Yiddish lives on Canadian campuses

As the Jewish tongue dies at home, scholars step up

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Photo by scazon on Flickr

Photo by scazon on Flickr

The old language of Eastern Europe’s Jews—the tongue that brought us such lively words as schmooze, glitch, klutz, chutzpah, nosh, schmuck and schmo—has been through a lot.

Yiddish was threatened by the holocaust when five million speakers—roughly half of the total—were murdered in the genocide, writes University of Ottawa researcher Rebecca Margolis.

Then it was threatened by a generation in the diaspora that was sometimes embarrassed of their parents’ foreign tongue and preferred to converse in English or another vernacular anyway.

Today, Yiddish contends with the fact that its keepers are mainly Bubbes and Zeydes of the diaspora, who may not be around much longer. According to Statistics Canada, between 2001 and 2006, the number of Yiddish speakers declined from 37,010 to 27,605 nationally. More than a third of those who remained—9,305—were over 75 years-old. Only 1,345 were under age five.

But this week, the Associated Press reports that Yiddish is making a comeback at “just a handful” of North American schools. It turns several schools in that handful are Canadian universities.

In Toronto, York University (where 10 per cent of the population is Jewish, according to Hillel) has only one course on Elementary Yiddish Language. But the University of Toronto, which has roughly 3,000 Jewish students (five per cent of the total), established a Yiddish program in 2002 that thrives today. U of T offers two full years of language study and five Yiddish culture courses.

In the Montreal of the past “Yiddish functioned as the third language,” according to scholar Eiran Harris, so it’s no surprise that McGill University of offers 100 Jewish courses, including six in beginner, intermediate and advanced Yiddish. McGill is roughly 10 per cent Jewish, says Hillel.

It’s easy to see how Toronto and Montreal have enough Jews to sustain Yiddish programs—Toronto has roughly 165,000 Jewish residents the Montreal has roughly 89,000. But even Canadian cities with small Jewish populations, like Ottawa (11,000) and Winnipeg (13,000), are hosts to Yiddish courses. The University of Ottawa and the University of Manitoba each offer two Yiddish courses.

The fact that Yiddish courses continue to exist at Canadian universities seems like yet another small miracle. Many language courses are threatened at Canadian universities nowadays, due to low enrollment. So far, Yiddish has avoided the axe, unlike some Italian, Arabic and German courses at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Persian, Portuguese and Swahili at the University of Alberta.

Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising that Yiddish is alive on Canadian campuses. A language that’s made it through so much strife in the past should be able to survive a few university budget cuts.