How to Learn Yiddish

Yiddish (ייִדיש) is a Germanic language closely related to High German, but of Ashkenazi Jewish origin---a Judeo-European patois heavily infused with Hebrew and Aramaic as well as subtle influences from Slavic and Romance languages.

Yiddish is a language rich in culture, colour, humanity, and history, and is today spoken with varying degrees of fluency across the Jewish diaspora spanning Montréal to Miami to Stockholm to Jerusalem to Johannesburg.

This article outlines how to dip your feet into the world of Yiddish.


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    Read Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. This book is widely available at book shops across Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom and from online retailers. It introduces the reader to the Yiddish language through a rich collection of words, expressions, and concepts that have become commonplace in the speech of native American English speakers, giving wonderful insight into the biology and indentity of Yiddish and being Yiddish.
    • Salt and pepper your daily English with the Yiddish you've learned from Rosten's book. This won't guarantee you fluency, but it will get the language running through your veins.
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    Read about Yiddish. In addition to Rosten's book, there are a diverse array of books in English written by linguists, anthropologists, scholars, travel writers, translators, biographers, and laypersons (among others) about Yiddish language and Yiddish culture. Some titles include:
    • Outwitting History: The Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by Aaron Lansky
    • Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex
    • Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture, by Jeffrey Shandler
    • Yiddish with Dick and Jane, by Ellis Weiner
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    Learn the Hebrew alphabet. Yiddish, like other Jewish languages, is written using the Hebrew alphabet. Learning how to distinguish your Alephs from your Bets will open you into the realm of Yiddish writing, an ocean as infinite as the Pacific.
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    Inquire about Yiddish classes at your local Jewish Community Centre. In the face of a long and painful period of decline, Yiddish is experiencing a resurgence in interest from both Jews and non-Jews alike. Many Jewish Community Centres are thus offering seasonal Yiddish language courses and intensive programs as well as an array of Yiddish-related cultural projects such as Yiddish drama and theatre camps. Hunt around, do your homework, and find what suits you.
    • A handful of universities and colleges worldwide also offer Yiddish programs through their Jewish Studies and Hebrew departments. Take a look.
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    Study basic German, Hebrew, and Aramaic. As mentioned above, Yiddish is a Germanic language with heavy Semitic overtones. If your goal is fluency, you will need to understand the nature of German, Hebrew, and Aramaic at one point or another to grasp the finer points of Yiddish.
    • Check your local libraries and book shops for materials on those languages or even consider a Rosetta Stone Set.
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    Subscribe to the Yiddish Book Center. Yiddish at one point lived and breathed through books---a thriving literary and intellectual culture that was almost completely silenced at the hands of the Holocaust. Works of philosophy, literary criticism, technical manuals, novels, poetry, translations of Western literature and popular pulp fiction, dictionaries, you name it. However, beginning in the 1980s, Aaron Lansky (the author of Outwitting History) set out to collect the world's Yiddish books, catalogue them, house them, study them, and translate them, thus leading to founding The Yiddish Book Center. By subscribing to the Yiddish Book Centre, you are supporting, preserving, and promoting Yiddish.
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    Immerse yourself in Yiddish and Jewish culture. Although Yiddish is not as widely spoken a language as say English, French, Arabic, or Chinese, the language does still live and breathe in the nooks and crannies of Jewish communities around the world. If you have access to such, embrace it! Attend Jewish and Yiddish events, check out Jewish community libraries, watch old Yiddish films on YouTube, and explore what's out there---adpot Yiddish and become part of Yiddish.


  • Yiddish is most vibrantly spoken within Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, most notably those of the North American cities of New York City, Miami, and Montréal, the state of Israel, and pockets of Northern and Eastern Europe. Yiddish is in fact recognized as an official minority language in Sweden.
  • Aside Hebrew and Aramaic, respecively, Yiddish is just one of many so-called Jewish languages spoken around the world. Others include Ladino, Bukhori, Karaim, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Arabic dialects, and Judeo-Berber dialects, among others. Most are highly endangered with few fluent speakers left.

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Categories: World Languages | Jewish Education