MADISON – Kibitz, schlep, chutzpah, kitsch, maven.
Most every American knows at least one or two Yiddish words, whether they know it or not.
What they may not realize – unless of course they grew up in a household where Yiddish was spoken frequently – is just how important the language remains to Jewish culture, history and literature.
When Sunny Yudkoff first stated studying Yiddish her junior year of college she thought it was a language of jokes.
Now an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the New Jersey native devotes much of her professional life to sharing the richness of the language – once spoken by millions of Jews across the world — and the role it played and continues to play in Jewish life.
“A lot of the ideas people have about Yiddish are either not true or more complicated,” Yudkoff explains. “Studying Yiddish gives you a broader sense of what Jewish culture looked like in the past, and a much richer understanding of what Jewish life was like in Eastern Europe …. There were more than 10 million speakers before World War II. It was the language of daily life.”
Yudkoff, who earned her Ph.D. in near eastern languages and civilizations from Harvard University in 2015, joined the UW last year. She teaches courses in the university’s Jewish Studies program, the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic languages, and in the English Department.
All of the courses she teaches incorporate her passion for Yiddish literature. She notes that she was drawn to the UW, not only for the school’s growing collection of Yiddish texts, but for its growing reputation as a home for scholars engaged in the study of Yiddish culture — from Yiddish labor history to the legacy of Yiddish song.
Wisconsin, itself, has a long history of Yiddish culture, she added: “There was a theater and a weekly newspaper (in the state). There was also a Yiddish poet (who lived here), Malka Hesetz Tussman.”
But Yiddish doesn’t just belong in the past, and it isn’t just a language for scholars, Yudkoff said.
There are still several newspapers in America published in Yiddish using Hebrew characters, and the language continues to be spoken fluently among certain ultra-Orthodox communities in New York City, Paris, Jerusalem and Brussels, Yudkoff said.
For Jews in particular the study of Yiddish literature and the language itself can lead to a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience, she added.
“I think (Yiddish) expands your vision of what Jewish culture can look like. I think of language as a tool of access,” Yudkoff said. “When you speak Yiddish you are not just speaking with other Yiddish speakers, you are accessing a whole other world view…Yiddish isn’t just one thing, just like being Jewish isn’t being just one thing.”
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Program: The “High and Lows of Sholem Aleichem: Yiddish Literature and the Pursuit of Popular Writing,” Nov. 12-13 at UW-Madison.
For those interested in further exploring Yiddish literature, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Jewish Studies will be hosting a two day program on the work of Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish author and playwright whose short stories became the framework for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Presentations are scheduled throughout the day on Sunday, Nov. 12, and during the morning on Nov. 13 at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St., Madison. Assistant Professor Sunny Yudkoff is slated to be part of the presentation, “Popular Writing, Sholem Aleichem, and the Question of Kafka,” taking place from 5-6:30 p.m. that Sunday. For more information on the program visit JewishStudies.Wisc.Edu/Sholem-Aleichem-Conference.