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Yiddish among ex-Haredim

11 May 2021, 6:00 pm–7:30 pm

snapshot of man in street clothes and curls

Yiddish is often thought of as a dying language, or as a language confined to insular Haredi communities. However, this view ignores the growing numbers of Yiddish speakers who choose to leave Haredi communities and live more secular lives. Public lecture with Eli Benedict (UCL and Yung Yidish)

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to

All | UCL staff | UCL students | UCL alumni

Availability

Yes

Cost

Free

Organiser

UCL Hasidic Yiddish

Location

ONLINE
Gower Street
London
WC1E 6BT

Yiddish is often thought of as a dying language, or as a language confined to insular Haredi communities. However, this view ignores the growing numbers of Yiddish speakers who choose to leave Haredi communities and live more secular lives. In this talk I will explore attitudes and practices of Yiddish use amongst ex-Haredim. I will argue that most Yiddish speakers who leave Haredi communities today also leave behind the use of Yiddish as a daily language, but that the loss of this wealth of speakers is not an inevitable consequence of that choice.

I will present my own history as a case study of a Yiddish-speaking ex-Haredi. I will argue that factors such as my Hasidus, the educational institutes I attended and the linguistic backgrounds of my parents influenced the language(s) with which I grew up. Furthermore, my choice of language in a particular context depended (and still depends) on factors such as my interlocutors, and the setting and topic of conversation. This discussion will demonstrate that the choice of language among Haredim is not black and white: not all Haredim or Hasidim speak Yiddish, and even those that do do not use it in all contexts.

Following on from this case study, I will examine language use among Haredim and ex-Haredim from a wider perspective. I will explore how many people leave Haredi communities, and how many of them speak Yiddish, including the difficulties involved in quantifying these populations (see e.g. Regev and Gordon 2020). I will argue that Yiddish usage among ex-Haredim depends on their use of Yiddish before leaving the community, as well as their attitudes to religious observance and the communities they join after leaving. These findings will rely on published research, unpublished interviews with ex-Haredim, and unpublished research conducted through social media polls.

Aside from the external factors of childhood linguistic environment and the linguistic environment after leaving the Haredi community, I will discuss some internal factors influencing continued use of Yiddish. For example, speakers report that they do not consider Yiddish relevant to the modern world due to their lack of exposure to secular Yiddish literature. Additionally, Yiddish often carries unpleasant connotations for them due to its association with the Haredi community and their own (often difficult) upbringing. Reduced literacy in Yiddish also provides a practical barrier to continued use of the language.

I will discuss attitudes (and more particularly the inattention) of secular Yiddish organizations towards ex-Haredim. Ex-Haredim looking to continue using Yiddish and to pass it on to the next generation face a severe lack of support and encouragement from such organizations, which often focus instead on teaching Yiddish to adult second-language learners.

By increasing practical and emotional support for ex-Haredim who wish to continue using Yiddish as a daily language (for instance, by organizing targeted social events, providing funds for further study, or offering support for Yiddish-medium childcare groups), the wealth of potential to keep Yiddish alive in a secular setting could be fostered and allowed to grow.

References:

Regev, E. and G. Gordon. שינויים במידת הדתיות ומעברים בין זרמי דת בקרב יהודים בישראל [Changes in the levels of religious observance and movements between religious denominations amongst Jews in Israel]. Report by the Israel Democracy Institute, 2020.

About the Speaker

Eli Benedict

at UCL and Yung Yidish