Yiddish, which was for long periods of time the spoken language of most European Jews and of those who emigrated abroad, appeared for the first time in writing during the last third of the 13th century. In the course of time, Yiddish provided its speakers not only with a tool for intimate oral and written expression, but with a living and constantly developing cultural-literary system. This system contributed enormously to the education, enlightenment and enjoyment of those Jews who were not proficient in another language. It was through Yiddish that they became acquainted with their own cultural sources, which were written in Hebrew, as well as with the contemporary culture of the non-Jewish environment. In the wake of the Enlightenment, the Jews in the German-speaking countries abandoned Yiddish in favor of German, but the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe maintained their attachment to Yiddish and cultivated Yiddish culture. The Slavic component joined the original German, Hebrew and Romance elements of Yiddish and contributed to the development of various dialects (Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, etc.).
As a result of secularization and modernization that began in the 19th century, Yiddish became the language of a comprehensive, rich and ramified culture. This period saw the rise and flourishing of a multifarious modern literature initiated by Mendele Mokher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, Shalom Aleichem and their contemporaries, and pursued by many talented poets and novelists that followed, among them Itzik Manger, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Abraham Sutzkever. A rich folklore materialized in abundant popular tales, songs, drama, proverbs and humor. Manifold journals appeared and, for decades, daily newspapers reached hundreds of thousands of readers. The vibrant Yiddish theater put on plays taken from both the Jewish and international repertoire, and the pioneering Yiddish cinema achieved great popularity. A widespread network of both secular and religious education, as well as a variety of research institutions, was developed during this period.
This flourishing Yiddish culture reached its
peak in the main centers - Poland, the
Soviet Union and the United States - during
the inter-war period, but Soviet repression
and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry in
the Holocaust were an irrevocable blow to the
Yiddish language and culture. The scope of Yiddish
cultural activity diminished drastically, and today
the numbers of native Yiddish speakers are
dwindling rapidly. However there is a growing
interest in the world of Yiddish culture. Frameworks
for the study of the Yiddish language are
proliferating and activities in the fields of research,
journalism, theater, music and art related to Yiddish are increasing. In view of all this, there is reason to hope that Yiddish culture - one of the richest
assets of the Jewish people - will continue to thrive and find new modes of creative expression.
In 1996, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) passed the National Authority for the Yiddish Culture Bill. One of the aims of the bill is " to spread knowledge of Yiddish culture in all its forms... and promote, aid and encourage contemporary artistic and literary expression in Yiddish."
Professor Chava Turniansky