Yiddish Geography

Yiddishland is a relatively recent neologism that refers to the country of Yiddish. It first appeared in the works of Boruch Rivkin (1883-1945), a literary critic and social philosopher. Most often this term is used to designate the vast geographical area in several countries of Eastern and Central Europe, where the first forms of a specifically Jewish Germanic dialect emerged about a thousand years ago and evolved, by the beginning of the 20th century, into one of the most developed European languages with a rich cultural and literary tradition. In 2022, the Yiddishland Pavilion opened at the Venice Biennale, one of the largest international art exhibitions. Its organizers emphasize that Rivkin also offers a different definition of Yiddishland: the virtual space that includes everything related to the active development of Yiddish.

Based on the first geographical definition, the contemporary journalist and writer Yoel Matveyev discusses the “new Yiddishland” in his Yiddish articles, namely the compact Hasidic quarters of New York, London, Jerusalem and a number of other cities, whose residents continue to use Yiddish in daily life and their children’s education. They have built a strong language support infrastructure is such areas as public media, book publishing and popular music.

Distributed across different countries and continents, these islands of Yiddish with a total population of over 250 thousand people (comparable to the entire populations of some countries such as Malta and Iceland) are interconnected by various social ties, constituting a kind of single “network country”. Although this Hasidic reincarnation of the original Eastern European Yiddishland does not strive for the development of a high secular culture and rarely manifests to the world its very existence, it serves as a guarantor of the future development of Yiddish as a language of everyday communication.

Yiddishland as a virtual space is the global network of educational institutions and programs, music bands, activist groups, authors and researchers. It also includes territories where Yiddish had or still has an official status, despite the small number of local speakers.

Finally, examples of combining the geographic Yiddishland with the virtual one are also known: two fairly large events are held every summer in the State of New York, which allow their participants to temporarily immerse themselves in the atmosphere of constant Yiddish communication.

Below are some of the most important points and horizons of today’s “Yiddish country”.

1. Yiddish is the main language of communication in the predominantly Hasidic New York neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park, as well as in the nearby towns of Monsey, New Square and Kiryas Joel; in a large part of the Montreal district Outremont; in the Jerusalem quarter Mea Shearim; in the London area Stamford Hill; in the Jewish quarters of Anwerp. The New York City administration added Yiddish interfaces to the ticket vending machines in some subway stations; the city publishes various official documents in Yiddish geared specifically towards the Hasidim. A number of Hasidic periodicals are published in New York in tens of thousands of copies each. Notable Orthodox Jewish communities who speak Yiddish in everyday life also exist in Zurich, Manchester, Vienna, Strasbourg, Johannesburg, and Melbourne.

2. Up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Yiddish was the official state language in the Jewish Autonomous Region. Today, the local government still emphasizes the special place of this language. The newspaper Birobidzhaner Stern, which is published weekly in Birobidzhan, contains Yiddish pages in every issue. The language is taught in one of the city’s schools, new books are regularly published and television programs are broadcast in Yiddish. There is also an emerging tradition of Birobidzhan Yiddish festivals.

3. Yiddish is recognized as one of the official minority languages in Sweden, resulting in governmental support of cultural projects, publication of books and some official documents. There are also some examples of television broadcasting.

4. Intensive academic Yiddish study programs at all levels exist in New York, Paris, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Heidelberg and a number of other cities across the world.

5. The Yiddish Vokh program is annually held in the New York State town of Copake. For a whole week, its participants communicate exclusively in Yiddish. Another program, the Yiddish Farm, is held every summer in the town of New Hampton, also in the State of New York. It combines Yiddish practice with some agricultural work. Besides various activists of different backgrounds, this unique project attracts some Hasidim, who get the opportunity to familiarize themselves there with the literary language of secular Yiddishists.

6. The world’s largest center for digitization of Yiddish books operates in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks to this institution, almost 12,000 publications are available online free of charge. Smaller digital collections of Yiddish books and periodicals are published by a number of libraries around the world. Of particular interest is the digital collection of old books starting from the 16th century, available to download on the website of the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Extremely rich archives of digitized Yiddish periodicals are published online by the National Library of Israel.

7. During its almost century-long history, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research with its headquarters in New York, one of the world’s largest Jewish institutions founded in 1925 in Vilnius, has accumulated a priceless archive of Yiddish-related documents, various items and research papers. Among other things, YIVO published an important collection of scientific materials publicly available online, including biographies of Yiddish writers and poets, information on Eastern European Jewish shtetls and on the history of Ashkenazi Jews.

8. Several dozen contemporary Yiddish authors live in different regions of the globe. Together with Yiddish journalists and editors, they constitute a very special creative segment of today’s global Yiddishland. Secular Yiddish periodicals are published in the USA, Israel, Russia (Birobidzhan), and in the Netherlands.

9. Music, especially klezmer, is probably the most popular manifestation of contemporary Yiddish culture. Quite numerous musical bands also exist inside the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic communities. The musical aspect of Yiddishland is one of the most important components of this globally dispersed virtual country.

10. Radio and TV programs in Yiddish, either on air or online, are broadcast in Birobidzhan, New York, Paris. Among the recent feature films and documentaries where Yiddish dialogues play a prominent role, several ones tell about the Hasidic life in North America, which again demonstrates the important role of Hasidim in preserving Yiddish as a daily spoken language.

11. The further development of Yiddish is also stimulated by various exhibitions, festivals, and theatrical performances. Examples include the above-mentioned Yiddishland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the Yiddish festivals in Birobidzhan. Professional Yiddish theaters exist in New York, Tel Aviv and Warsaw.

12. One must not forget that a significant part of Yiddish speakers still lives in the territory of the historical Eastern European Yiddishland. Together with several other researchers, Dr. Dov-Ber Kerler has published an enormous video archive of interviews with Yiddish speakers recently conducted by field expeditions across Eastern Europe. Another monumental video archive, focusing on the Litvak (Lithuanian and Belarusian) dialect of Yiddish, was recently posted online by Dr. Dovid Katz. There is also one interesting fact: a certain number of Yiddish-speaking Hasidim revently moved from Western Europe and North America to their ancestral Hungary. Judging by the activities of young Yiddishists, the old Eastern European Yiddishland has some chances for a revival – albeit on a tiny scale compared to its glorious early 20th century past.