Culture

Duolingo’s new Yiddish course is a major moment for American Judaism

The Yiddish language is endangered. The app’s modern take on the Jewish ‘mother tongue’ is a bold step toward revitalizing it.

Hand drawn sketch art of a young man wearing a kippah or yarmulke
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For about six months in 2018, I spent every Thursday night alone in Siberia.

It wasn’t nearly as cold or desolate as its namesake, especially after the longtime New Orleans dive bar underwent a gentrifier-appeasing remodel, swapping the Church of Misery and Crowbar concert posters for more palatable, Baltic-themed artwork. But my favorite watering hole continued housing Кухня (Kuchnya), a “Ukrainian soul food” restaurant with a menu based on the Old Country recipes of the owner’s grandmother.

What’s more, Siberia featured a weekly concert series showcasing the Crescent City’s surprisingly diverse array of Eastern European musical acts. Many bands put their own spins on Romani, Russian, and Baltic folk music — but most important to me were those tackling klezmer.

I didn’t understand the Yiddish lyrics sung by the performers, but I felt them. I felt the pull toward the language spoken by relatives I never met, taken by time and tragedy. It was a bittersweet sensation, perfectly suited for the music and made stronger by the belief that I would never have a means to become fluent in the mame-loshn, the “mother tongue.”

Three years later, and Siberia is gone, sold and transformed, inevitably, into yet another tourist trap bar serving the nearby French Quarter’s sightseer overflow. I’ve continued exploring my own relationship with Judaism and my Ashkenazi cultural heritage where I could, but a major component was always missing: the language.

“One could say that we created a new hybrid.”

And then, a few weeks ago, I got an email update from Duolingo, one of the rare thoroughly positive internet communities: a Yiddish course was now available in its entirety. I immediately logged on and began working my way through the initial lessons, thrilled to be establishing a connection with what felt like, until recently, a distant part of my ancestry.

In providing arguably the easiest means to bring the language out of antiquity into the modern era, Duolingo’s new crash course introduction to Yiddish could also quietly become one of the most important moments in modern American Jewish culture. Developed over a year-and-a-half by a small, all-volunteer staff, most of whom have personal ties to Hasidic communities, the app’s latest language offering continues Yiddish’s overall linguistic traditions of regional adaptation and secular influence.

In the process, it has stumbled onto something particularly striking for a language most closely (if often inaccurately) associated with the Old Country: a new, hybridized dialect that, if successful, could become a pillar of Yiddishkeit for future generations.

“We tried to make the course as accessible as possible,” says Meena Viswanat, a Maryland-based civil engineer and member of Duolingo’s Yiddish course creator team. “Or rather, not accessible, but that the Yiddish presented in the course should be as familiar and as acceptable as possible to speakers of all kinds of Yiddish dialects. Because of our [group’s] heterogeneous nature, one could say that we created a new hybrid.” It’s a hybrid over one thousand years in the making.

Historic Yiddish archival textsShutterstock

Yiddish first originated around the 9th century in Eastern Europe, formed mostly from a mixture of Middle High German vernacular and traditional rabbinic (or Mishnaic) Hebrew, employing the latter’s script for writing. In the ensuing generations, as Jewish communities migrated throughout Europe and farther east, dialects formed that incorporated elements of Slavic and Romance languages.

Following the Enlightenment, however, modernized Jews assimilating throughout Europe and America came to look upon Yiddish with a kind of scorn and even embarrassment, associating the language with their ultra-religious relatives and ancestors who remained in small countryside villages and backwoods shtetls. In 1925, Yiddish advocates (including heavy-hitters like Einstein and Freud) began pushing back on this stereotype, establishing what would eventually become known as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania).

YIVO, today based in New York, became the authoritative voice of a standardized Yiddish, bridging the gap between the various dialects, with the hope that its populist iteration would be the de facto meta-dialect within grammar textbooks, academic conferences, written translation works, and art — music, literature, and theater are a major component of Yiddishkeit revivalist communities.

It’s been estimated there were between 11 and 13 million Yiddish speakers on the eve of the Holocaust, an all-time high for the language. By the Shoah’s conclusion, that number shrank by five million. Those still alive and fluent generally made their way either to the U.S. or Israel, although neither nation was hospitable to the dialect.

In the U.S., Jews generally assimilated into society, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors jettisoning the perceived shtetl bumpkin dialect for English while preserving a sprinkling of traditional Hebrew for religious services. In Israel, the Zionist push for modernized Hebrew won out, leading toward a rapid decline in Yiddish fluency. Taken altogether, the early-to-mid-20th century’s geopolitical quakes resulted in an extinction-level event for what was previously Judaism’s primary spoken language.

