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America’s Vanishing Yiddish Tradition

Dan Cheely 29 November 2007 2 Comments

Many gentile Americans under 50 don’t know what Yiddish is. More’s the pity. Yiddish is an anglicization of a Germanic word for “Jewish.” The Yiddish language was the dialect spoken by the Jews of central and eastern Europe, and was a unique combination of German and Hebrew, written with Hebrew letters. Before the restoration of Hebrew as a spoken language, it was the household language of Jews in western, central and eastern Europe.

Beginning with the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century, tens of thousands of European Jews emigrated to America. Non-English speaking at first, with very limited resources, and with no support network whatsoever, they very rapidly adapted to America and became remarkably successful in a very short time.

How did they do it? How did this group who didn’t speak English, and didn’t profess a version of the overwhelmingly predominant religion of American Protestantism become so much a part of American life so quickly? I think it was because certain core values of the Yiddish tradition were extremely effective in helping its members to thrive once they were free to operate.

Family, realism, hard work, education, frugality, love of freedom, compassion, humor, and tradition itself all were values that traveled out of the ghetto with the Yiddish immigrants. They had learned the utility of these great ideals the hard way. Without them, they simply would not have survived. But bringing these values, deep within their souls, with them to the new world, they had the power to make the most of the possibilities they had here.

Family gave them inner stability and security.

Realism to analyze effectively the multitude of real opportunities their new country and economy offered them.

Hard work from the knowledge they could not depend on anyone else to do for them what they needed to do for their own betterment.

Higher education magnified their abilities and inner assets in a way no tyrant could ever remove from their possession.

Frugality helped them keep most of what they earned to build for the future.

Freedom gave them the opportunity to succeed on merit, and they loved America for it, and wanted to see it spread to others. Co

Compassion naturally arose from the knowledge that they and their relatives had often been given a bad shake through no fault of their own. They sympathized with others who found themselves in a similar situation.

Humor carried them through hard times. It helped them avoid getting crushed spiritually by the arrogance and pomposity of others, but also just helped them enjoy the fullness of the gift of life they loved. It was tradition which taught them all of this.

These were classic core Yiddish values every Jewish kid heard his grandmother and grandfather tell him, often with lots of colorful, illustrative stories from real life.

I can’t help but think that, just like good chicken soup, it’s all good for goyim.


Dan Cheely, a lawyer (partner at Cheely, O’Flaherty & Ayres, Chicago) and historian, teaches a popular course on the history of Christendom with emphasis on its Judeo heritage.


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