Every now and then one receives a request for a favour that doesn’t seem like a favour at all because it is simply a pleasure to do. A few weeks ago I received just such a request. My friend from Sweden asked me to go to Boro Park (also spelled Borough Park), a largely Hasidic neighbourhood in Brooklyn, to buy some books in Yiddish for a library where he works in Stockholm. He said they didn’t need to be anything specific, but they should be visually interesting enough to appeal to someone who might not actually understand Yiddish. Not a bad assignment – go buy pretty books. I accepted the challenge.
Now, you might be wondering what a library in Sweden would want with books in Yiddish, especially while acknowledging that the readership for said books will be limited. This all stems from a decision made in 1999 whereby the Minority Language Committee of Sweden designated five official minority languages of Sweden. These are Finnish, Sami, Romani, Meänkieli, and Yiddish. Increased awareness of Sweden’s minority language communities and pressure to recognise and support them resulted in a law being implemented on January 1, 2010 to establish legal recognition and protection of the official minority languages. (Incidentally, Swedish was not even recognised an official language until 2009).
“The law results from the fact that Swedish minority policies did not have the impact that was hoped for and that Sweden was criticised for not having met its international legal obligations. Above all, the needs of minorities had not been considered outside of the administrative departments. Therefore there is now a unified law that applies throughout the country with strengthened protection in certain areas. Ensuring that minority rights are enforced is one part of Sweden’s work for human rights.”
“Yiddish, Romani Chib, Finnish, Meänkieli, and Sami are national minority languages. The latter three have extra protection under the new law and can be used in correspondence with the authorities, and minorities have the right to elderly care and childcare in their own language.”
So what exactly were the criteria for deciding which languages should be included as official minority languages? Basically, a language would be granted official status if it had a historical presence in Sweden for a significant amount of time and if it was spoken by a significant amount of people. Yiddish, having been brought to Sweden by Jews starting in the 1700’s, and having had its population of speakers more recently replenished by refugees in the years after WWII, met the qualifications.
One final piece of the minority language legislation is that the speakers of these languages should reap cultural benefit from the newly acquired status. This idea of cultural benefit focuses in large part on the younger generations.
“The law is especially concerned with the development of children’s cultural identity and the promotion of minority language use among children.”
What all of this legal protection means, in a country like Sweden, is that there is a fair amount of funding available for the promotion of minority languages. On Sveriges Radio’s website you can find children’s stories in Yiddish, and Sveriges Utbildningsradio even has some children’s tv programs dubbed in Yiddish (as well as all the other minority languages). Yiddish books are published in Sweden every year, and there are language learning resources available for free online. And finally, getting back to my mission, librarian Yiddish-enthusiasts get to stock the shelves of their local libraries with Yiddish titles.
So last Monday I set out on the D train for Boro Park in search of fresh Yiddish materials to be sent to join the minority language love-fest over in Sweden. The mere 30 minutes it took me to get to my destination transported me to another world. Walking out of the station at 62nd Street is a bit like stepping back in time. The vast majority of the people are Hasidic, ultra-orthodox Jews, the women dressed in modest clothes right out of the 1940’s and the men dressed in hats, suits, and long coats that harken back a century or so further. The shops are mostly mom and pop establishments, some still with old hand-painted signs, and the language on the street is Yiddish.
New York has long been a haven for the Yiddish language. Less than 100 years ago you could find a thriving Yiddish-language theater scene, hear Yiddish dramas on the radio, read local newspapers in Yiddish, and more or less live your daily life in the language. The need to flee persecution in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and later due to WWII meant that there was a constant influx of Yiddish speakers into the greater New York area, and Brooklyn was a place where many of them settled. Over time, however, secular and less religiously conservative Jews assimilated to mainstream, English-speaking life, and the language ceased to be passed on to younger generations. The average New Yorker (Jewish or not) still peppers their English with a large number of Yiddish loanwords and expressions, but the language in its true form has mostlly died out…with one large exception.
In the aftermath of WWII many Hasidic religious leaders saw assimilation as the demise of the Jewish people; some even taught that the holocaust was a divine punishment for having assimilated too much into mainstream society. As these leaders began to rebuild their communities in Brooklyn, they emphasized the need to remain separate, religious, and also Yiddish-speaking. Today, these communities have mostly stuck to their linguistic guns, and in neighbourhoods like Boro Park and South Williamsburg, as well as towns upstate like Kiryas Joel and New Square, Yiddish is the main language of daily life, from seniors to toddlers.
In general my efforts to speak Yiddish in these neighbourhoods have been pretty well received, and this time was no exception. The first place I stopped was a small bookstore that I like because the owners are always friendly and willing to chat. I explained what I needed, and the man behind the counter directed me to a rack of children’s books with colourful pictures, graphic novels, and comics. At first he didn’t bat an eyelash at my Yiddish, but after a few minutes he asked me why I had learned it. I replied, “?פאר וואס נישט” (Why not?) He shrugged his shoulders and made a contemplative face as if to say, “Good point – why not?”. After a little more shmoozing, I bought a graphic novel (in Yiddish) about Mashhadi Jews in Iran and continued on my way.
As I walked down 13th Avenue, there was no shortage of opportunities to eavesdrop on Yiddish conversations, read the headlines of the many Yiddish newspapers at the newsstands, and succumb to the temptation of bakeries selling baked goods, all with Yiddish names. My absolute favourite Yiddish sitings, though, were DIY advertisements, hand-written and taped to walls or lampposts. Here’s a good one:
There is also a fair amount of English and Hebrew spoken in neighbourhood, but little details like this ad give the feeling that Yiddish is the language that’s nearest and dearest to the community.
My last stop in Boro Park was Eichler’s, a large Judaica store with a particularly good selection of books and everything else in Yiddish. I come here when I need a little inspiration to reignite my enthusiasm for the language. It might be Yiddish boggle or a CD of techno music in Yiddish, but I always find something. After checking out the comics and religiously themed children’s graphic novels, I found a book of first person narratives, relaying harrowing or otherwise touching true stories from people’s lives. That’ll do the trick.
Walking back to the train, carrying some books bound for Stockholm and a couple for my own bookshelf, I couldn’t help but think that the Yiddish world of Boro Park was a far cry from the Yiddish world in Sweden. Here the language is alive and dynamic, a true community language of deep importance for the very religious community that speaks it. In Sweden, Yiddish is more of a relic, spoken by a dwindling number of elderly, often secular Jews, with little transmission to the young. Yet here the language has very little recognition and no government funding, while in Sweden they seem to have the resources to dedicate to the language, but probably no more than a few thousand speakers in the whole country. I started to wonder what place these books from Boro Park would have in a library in Sweden. Even if these two pockets of Yiddish have little to no common ground, I suppose the important thing is that the language is being supported in one way or another wherever it can get support.
Once home, I decided to make one more contribution to the presence of Yiddish in Boro Park by writing a Yelp review for Eichler’s, in Yiddish of course. When I tried to post it, though, the Yelp language police didn’t like what I was doing, and the site wouldn’t support the Hebrew characters.
Luckily, Yiddish is a flexible language that has always had to adapt and navigate all sorts of policing, so in the end I found a way.