Speaking of Yiddish with Miriam Isaacs

(Photo courtesy of Miriam Isaacs)

For Yiddishist and Yiddish scholar Miriam Isaacs, her beloved mameloshen — mother tongue — is her father tongue as well. Born in Leipheim, a displaced persons camp near Munich, after the Second World War, Isaacs immigrated to Canada with her family as a 2 year old. There, while her parents spoke old country Galitzianer Yiddish at home, she heard and learned French in the neighborhood and English at school.

“I grew up with three languages and that was normal because there were a lot of other immigrant groups in that area,” she said. “I never felt the embarrassment or issues that a lot of my counterparts in the United States had with respect to Yiddish and accents and foreignness, since I was in a place where everybody was foreign.”

Being a linguistic polyglot had a profound effect on Issacs, 75, who now lives in Northwest Washington. “I spoke Yiddish, I spoke French. I knew English, I heard Hungarian and Russian among other languages,” she said. “So I took an interest in the relationship between language and culture.” With studies in French, German, Russian and Latin, she earned a PhD. in linguistics from Cornell University.

Yet Yiddish has always been part of Isaacs’ life, even early in her career when she served as a lobbyist in Albany for the City University of New York — her undergraduate alma mater — the mameloshen came in handy. She had many conversations with her boss, also a native speaker, and a few other lobbyists, in Yiddish.

Later she delved into research, studying Yiddish language and culture among the distinctive Chasidic communities of Jerusalem in the early 1980s. “It was fascinating to see that it exists on a scale that people at the time weren’t willing to acknowledge,” she noted, because Israeli policy pushed for a fully Hebrew- speaking nation by not supporting languages immigrant Israelis spoke and enforcing modern Hebrew in schools and cultural settings throughout the country. “I remember talking to people [in Israel] about Yiddish, who said it’s just for old people. Yiddish is going to die.”

But Isaacs noticed the opposite was true. Yiddish proved resilient in the Chasidic community. “The question I was asking was, ‘Who speaks what language to whom in that world of Chasidim in general and what the attitudes toward Yiddish were.’” She sorted out the complex semiotics of Chasidic dress, which hat or wig meant affiliation with which group, and eavesdropped a lot, while visiting schools and meeting people.

The retired University of Maryland professor of Yiddish language and literature remains an active researcher. Also an avid theater- and film-goer, she just completed a paper on Shimen Dzigan, a comedian, and one-half of the duo Dzigan and Schumacher, among the most successful 20th-century Yiddish comedy teams performing in cabarets, theaters, films, even television. Beyond the paper, Isaacs has completed a translation of Dzigan’s memoir and is seeking a publisher.

“Dzigan’s last years were in Israel from 1950 to 1980 when he died. He had his own TV show there. But he had a rough time. Yiddish wasn’t accepted and performers were not allowed to perform in Yiddish, they weren’t subsidized … It was cultural annihilation,” Isaacs said.

When asked about the state of the language in the 21st century, Isaacs is adamant that Yiddish continues to thrive and attract new speakers, in North America and around the world. “There are tens of thousands, if not more, of kids growing up with Yiddish as a first language in the different Chasidic communities around the world,” she noted.

She termed the Yiddish renaissance beyond the Chasidic community sui generis. She observed that a new generation of Yiddish speakers is thriving independently of university language and literature programs. “It’s through young people, who suddenly no longer have those pressures to assimilate,” she explained. “Through one means or another they learn about Yiddish and get caught up in it …. There are all these groups now, many [attract] alternative culture people, queer Jews, also Workers Circle and klezmer groups.”

A particular boon has been the use of the internet to access classes, lectures, workshops and other Yiddish information. And during the pandemic, with the rise of interactive meetings and classes on Zoom, Isaacs has seen increasing opportunities to connect Yiddish speakers and learners from around the world. She cited a recent meeting she attended, with a speaker in Buenos Aires, the tech person in Japan, attendees from Israel, South Africa, Mexico and California, all attentive to learning about one of her favorite comedians, Dzigan. In any case, Isaacs has no worries about Yiddish thriving for another generation.

“I would tell young people to not be ashamed of who they are and their backgrounds; to take pride in their own roots and not be pressured to conform to what they think other people want them to be,” Isaacs said, adding, “Zei gezunt.”

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