In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christian Yiddishism in the Early Modern Period

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Catalogues
  • Other Christian Yiddishists

Jewish Studies Christian Yiddishism in the Early Modern Period
Aya Elyada
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0161


“Christian Yiddishism” refers to the engagement of Christian authors with the Yiddish language and literature in the Early Modern period (c. 1500–1800), which developed as a branch of the broader phenomenon of Christian Hebraism. In this context, the term “Yiddishists” does not intend to designate admirers or supporters of the Yiddish language, as was sometimes the case in later periods, but simply persons who took interest with the language, studied it, and wrote about it, out of various reasons and motivations. The Christian interest in Yiddish gave rise to a vast corpus of linguistic and philological writings on the Jewish language and its literature, prepared by Christian authors for a Christian readership. These writings included theoretical depictions and analyses of the Yiddish language, grammars and textbooks, dictionaries, bibliographies of Yiddish writings, literary surveys, and translations from and to Yiddish. Christian Yiddishism was first and foremost a Protestant phenomenon. It had its roots in the Reformation era and in the work of reformers, and during the ensuing two and a half centuries was dominated by Protestant scholars. It was also an essentially German phenomenon. The Christian writings on Yiddish were written almost exclusively by German scholars and were published throughout the German-speaking lands (especially in Leipzig, Halle, Basel, Nuremberg, Wittenberg, and Frankfurt am Main). Accordingly, the language that dominates these writings, besides Latin, is German. Most of the Christian Yiddishists came from the heart of the academic and ecclesiastical establishment of the time: many held positions as professors of theology, Hebrew, and oriental languages at the leading German universities; others served as preachers, ministers, and superintendents of the Protestant Church. Hebrew lecturers and censors, professional missionaries, school headmasters, and even a couple of police inspectors also participated in the Yiddish enterprise. About a quarter of the authors who could be identified were converts from Judaism. Christian concern with Yiddish was part of a wider interest in Jews and Judaism in early modern Germany, manifested in the rise of Christian Hebraism, in Christian ethnographies on Jewish life and religion, and in the revival of the Judenmission. It was also part of the early modern concern with language, linguistics, and philology in general, and with questions regarding vernaculars, dialects, and foreign languages in particular. Scholarly engagement with the historical phenomenon of Christian Yiddishism can thus contribute to our understanding of Christian-Jewish relations in early modern Europe, as well as to the field of social and cultural history of language.

General Overviews

Despite the fact that the cultural phenomenon of “Christian Yiddishism” is almost five hundred years old, the literature produced during its first 250 years, from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (which 20th-century Yiddishist Ber Borochov classified as “primitive filologishe shriftn,” to distinguish from the “modern” literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries), has received only limited consideration in modern historical research. Since the writings of early modern Christian Yiddishists deal with the Jews’ language, they have mainly attracted the attention of modern linguists and philologists of historical Yiddish. The corpus that emerged from their investigations includes detailed bibliographies of the existing Christian works on Yiddish (see Bibliographies and Catalogues), as well as more-elaborated literary surveys that offer a useful introduction to the field, such as Avé-Lallemant 1980 [published in 1862], Althaus 1968, Katz 1986, and Baumgarten 2005. They provide short descriptions of the Christian works and basic biographical details on the prominent authors, refer briefly to the historical context in which the works were written, and present the single works in the frame of a historical narrative. In some cases they also provide linguistic analysis and evaluation of the more important works. A more comprehensive and thorough analysis of the Christian works on Yiddish is offered in Weinreich 1993 [published in 1923] and, more recently, in Frakes 2007. Both Max Weinreich and Jerold Frakes are mainly concerned with the linguistic and philological aspects of the Christian writings. As do other modern researchers of Yiddish, they focus on the technical aspects, the means and methods of the research in Yiddish linguistics, while attempting to evaluate the accuracy of the early modern linguistic presentations, and hence their reliability as sources in the study of historical Yiddish. In contrast to this linguistic-philological perspective, Elyada 2012 uses a historical-cultural point of view, which aims to define the place of the Jewish language in the different, albeit intertwined, theological, cultural, economic, and social discourses of the Early Modern period. This approach can also be found in Gilman 1986 and Grossman 2000. Both these works, however, focus on the discourse on the Jewish language from the Enlightenment onward and dedicate only limited attention to the Early Modern period. Elyada 2017 discusses early modern Christian Yiddishism from the perspective of translation.

