Discovering the language

History and present

Yiddish, a language that its leading historians put at birth around the 10th century in what is now Lorraine, has had an irregular presence on French territory ever since. Its western variant was spoken continuously in Alsace until the 1970s; the eastern, which came with Jewish immigrants from Slavic regions, was important in Paris, Strasbourg, Metz, Nancy, Orléans, Lille and other cities between the end of the 19th century and the 1980s, despite the bloodletting of the genocide
1941-1945 (its speakers were in the majority among the more than 70,000 French Jews who died in deportation). It's because of this ancient yet recent presence that Yiddish was classified in 1999 as one of France's landless languages.
Yiddish was spoken, written and printed throughout Europe between the 16th and 20th centuries, over a vast territory stretching from the Netherlands to the Carpathians, with particularly important centers in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Romania. Waves of migration in the 19th and 20th centuries took the language to every corner of the globe, including the Americas, Western Europe and Palestine/Israel. As a result of genocide and natural or forced acculturation processes in various countries, the number of speakers has fallen from over 10 million in 1939 to around one million today. It is therefore a weakened language, but still alive in its enclaves in North America, Western Europe, Israel, Argentina, Mexico and even in some parts of its original regions in Eastern Europe.

Cultural heritage

Yiddish-language literature is at least 600 years old. For centuries, in symbiosis with Hebrew, it served at times to popularize religious culture, at others to discreetly penetrate certain elements of non-Jewish cultures among the working classes.
Since the early 19th c., it has become the vector of a powerful secularization movement, opening up to new political and social ideas and quickly achieving a development comparable to that of more established European literatures. Theater and the press experienced a remarkable boom both in the European cradle and in the lands of immigration. They still exist today, but their importance is nowhere near that of the past. Between the two world wars, networks of secular Yiddish schools operated in Poland, Lithuania and Romania, as well as in the Americas, where a few establishments have survived to the present day.
The number of titles published to date in Yiddish is around 30,000, including fiction, poetry, drama, essays and works on history, philology, ethnography and more. Daily newspapers and periodicals published in the past all over the world (a small number are still in print) number in the hundreds. There are numerous links between Yiddish culture and several major aspects of modern cultural evolution: the avant-garde visual arts of the 1920s-1930s, jazz music and cinema. The current boom in Yiddish chant and klezmer music in France and elsewhere testifies to the lively and fertile presence of the language's folkloric and poetic heritage throughout the Western world. The international symposium held at Unesco in November 2012 under the title "Permanence of Yiddish" aptly reflected this ancient richness and the way it irrigates the present.

Studying Yiddish

In the world

Pioneers of teaching and research in the Yiddish field, the United States currently boasts a good dozen universities where these studies have a consequent place: Columbia, New York University and Bart College (New York), Los Angeles, Berkeley and Stanford (California), Ann Arbor (Michigan), etc. Elsewhere in the Americas, Yiddish is studied at universities in Montreal, Toronto and Buenos Aires. In Israel, Yiddish is taught at the universities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer-Sheva; in Germany, at Trier, Düsseldorf and Heidelberg; in England, at UCL (London); in Russia, at the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg; in Poland, at Warsaw and Krakow. Courses are also offered in the Netherlands, Belgium, Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Denmark. International colloquia and numerous academic publications regularly demonstrate the vitality of research in this area.

In France

At the University of Paris 4-Sorbonne, Yiddish is taught as part of Germanic Studies. The same is true of the much more modest program at Paris 8. Exceptionally in Europe, a non-university institution, the Maison de la Culture Yiddish - Bibliothèque Medem (Paris), plays a key role in teaching and lexicographical research.

The Maison de la Culture Yiddish - Bibliothèque Medem (Paris) plays a key role in teaching and lexicographical research.


Reality and particularity
Yiddish is taught at Inalco as part of the Department of Hebraic and Jewish Studies. Its beginnings date back to the 1930s. The course comprises three levels (also available through the CNED), offered as part of the Hebrew bachelor's degree options, plus a compulsory civilization UE in bachelor 1. Yiddish shares a cross-disciplinary seminar (with the other Jewish languages) in the Master's program. Although the three levels are nominally language-based, in reality they include whole sections of civilization: history, folklore and literature.
In 2012-2013 enrolment was around 35 students on the 3 levels (CNED included), but it should be pointed out that statistics are imprecise, particularly with regard to enrolments in the Langues O passport.
Two bilingual certificates exist as school diplomas: Yiddish/Hebrew and Yiddish/Polish.
Within the framework of the PRES, Yiddish/German (and Judeo-Spanish/Spanish) certificates have been designed with Paris 3 and endorsed by this university but not (yet) by Inalco.
As far as the teaching of Yiddish is concerned, Inalco is unique in Europe in that it brings together the three living Judeo-languages under the umbrella of Hebraic and Jewish studies, giving students (and teacher-researchers too) a comprehensive overview of the achievements and challenges of Jewish interlinguistics. Added to this is the interaction with Slavic studies (Polish, Russian, ukrainian) conducted at the same institution.

Outlets and usefulness

Among those who have acquired most of their Yiddish training at Inalco since 1994, at least five have found paid work in the field of Yiddish culture in France. This is the case of the two librarians at the Maison de la Culture Yiddish - Bibliothèque Medem (Paris), one of whom also studied at our Institute in the Polish and Russian departments. The same person is currently a Yiddish lecturer at Paris 4- Sorbonne, has published research in Yiddish literature and taught at universities and cultural centers abroad. Three others are also involved in teaching the language; three have written doctoral theses in which Yiddish literature is part of the subject; one participates as a Yiddish speaker in a history research team at the EHESS. Four of the five work occasionally on translating books and deciphering Yiddish documents, activities for which there is a growing demand. In addition, training in Yiddish at Inalco has undoubtedly made the CVs of other former students more attractive, as they have found temporary work at institutions such as the Mémorial de la Shoah or the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme.
Two lexicographical works published with the material or at least moral support of Inalco prove the liveliness of demand and the importance of our Institute in this particular field.
These are the Dictionnaire de mots d'origine hébraïque et araméenne en usage dans la langue yiddish (1997, 2nd expanded edition 2012), distributed worldwide to date in over 2,500 copies, and the Dictionnaire yiddish-français (2002, reprinted 2012), some 3,000 copies of which have been sold throughout the French-speaking world and beyond. The latter work has just been adapted for English (Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, Indiana University Press 2013).

(Summary prepared 08/07/2013 by I. Niborski, MdC)