For a lexicon that's supposedly dead, Yiddish language and culture are undergoing a remarkable revival.
Klezmer music, with its signature laughing/weeping clarinet and violin, is enjoying a worldwide resurgence, even in Warsaw, Poland, where almost no Jews are left. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., is translating and digitizing a million rescued volumes and organizing Yidstock, an annual festival of new Yiddish music. Researchers are learning the language in order to understand historical records. Israeli universities have established Yiddish language and literature centers, often attended by non-Jewish students from Germany and other Holocaust-linked countries.
And the International Association of Yiddish Clubs is about to hold its 15th annual conference in Pittsburgh, Friday through April 29, at the DoubleTree Hotel in Green Tree. Up to 400 people are expected from Europe, Israel, Canada and 35 states in the U.S. There's a speaker from Japan, as well as Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University, and Harry Bochner, co-editor of the new Yiddish-English dictionary.
The conference organizers promise "a journey of a thousand years" and a multisensory exploration. Beyond language classes and conversation, the schedule includes visual art, music and dance, literature, theater, history, politics and scholarship. On the bill are concerts, folk tales and story-telling, late-night open-stage sessions dubbed "Yiddish in Slippers," and a marketplace with gifts and books. A number of Pittsburgh presenters are slated as well.
"We intend to open the portal of Yiddish life and usher you in," says the conference website, www.yiddishconference.com
Philip "Fishl" Kutner, 86, is the national organizer and a retired high school science teacher who lives outside of San Francisco. He publishes an international Anglo-Yiddish newsletter called Der Bay, with 400 print readers and 1,700 online (www.derbay.org). Among other things, he matches pen pals, lists worldwide Yiddish events and resources, and provides a glossary of words transliterated into English.
Mr. Kutner said convention attendees vary in age although the largest group is older people.
"They may have been born into Yiddish-speaking families like I was, and got away from it as they grew up. For a lot of them it became a hobby."
The hobby keeps growing, he said -- his group started in 1990 with four clubs; now there are 100 across the country, including a South Hills group run by Sol Toder. The clubs range from 10 to a few hundred members each.
"Most people say they come to the conference to learn about Yiddish in all its aspects," Mr. Kutner said, "but they also get the camaraderie of meeting people with the same interests from all over. They usually don't have the opportunity to meet so many others with such as high level of familiarity with the topic, and a lot of friendships have resulted."
Word mavens, nosh on this
Clearly, this goes way beyond the Yiddish expressions that many America use in everyday speech, from "chutzpah" (colossal nerve) and "klutz" (clumsy person) to "shlep" (drag) and "schmaltzy" (excessively sentimental).
But if reports of the death of Yiddish were exaggerated, it's understandable.
A German dialect that probably dates to the 10th century, includes Hebrew words and is written in the Hebrew alphabet, it was a thriving vernacular spoken almost exclusively by Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe. They developed a rich, centuries-old culture with Yiddish as its base, producing such renowned artists as painter Marc Chagall and writers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem -- until the Nazis and their collaborators virtually wiped it out. Many view its improbable rise from the ashes 70 years later as a fitting, if posthumous kick to Hitler's gut.
In their 1999 book "Yiddishland," Gerard Silvain and Henri Minczeles estimated roughly a million Yiddish speakers remained in the world, including communities in Paris, Montreal, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and Johannesburg, and especially among ultra-religious sects in New York and Jerusalem where Yiddish may be the first language children learn.
Debbie Herman, conference coordinator, said the language is having a resurgence "because it expresses universal emotions with such poignant and nuanced richness. Jews are astounded to find others of different backgrounds gravitating to Yiddish verses, translating poetry, lyrics, novels, and history."
Mr. Kutner cited two trends that help account for the renaissance.
"Genealogy is a big part of it," he said. "People start researching their family history and a lot of what they're looking for is written in Yiddish. They want to be able to read and understand it."
Also key, he said, is the flourishing of klezmer, a word that comes from the Hebrew "kley," or instrument, and "zemer," or song. It's a style of music that dates to medieval Europe when bands of Jewish musicians traveled around playing weddings and festivals, absorbing other influences as they went. Today it runs the gamut from old world to modern fusion, played by the likes of the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the Cracow (Poland) Klezmer Band and, in Pittsburgh, Steel City Klezmer and the Hot Matzahs.
"In 1970 there was only one klezmer band in the U.S.," Mr. Kutner said. "Now there are several hundred, and some don't have any Jewish musicians at all."
Naturally, there will be klezmer at the convention, including a lecture and performance by pioneer revivalist Yale Strom, a leading violinist and ethnographer.
Also performing Jewish music will be the trio of Noah Bendix-Balgley, Pittsburgh Symphony concertmaster; Aaron Zelkowitz, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival; and pianist Rodrigo Ojeda. In addition, to coincide with the convention, the music festival will present "The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds," a chamber opera inspired by a famous Yiddish play, with a choir and contemporary ballet (April 25 and 28 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side, tickets $25 at pjmf.net).
'Yiddish is the heartbeat'
There's more than triumph in the revival of Yiddish; there's also irony, because the founders of the modern state of Israel purposely eschewed it in favor of Hebrew as the national language.
"They wanted one unifying language for all Israelis, from the Jewish intelligentsia and aristocracy of Europe to the poorer people from the Middle East," Mr. Kutner said.
There was also a desire to throw off what some viewed as the language of oppression and get a fresh start. This was controversial as well; religious Jews believed Hebrew was the language of prayer, not everyday life.
In any case, Mr. Kutner said, "There's been a complete turnaround." Israel not only has Yiddish university programs now but also a national Yiddish theater and a number of public schools offering Yiddish as an elective.
As Hana Wirth-Nesher, director of the Institute of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in December: "The language wars in Israel are over and Hebrew has won, so no one feels threatened by Yiddish anymore."
Quite the opposite, say aficionados who see the language as key to preserving the culture. As Ms. Herman put it, "If Torah is the soul of Judaism, Yiddish is the heartbeat. "
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM