FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It’s not taught in South Florida schools, public or private, and many of its most ardent enthusiasts have died.
But Yiddish, the beloved language of many Eastern European Jews and their descendants, refuses to succumb to these staggering obstacles. Supporters are using clubs, plays, music, lectures and classes to keep it lebedik — the Yiddish word for alive.
“It will never die,” said Miriam Hoffman, a Coral Springs resident and retired Yiddish professor at Columbia University. “Yiddish is a vibrant and vital language.”
But the number of speakers is declining.
Yiddish, a melange of European and Near-Eastern languages, was spoken by 10 million people before World War II. Many of its speakers were killed in the Holocaust.
Today, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people speak it, mainly in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel, according to Eddy Portnoy, an academic adviser at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
In South Florida, the 2000 U.S. Census reported 16,390 Yiddish speakers. That number plummeted to 5,880 by 2010.
Some Orthodox Jews still speak it in their families and secular American Jews often employ Yiddish expressions because they believe there are no similar words in English — such as “chutzpah,” or nerve, and “meshugah,” or crazy.
Many aficionados say they hold on to the language because of its connection to their ancestors. They remember when their parents and grandparents, recent arrivals to America, spoke Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want their English-speaking children to know what they were saying.
For those who want to maintain their connection and language skills, there are many ways to get doses of Yiddish culture in South Florida.
The Klezmer Company Orchestra, based at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, plays the lively music of the pre-World War II Jews of Eastern Europe at sites in Boca Raton, Sunrise and Miami.
Hoffman wrote a Yiddish play, “Reflections of a Lost Poet,” which stars her son, actor Avi Hoffman. The play runs through Dec. 24 at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach.
The play, which traces the life of unsung Polish poet Itzik Manger, is performed in Yiddish with subtitles projected in English and Spanish.
Language clubs are scattered through gated neighborhoods and community centers, including the Weisman Delray Community Center in Delray Beach, where a Yiddish club, open to the public, meets each Friday.
South Florida residents who want to learn Yiddish face some challenges. Public schools and universities don’t teach it, nor do most religious schools.
“We don’t teach Yiddish and it has not been a topic of conversation to consider doing so,” said Rabbi Adam Englander, head of school at Katz Hillel Day School in Boca Raton.
The best way for a South Floridian to learn Yiddish from scratch is to take an online class or get a tutor, said Riva Ginsburg, a Yiddish lecturer and teacher. She will teach a six-week series called “A Celebration of Yiddish Language and Culture,” in Boca Raton beginning Feb. 1.
Susan Ganc of Delray Beach, 74, took it upon herself to learn Yiddish. Her parents were native speakers but spoke English with their children. When she was a teenager, she asked her mother to start speaking to her in Yiddish for a half hour a day.
When she got married, she moved to Houston and found people to teach her and converse with her, eventually becoming a teacher herself.
“It was less likely for Yiddish to survive when I got started than it is now,” Ganc said. “A young person who wants to learn it has a lot of resources today.”
A Yiddish lecture and conversation series at a trendy Miami Beach hotel is trying to attract a new generation. Once a month, The Betsy-South Beach offers a free Yiddish Speakers’ Brunch, where those interested in language and culture can learn history, talk about authors and share Yiddish humor.
Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik said his parents were Yiddish and Russian speakers who did not share the languages with their children. As an adult, he learned of Yiddish’s abundant theatrical, poetic and literary output and found a large contingent had similar interests: About 50 to 75 people have been attending each salon for the past two and a half years.
“It would be foolish not to be concerned about the passing of the torch,” Plutzik said. “We in a small way are trying to create environments where another generation can embrace it and learn it.”
Where to get a taste of Yiddish
Yiddish Club, Weisman Delray Jewish Community Center, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Fridays. Call 561-558-2100.
Yiddish Speaker’s Sunday Brunch Series: Monthly at The Betsy-South Beach, Miami Beach. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-760-6900.
Yiddish words you already know
Yiddish words you may not know
kvell: show pride
shaina maydeleh: beautiful girl
mensch: a decent man
schlemiel: a nerdy klutz
schlock: something cheap
Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/