  • Althaus, Hans Peter. “Die Erforschung der jiddischen Sprache.” In Germanische Dialektologie: Festschrift für Walther Mitzka zum 80. Geburtstag. Vol. 1. Edited by Ludwig Erich Schmitt, 224–263. Zeitschrift für Mundartforschung, n.s. 5. Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1968.

    As part of the discussion of the evolution of Yiddish studies up until the author’s day, a useful and interesting survey of early modern Christian Yiddishism is to be found on pp. 231–242.

  • Avé-Lallemant, Friedrich Christian Benedict. Das deutsche Gaunertum in seiner social-politischen, literarischen und linguistischen Ausbildung zu seinem heutigen Bestande. 3 vols. Hildesheim, Germany, and New York: G. Olms, 1980.

    Originally published as four volumes in 1858–1862 (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus). The work of a police inspector from Lübeck, whose investigations of the language of the German underworld led him to undertake a fundamental research of Yiddish. Volume 3 of his magnum opus, published in 1862, includes a grammatical, literary, and historical analysis of Yiddish, as well as a chapter on early modern Christian writings on the language (pp. 211–244). Available online.

  • Baumgarten, Jean. Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature. Edited and translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199276332.001.0001

    Originally published in French in 1993. The book is dedicated to the topic of early modern Yiddish literature. In the first chapter of the book, Baumgarten offers an interesting discussion on Christian Yiddishism, emphasizing its connection to the European context of the time. Available online by subscription.

  • Elyada, Aya. A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804781930.001.0001

    The most comprehensive treatment of early modern Christian Yiddishism to date. The book does not consider the linguistic and philological aspects of the Christian works on Yiddish, but rather the cultural and historical ones. Specifically, it discusses the various motivations for Christian preoccupation with the Yiddish language and literature in early modern Germany, as well as the ways in which Yiddish was depicted and represented in the Christian texts.

  • Elyada, Aya. “Zwischen Austausch und Polemik: Christliche Übersetzungen jiddischer Literatur im Deutschland der Frühneuzeit.” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 69.1 (2017): 47–73.

    DOI: 10.1163/15700739-90000267

    The paper explores German translations of Yiddish literary texts, prepared by Christian Yiddishists for Christian readership in the Early Modern period. It examines the motivations for translation, the methods used by the Christian translators, and how these methods served the latter’s purposes. Available online by subscription.

  • Frakes, Jerold C. The Cultural Study of Yiddish in Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-04655-0

    A history of the scholarly linguistic treatments of Yiddish in the 16th and 17th centuries. After a couple of introductory chapters, surveying the biography of the Christian authors and their works on Yiddish, the lion’s share of the book comprises reprints of the texts (seventeen in number) in the original Latin or German, and their translation into English. Available online by subscription.

  • Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

    The book discusses the discourse on the Jewish languages—both Hebrew and Yiddish—in the German world from the Middle Ages to the second half of the 20th century, including a small part dedicated to the Early Modern period. Although highly interesting and rich with illuminating insights, the book lacks a more substantial historical infrastructure and is therefore not always sufficient as far as the historical research is concerned.

  • Grossman, Jeffrey A. The Discourse on Yiddish in Germany: From the Enlightenment to the Second Empire. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000.

    Explores the discourse on Yiddish both in Jewish and Christian circles in modern Germany, including the analysis of several works by 18th-century Christian Yiddishists. Combining historical and literary analysis of the primary sources, the book focuses on several representative test cases from the fields of scholarship, literature, mission, commerce, and the theater. It offers important insights and an engaging narrative.

  • Katz, Dovid. “On Yiddish, in Yiddish, and for Yiddish: 500 Years of Yiddish Scholarship.” In Identity and Ethos: A Festschrift for Sol Liptzin on the Occasion of His 85th Birthday. Edited by Mark H. Gelber, 23–36. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

    As part of the history of Yiddish studies, the essay offers (pp. 23–28) a concise and useful overview of early modern Christian Yiddishism, according to its main branches (scholarly treatments, Judenmission, “business Yiddish,” criminological literature, and anti-Semitic literature).

  • Weinreich, Max. Geschichte der jiddischen Sprachforschung. Edited by Jerold C. Frakes. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 27. Atlanta: Scholars, 1993.

    A later edition of Weinreich’s dissertation, submitted at the University of Marburg in 1923. Considered to this day the standard work in the field, his study offers a systematic presentation and analysis of linguistic treatises on Yiddish from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century, including the works of many Christian Yiddishists of the Early Modern period.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.