Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are noted for their steadfast commitment to speaking and writing in Yiddish; by contrast, the mostly secular movements to preserve Yiddish as a spoken language have been on the decline since the founding of the State of Israel. Chabad is similar in this regard, Yiddish is still spoken by many Chabad Chasidim today, yet, Chabad, as an international movement, has also acquired a number of non-Yiddish speaking Chasidim and has published a number of works in these various languages. In this sense, Yiddish is just one of the many languages (albeit a rather central one) of Chabad today.

The Chabad movement was founded in White Russia where Yiddish was the main spoken language of the Jews in that region, however, like the other Jewish communities at that time, most scholarly texts, including Chasidic ones, were written in Hebrew. This began to change with the emigration of Chabad Chasidim to the United States, Israel and other countries. Subsequent generations learned the languages of their host countries, however, Yiddish remained the de facto (and most preferred) language of Chasidim.[1]

One of the earliest social scientific studies on the Chabad movement was on the bilingualism of the Crown Heights Chabad community published in the late 1960s.[2] Though the Chabad community at that time included immigrant Russian speakers (and Chabad Chasidim could read and understand Hebrew), the dominant spoken languages were Yiddish (of the immigrant parents and for educational and religious uses) and English (of the second generation and for general use). So strong was the usage of both Yiddish and English that the author of the study concluded that Chabad would continue to remain a bilingual community for subsequent generations.

The dominance of Yiddish in Chabad waned as the movement’s outreach success grew. A number of non-Yiddish speakers joined Chabad as adults (including ba’alei tshuva) who required translations of existing Chabad literature. Chabad published a number of works in multiple languages including English, Spanish, French among others. A significant number of Jews living in Israel from non-Ashkenazic backgrounds, speaking only Hebrew, begun to associate themselves with Chabad. At the same time, the English-only population within the Chabad community grew, further challenged the centrality of Yiddish in the public sphere leading some of the educational institutions in Crown Heights subsequently switched the language of instruction from Yiddish to English.[3] At other schools, including some Chabad flagship institutions, Yiddish is still favored as the language for instruction.[4]

Today, Yiddish remains a central language in Chabad, though it is not spoken to the same extent as in earlier generations. Chabad now stands out from other Chasidic communities for its multilingualism. This multilingualism is bound to increase as Chabad continues its outreach efforts. And while Yiddish will always be treasured in the hearts and minds of Chabad Chasidim, its usage might hinge on the success of its proponents in advancing Yiddish as in the community.

Footnotes:

[1] Yiddish is also the language of the majority of the Rebbe’s published talks (sichot), although many of these talks have been translated, it is most commonly read as a study text in the Yiddish original (even by non-Yiddish speakers).

[2] See, George Jochnowitz, “Bilingualism and dialect mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic children.” American Speech (1968): 182-200.

[3] See, “The Change: Chumash AND [Not IN] Yiddish,” CrownHeights.info, September 22, 2011.

[4] See, R. C. Berman, “Yiddish Still Spoken (And Taught) Here,” Lubavitch.com, April 2, 2008.

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