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Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew characters, is a composite language with its roots in the medieval Judeo-German spoken by the Jews settled in the Rhine Valley.

It is a fusion language like English, Swahili or Creole. The Germanic substrate (representing 70 to 75% of the lexical stock) is enriched with contributions from Romance languages, Hebrew-Aramaic (nearly 15%), Slavic and – in the Anglo-Saxon areas – English.

Living language and therefore constantly changing, Yiddish has incorporated during its evolution elements of interaction between the Jewish communities and the surrounding populations. This is the source of a particularly rich vocabulary that allows to express different registers and synonyms, often from different lexical funds.

The Jewish communities of the German linguistic area, called Ashkenazi (from Hebrew Ashkenaz, designating Germany), moved eastward by successive waves of migration.

There are two major Yiddish dialect areas: Western Yiddish and Eastern Yiddish. The first includes specific dialects of the Netherlands, Alsace, Switzerland and Germany, the second those which were used in Poland, Russia, Lithuania, White Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and the Baltic States.

Today Yiddish is spoken by different groups of the Jewish population. In Europe, it continues to be used among survivors of generations raised in this language, even though they are quite few, since a large majority of its speakers perished in the Holocaust. Counting the countries of the former Soviet Union, there are still tens of thousands of Yiddish-speakers, mostly elderly.

In Canada and in the U.S. (especially in certain neighborhoods of New York) as well as in Israel, the Orthodox Jewish communities with their roots in Central and Eastern Europe, have kept Yiddish as a vernacular language. Yiddish is spoken also in Argentina, Brazil and Australia. All together the Yiddish-speaking community is estimated at a few hundred thousand individuals.

For several years one can notice a growing interest in Yiddish language and culture among Jews as well as non-Jews. The younger generations, mostly in Eastern Europe but also in the West, rediscover an ancient culture based on Yiddish, which was an integral part of their national cultures. This interest led to the creation of chairs and departments at different universities in Europe, North America and Israel, and the creation of Yiddish festivals in several countries worldwide.

The activities of the Paris Yiddish Centre - Medem Library in Paris (including Yiddish classes and various workshops), help individuals to meet this interest, which clearly exceeds mere curiosity or nostalgia.

During the 19th century Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe started to abandon their traditional way of life. However the emancipation process was largely constrained by economic underdevelopment and autocratic political systems, unlike the West, where Jews were granted citizenship and equal political and economic rights. The East-European Jewry retained therefore their particularity, faded away elsewhere, and this was one of the factors that lead to retaining Yiddish as a common language.

The rise of nationalisms and of modern anti-Semitism resulted in the emergence of a Jewish collective consciousness, expressed in particular by the claim of cultural autonomy, for which Yiddish was a vector. This “Yiddishist” current became a major factor in Jewish life.
On the eve of World War II, some 11 million people, or three quarters of world Jewry, spoke Yiddish, of which 6.77 million in Central and Eastern Europe and 317,000 in Western Europe. This teeming life was hampered by the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide has eradicated almost all of European Jewry, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where the great mass of Yiddish speaking population lived. Another factor has contributed to the waning of Yiddish culture, already heavily compromised by the catastrophe of the Holocaust: Yiddish-speaking parents have failed to transmit their language to their children, who, at best, retained some passive understanding thereof.

During over 130 years of its history, the Yiddish theatre had different functions for the Jewish population.

Created initially in Eastern Europe as an entertainment, it was essentially aimed at a popular public, for whom Yiddish was the only vernacular language. Its first actors were singers and public entertainers and its repertoire consisted of easy works, essentially operettas, melodramas and musical comedies.

From the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Jewish intellectuals aspired to the creation of high quality Yiddish theatre, comparable to what was available on the Russian and European stages. At that time was born a quality drama literature, of which I.L. Peretz, Sholem-Aleykhem and Jacob Gordin were among the initiators, as well as artistic troupes, like those of Esther-Rachel Kaminski in Warsaw, Peretz Hirshbein in Odessa, Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashevsky in New York.

At that time the function of the Yiddish theatre changed: in addition to being an entertainment, it became an educational tool, aimed at raising the intellectual level of the Jewish masses and, as expressed by one of the instigators of the new trend, Abraham Yitshok Kaminski, “to take the Jews out of their ghetto.”

In the years after the Holocaust the Yiddish theatre had a new function: to bring hope to the survivors and bear witness to the failure of the Nazi extermination enterprise. The title of the first Yiddish show in liberated Lublin in Poland, in 1944, was “The Song Has Survived.” This new function was taken up by Yiddish theatres in Warsaw, Bucharest, Paris, London and New York.

Nowadays, when Central and Eastern Europe have lost almost all of their Jews, and the number of people using Yiddish in their everyday life continually declines, the theatres have followed the trend and one by one turned off their footlights.

However, the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed a renewal of interest for the Yiddish language; there are those who wish to rediscover the language of their parents or grandparents, and those, Jews and non-Jews, mainly young researchers, who realized that there are treasures of Yiddish culture to explore in the libraries of the world. Among these treasures are dramatic works that disappeared from the stages long ago or that never had a chance to face a public.

Today’s function of the Yiddish theatre is to bring these treasures back to life. This is the mission of the few Yiddish theatres in the world.