Yiddish in the Ultra-orthodox Community

In their response to the Gen08 community survey, 37 percent of the ultra-orthodox in Melbourne aged 18-34 indicated that they spoke Yiddish “well” or “very well”, 37 percent aged 35-54 and 42 per cent aged 55 and above. However, a significantly higher proportion among those aged 55 and above indicated that they spoke Yiddish “very well”: some 30 percent, compared to 22 percent aged 35-44 and 12 percent aged 18-34.

Most, particularly among the young, are referring to a functional Yiddish language with none of the literary, artistic resonances reflected in the theatre, publications, or culture of secular post-war Yiddish Melbourne. Sermons, speeches and announcements in the community’s synagogue are in Yiddish, as are speeches at weddings and bar-mitzvahs. The language of study in the synagogue is Yiddish and this builds on the model established in the Adass Yisroel boys’ school where, from preparatory class onwards, all text learning is done in Yiddish. Thus, the holy texts, written in Hebrew, are discussed and studied using Yiddish language. This is not the case in the girls’ school, although the girls do study Yiddish as their “Language Other than English (LOTE)”.

Many of the older generation – beyond 55 years old – were raised with Yiddish as their first language by parents who arrived from Eastern Europe after World War Two, but today fewer families communicate with their children in Yiddish. Inevitably, because of the males’ experience, some Yiddish language filters back into the community. Additionally, when a young person from the Melbourne community marries someone from an intensely Yiddish-speaking community of New York or Montreal or some European cities, the subsequent family is likely to use Yiddish as their language of communication. Some from these overseas communities migrate to Melbourne, often as marriage partners.

Since English is generally the common language of communication, Melbourne is said to be unusual in the ultra-orthodox Hassidic world. Nevertheless, in 2010 a bi-lingual kindergarten, Divrei Emineh, (Matters of Faith), opened with the aim of specifically teaching Yiddish to boys and girls in an immersion program. The kindergarten and day-care centre expanded in 2011 to include a pre-preparatory class and in May 2011 had an enrolment of more than forty students.

Supported by a number of young ultra-orthodox families who are committed to teaching Yiddish, the aim of the school is to ensure that Yiddish is transmitted to the youngsters in order to maintain the inclusive and exclusive nature of the community, keeping them from integrating or assimilating into mainstream society. There is concern that young people who travel overseas for further religious study lack adequate knowledge of Yiddish, finding it difficult, for example, to converse in the language. There is also a desire to ensure that girls obtain a thorough knowledge of Yiddish, including rules of grammar, so that when they reach the age of marriage they are able to sustain Yiddish speaking homes and language transmission to their children. The school leaders liaise with similar communities in Belgium, New York and Israel to share resources and experience. The aim is to grow the kindergarten into a fully fledged Yiddish language school.

In the meanwhile, the Adass Yisroel school is making efforts to increase the number of Yiddish speaking staff and systematise the girls’ exposure to Yiddish and develop the Yiddish-speaking environment.