ON THE first Sunday of Krakow’s recent Jewish Culture Festival several rain-soaked families took their seats in a tiny pop-up library behind a 15th-century synagogue. It is the oldest of seven in Kazimierz, the historically Jewish quarter where the festival takes place every year. Agnieszka Legutko and Anna Rozenfeld greeted the group: “Shalom aleikhem!” “Aleikhem shalom,” replied the five young girls and their parents. Ms Legutko and Ms Rozenfeld, who were leading this children’s Yiddish workshop, introduced themselves in Yiddish, and started a chain. “Ikh heys Marianna” went the first girl, followed by Lotka, Edyta, Natasza and Lila. Then the singing began.
According to the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University fewer than one million people worldwide still speak Yiddish, compared with over 11m in 1939. Five of the six million Jewish Holocaust victims spoke Yiddish. A “nearly murdered language”, is how Michael Alpert, an American klezmer musician, describes it. But the decision made by the organisers of the Krakow festival to focus not on Hebrew or Holocaust studies but on Yiddish was unsurprising: the language appears to be recovering. Mr Alpert says the number of Yiddish speakers has increased in recent years, citing both the high birthrate of Hasidic communities worldwide, who still use the language, and also its appeal as “hip and cool, part of the new face of Jewish Poland”.
So it was that among a week of events related to Jewish culture in Krakow were Yiddish singing, dancing, concerts, lectures on Yiddish culture and literature, and—of course—Yiddish schmoozing. Schmooze, like kvetch, schlep and schmutz, arrived in the English language with the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi immigrants who came to America at the turn of the last century. A Germanic language with a Hebrew-based alphabet, Yiddish originated in Central Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries as a fusion of German with Aramaic and Hebrew. It became a separate language, and duly became the dominant spoken tongue of Ashkenazi Jews, and ultimately a word connoting their culture.
“It’s a dying language on the rise,” says Jeff Warschauer, a New Yorker who has led Yiddish singing workshops at the festival since the 1990s. This year he attracted a mix of English and Polish speakers, many of whom he says were not even Jewish. Festival attendees can sing Yiddish tunes by day, then dance to Yiddish tunes by night (pictured). Klezmer, the traditional music of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, is often referred to as Yiddish music. The Klezmatics, a Grammy Award-winning klezmer band, performed in Krakow.
The festival’s Yiddish focus echoes a larger phenomenon. American non-profits such as New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research maintain significant Yiddish archives, offer educational programmes and fund international initiatives. Universities such as Oxford, Chicago and Columbia offer Yiddish as a foreign language. Summer Yiddish institutes take place in Vilnius, Warsaw, Tel Aviv, Paris, Brussels and several American cities.
“Many of the people who I taught Hebrew to in the early 2000s decided to continue their studies in Yiddish,” says Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) of Krakow, a native New Yorker now living in Poland. Anna Gulinska, the JCC’s director of programming, was one such student. She says the surge is not new, and that many people who were educated at these institutes are teaching and performing at events like the Jewish Culture Festival.
Throughout the year, the JCC hosts Shabbat dinner for at least 60 community members every Friday. That number rises to 500 during the festival. Every week the room goes quiet when Mundek Elbinger, an 85-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, stands to sing Yiddish tunes. He’s one of the oldest native Yiddish speakers in Poland. “Oyfn Pripetshik”, the best known of the tunes, tells the story of a rabbi teaching his students the Hebrew alphabet. These are the songs Mr Elbinger grew up with; this is his mame loshn (mother tongue). Jezyk zydowski, he calls it in Polish, the Jewish language.