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Yiddish Culture: From Europe to America PDF Version
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Title page of Ku-Buch (Book of Cows), published in Yiddish, Verona, Italy, 1595.
Source: Ku-Buch
Yiddish was the everyday language of most Jews in Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and parts of Hungary and Czechoslovakia) for 1,000 years.

The term "Yiddish" is derived from the German word for "Jewish." The most accepted (but not the only) theory of the origin of Yiddish is that it began to take shape by the 10th century as Jews from France and Italy migrated to the Rhine Valley. They developed a language that included elements of Hebrew, and French, Italian, and German dialects. In the late Middle Ages, when Jews settled in Eastern Europe, Slavic elements were incorporated into Yiddish.

The period of the early 19th century until World War II could be called "the golden age of Yiddish culture." A literary renaissance produced both Hebrew and Yiddish works by writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Seforim, and Isaac Leib Peretz. Hundreds of Yiddish newspapers and journals were published, and during the period between World War I and II, Yiddish school networks were established in Eastern Europe. A lively Yiddish theater emerged and there were even Yiddish movies. The mass immigration of Jews from Europe to America in 1881 to 1924 led to the emergence of New York City as a new center of Yiddish culture.

The destruction of European Jewry during World War II and the subsequent emigration of most of the surviving Yiddish speakers to other countries where they adopted the local vernacular nearly ended the life of Yiddish. Today, the largest concentration of Yiddish-speakers can be found in Hasidic communities in Israel and North America. The language is also enjoying a mini-revival at some universities and Jewish cultural institutions. This lesson explores the influence of the Yiddish language and culture of the past and present.

Grade Level:
High School

Subjects Covered:
Social Studies, World History, American History, Literature and Poetry, History of Language

Students will appreciate the role that Yiddish language, literature, music, and theater played in the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe and Jewish immigrants in America.

Learning Objectives:
Students will:

  • understand the origins and history of the Yiddish language in Europe and America;

  • become more familiar with Yiddish by experiencing samples of Yiddish literature and music;

  • analyze the role of Yiddish in the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe and America.

Suggested Time Frame:
Two 45-minute to one-hour class periods with optional additional time for presentation of extension projects.

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