sixties onwards, Yiddishisms also became more frequent in British publications. Though Yiddish is still spoken by many Jews in Britain, its influence on British English has not been studied and may, in fact, be inconsequential, due in part to the relative smallness of the Jewish population (about four hundred thousand, over half of which is concentrated in the Greater London Area). Thus, the current use of Yiddishisms in British English is probably the result of American influence or at least the example set by American writers and speakers. The only English loan word that has become thoroughly established in British English is ‘nosh’.
Steinmetz also wrote that from 1850 ‘ 1870 when the population of Jews in the United Kingdom increased from thirty five to fifty thousand Yiddish words began to slowly enter English on both sides of the Atlantic. Among these the flowing words seen to be the most well known ‘kosher, treyf and bar mitsve’ Perhaps the Yiddish word ‘Ganev’ meaning thief could be counted among them as it appeared in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) indeed until the 1930’s Yiddish played a major role in the majority of Jewish households in both the united Kingdom and the United States, but many were not integrated sufficiently into society in order to influence the language to any great extent. The Yiddishisms present in American English, which via American English influence entered British English is the result of the many Jewish artists present in the entertainments and media world. The use of Yiddish has also played a role in the ‘American consumer emporium’.
Looking at the usage of Yiddish today in the United Kingdom we realize that the secular Yiddish world is all but gone. There are very few remaining secular Yiddish speaker as most have passed to other realms. A small amount does remain and it is estimated that there are fewer than 1000 native secular speakers left in the United Kingdom. These are speakers of both Litvish and Poylish Yiddish. Litvish, once the centre of the Yiddish academic spheres is being replaced on a daily basis by its Poylish equivalent. This is not occurring by native secular Poylish speakers but by the Hassidic orthodox communities of London, many are resident in the Stamford Hill Area. The largest Litvish Orthodox community is the Chabad Lubovitsch, who has their centre of instruction like many other Orthodox ethnic groups in Crown Heights in the centre of Manhattan. The Chabad Lubovitsch may have its origins in Vilnius in Lithuania but today their main method of communication is via the medium of English. The vitality of Yiddish has been hanging on by a mere thread of survival since the Second World War and this has been achieved by the non Litvish speaking Poylish Orthodox communities, who have continued to instruct their children with Yiddish. Yiddish may be deteriorating rapidly in the secular community but in the Poylish religious community it is returning with a vengeance. The Poylish speaking communities are strict religious observers and rarely give insight to their community to outsiders. With such a closed community it is virtually impossible to predict the number of Yiddish speakers among them. It is estimated that there are about 1 million Orthodox Yiddish speakers, 500,000 in the United States, 300,000 in Israel and the rest scattered across the Diaspora. Yiddish is the language of instruction in their schools and it is not uncommon to hear Yiddish being spoken in the streets of Jerusalem by Jews not even of Ashkenazi descent. These communities are growing extensively due to the high birth rate per family. It is not unusual for families to have more than 10 children. This could change the demographics of Israel in the future and in 30 years from now 70% of the Israeli population will be Hassidic Yiddish speakers and the vitality of Hebrew as a Jewish language may again come into question. As for the United Kingdom there are some 40,000 native Yiddish speakers within the Orthodox community and Yiddish is again being spoken not only in London, but is gaining momentum also in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. The influence of secular Yiddish has played an important role in the development of society in London. Its influence may be decreasing as a result of an ageing secular population but with an increase of the Orthodox population. Yiddish may once again influence the cultural scene of London all be it from a more hidden and conservative source.
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