Two children wearing anti-child labor sashes in English and Yiddish during New York’s May Day celebration, 1909Shutterstock

But the language, like its speakers, endured, particularly within the insular, ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world. (Today, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million people speak Yiddish in their daily lives.) Shulem Deen, who wrote about his excommunication from the Skverer Hasidic sect in the devastating memoir All Who Go Do Not Return explains that it’s here where the language arguably came to stagnate.

“My Yiddish was very folksy, and folksiness can have an incredible charm,” he says of his Skverer upbringing. “But Yiddish suffers in a way, especially Hasidic Yiddish, because it doesn’t have a very rich vocabulary for the non-day-to-day. They don’t have access to the kinds of Yiddish vocabulary that would allow them to speak about, say, scientific issues, or even cultural issues. The Yiddish in that world is not rich enough for that.”

While most often found in ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities and academic circles, families like Meena Viswanath’s still existed throughout the Ashkenazim world. “With both of my parents, it was like, ‘You spoke English, you go to “timeout.”’ Very strict,” she recalls. Viswanath, the daughter of a Modern Orthodox mother and Indian father, grew up speaking both Yiddish and Tamil in her household. Her grandfather was a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, and came from a highly educated family with ties to the modern academic community promoted and maintained by YIVO.

“It would be a real tragedy if there are no Yiddish speakers or people who can understand Yiddish to read Yiddish literature.”

And it’s here where the thousand years of voluntary and forced migration, oppression, catastrophe, resistance, art, tradition, and modernity converge. Duolingo’s course, overseen by volunteers like Viswanath, alongside ex-Hasids and other Jews, quickly found that new, major compromises would be needed to create an accessible, uniform framework for their Yiddish. After much discussion — the emphasis on much, Viswanath assures me — what users will now learn is heavily reliant on YIVO spelling and written grammar alongside a carefully chosen, pluralistic lexicon spoken with primarily Hasidic accents and pronunciations.

“So, basically, by putting our heads together, we tried to create a Yiddish that you could present as something for everybody,” says Viswanath before laughing. “Or, at least, you could present it as something for everybody to complain about.”

Duolingo’s course designers’ various compromises result in something arguably never seen before: a digital-era dialect built from a new synthesis of spelling, pronunciation, and word choice. Accents and regional particularities once developed over generations of Eastern European Jewish migrants have suddenly converged via a new linguistic fork, all within a two-year timeframe. Many, this author included, won’t learn Yiddish from our grandparents or shtetl neighbors, but we will become fluent in a distinctively 21st-century (or 58th-century, going by the Hebrew calendar) Yiddish. For many, including already fluent Yiddish translators, it’s a major step in the right direction.

New York shop selling Yiddish, Hebrew ,and English flags and books in the 1940sClassicStock/Archive Photos/Getty Images

“I think they do a very good job with finding a sort of middle ground,” Deen says of Duolingo’s team. To him, even if Jews like myself don’t necessarily speak Yiddish in our day-to-day conversations, learning the language opens doors that were closing very quickly for so many of us. “It gives them access to Yiddish literature,” Deen says. “[The course] is unique in that it gives people tools not so much to speak Yiddish as to engage with it in a non-spoken form.”

Deen refers to the voluminous works from the Golden Age of Yiddish arts that, unless translated, will remain obscure and underappreciated. “Before World War II, there was an incredible period of about a century in which there was so much Yiddish work done. There were magnificent works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry. And that has a very, very small community today that appreciates that,” Deen explains. “That’s actually the most important application of Yiddish. And that would be a real tragedy if there are no Yiddish speakers or people who can understand Yiddish to read Yiddish literature.”

The drawbacks to Yiddish are still clear. It faces an uphill, multigenerational struggle to even begin approaching its past numbers of speakers, and while it remains the mame-loshn for a large portion of Jewish culture, it is almost exclusively tied to the Ashkenazic (read: white) Judaic history of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the often overlooked communities of Sephardim, Mizrahi, and other Jews of color have their own dialects and languages equally deserving of preservation and revitalization, and focusing solely on Yiddish only furthers Judaic whitewashing, aka Ashkenormativity. But perhaps Duolingo’s new course can serve as a springboard toward reenergizing these often ignored cultures as well.

If nothing else, promoting Yiddish finally provides an alternative between English’s assimilationist overtones and Hebrew’s Zionistic zeal in an era where it is increasingly difficult for progressive Jews to feel at home in either the U.S. or Israel. That may be an unintended consequence of Duolingo’s new course, but it is a wonderful byproduct for leftist Jews like myself who have felt unmoored for so long.

Siberia’s Eastern Bloc Party night may never return, but its songs remain. And now, in time, I’ll be able to sing along with them. Not only that, but I will understand what it is I’m singing.

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