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Jewish Studies Yiddish
Naomi Seidman, Shaina Hammerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0017


Yiddish is a thousand-year-old Jewish language, with origins, according to a broad scholarly consensus, in the German Rhineland. The major component of Yiddish, in both its Western and Eastern varieties, is Middle High German, with varying admixtures of Slavic, Hebrew, and other languages. Western Yiddish, spoken from Amsterdam to Germany, faded away in the course of the 19th century, with the acculturation and social integration of its speakers. Eastern Yiddish, which was spoken throughout Eastern Europe and its international diaspora until the Holocaust, persists primarily in ultra-Orthodox enclaves. While Yiddish was accepted as the Jewish vernacular in premodern periods, albeit in a subsidiary role to Hebrew, writers of the Jewish Enlightenment such as Moses Mendelssohn disparaged it as a “jargon,” and with the beginnings of Jewish modernization and secularization the status of Yiddish diminished. The maskil (Jewish Enlightener) Mendel Lefin, writing in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, was virtually unique among his peers in according Yiddish the status of a true language. In the late 19th century, when new varieties of Jewish nationalism began to emerge, Yiddish was championed as a language in its own right and embraced by a range of social, political, and cultural movements. During the first part of the 20th century, Yiddish culture in many forms (journalism, film, theater, criticism, and literature) flourished in Eastern Europe and the major centers of Eastern European immigration. The academic study of Yiddish in Yiddish began in earnest in the 1920s, and achieved its major advances in three main centers, the Vilnius-based YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut—Yiddish Scientific Institute); the Soviet centers of Yiddish literary criticism in Kiev and Minsk; and among the critics on the New York literary scene. The Holocaust and Soviet repression dealt a devastating blow to Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The postwar period saw the transfer of YIVO activities to New York and the gradual establishment of new academic programs in Israel, Europe, and North America. Yiddish scholarship is now thriving, particularly in the field of literary criticism; this bibliography focuses on recent academic publications on the Yiddish language, culture, and literature, as well as major online, library, and archival resources.

General Overviews

The indispensable classic overview of Yiddish language and culture and arguably the greatest achievement of Yiddish studies is Weinreich 2008, which explores Yiddish in its full historical range and from linguistic, social, and cultural perspectives. A partial English translation of the Yiddish work, without Weinreich’s copious footnotes, appeared in 1980, with the full work republished in its entirety in English translation in 2008. While Weinreich’s understanding of the linguistic and geographic origins of Yiddish has been contested (most radically by Wexler 2002, cited under Linguistic Studies), the overall argument for Yiddish as both a “fusion” language and a language with its own unity, integrity, and character remains canonical. Weinreich and Reyzen 1931 provides a sense of Yiddishism at a major founding moment—the Czernowitz Conference of 1908. For general readers, Katz 2004 provides a learned but lively and accessible introduction to Yiddish in its long history, while Harshav 1990 focuses primarily on the interwar period, exploring the distinctive aspects of Yiddish discourse as well as Yiddish culture as a “polysystem” that included, at its height, a range of interconnected educational, cultural, political, and literary systems. Baumgarten and Bunis 1999 addresses Yiddish in its contact with other cultural systems, while Kerler 1991 and Kuznitz 2002 provide overviews of the academic field of Yiddish studies; Estraikh and Krutikov 1999 adds an overview of the state of Yiddish culture as well.

  • Baumgarten, Jean, and David Bunis, eds. Le yiddish: Langue, culture, société. Paris: CNRS, 1999.

    Rejecting the trend of writing about Yiddish or Jews in isolation, these eight articles by French and Israeli scholars focus on Yiddish linguistic and cultural “porosity” over the past millennium, including “cultural transfers” not only between Jews and Gentiles but also among different Jewish cultures.

  • Estraikh, Gennady, and Mikhail Krutikov, eds. Yiddish in the Contemporary World: Papers of the First Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish. Oxford: Legenda, 1999.

    This anthology of ten essays discusses the contemporary status of both the academic study of and Yiddish cultural production in Israel, Europe, and the United States. While obviously dated, it provides a snapshot of Yiddish academic and cultural offerings in the 1990s.

  • Harshav, Benjamin. The Meaning of Yiddish. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

    This richly textured profile of the meaning and “worlds” of Yiddish combines a history and analysis of the characteristics of Yiddish and an exploration of “the modern Jewish revolution” in the light of Yiddish literature, particularly Yiddish modernist poetry in America.

  • Katz, Dovid. Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

    A broad and animated overview addressed to a general audience, this book also has much to offer specialists, with well-researched and lively sections on Old Yiddish literature, Yiddish and Kabbalah, Westernization, Yiddish and Orthodoxy, and contemporary issues in Yiddish. The most readable and comprehensive of introductions to Yiddish.

  • Kerler, Dov-Ber, ed. History of Yiddish Studies: Papers from the Third Annual Oxford Winter Symposium in Yiddish Language and Literature, 13–15 December 1987. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood, 1991.

    A historiography of modern Yiddish Studies in the 20th century, including biographies of important linguists, contributions to Yiddish dialect studies, and an entertaining section on khoyzek and katoves (mockery and insults), with Dovid Katz’s summary of the “Pavlo/Pavel Slobodjans’kyj affair,” in which Paul Wexler published critical reviews of Katz’s work under this pseudonym.

  • Kuznitz, Cecile E. “Yiddish Studies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 541–571. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Useful overview of Yiddish studies from its Christian beginnings to the flourishing of Yiddish studies in Vilnius, New York, and the Soviet Union; follows the decimation of these centers to post-Holocaust and “postvernacular” (the term is Kuznitz’s coinage) settings in North America, Israel, and Europe. Extensive bibliography.

  • Weinreich, Max. History of the Yiddish Language. Edited by Paul Glasser. Translated by Shlomo Nobel. 2 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    The most comprehensive treatment of Yiddish in its long development, from a historical, cultural, and linguistic perspective. This monumental work explores the origins of Yiddish in the Rhineland, etymological components of Yiddish as a “fusion” language, and the influence of the Talmud on Ashkenazic culture. Originally published in Yiddish by YIVO in 1973.

  • Weinreich, Max, and Zalmen Reyzen, eds. Di ershte yidishe shprakh-konferents: Barikhtn, dokumentn, un opklangen fun der tshernovitser konferents, 1908. Vilnius: Bibliotek fun YIVO, 1931.

    A basic primary resource for Yiddish literary historians, which includes documents on the first Czernowitz Conference on the Yiddish Language in 1908, participants, a reconstruction (over twenty years later) of the schedule, the text of speeches, and (more reliably) responses from the worldwide press.

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