Lexicon Valley

Blitspostn, Vebzaytlekh, Veblogs: The Rise of Yiddish Online

Idishe Velt is a popular Yiddish-language message board.

For all its global pretensions, the Internet barely knows from languages. Only five percent of the world’s 7,000-plus languages have a robust presence online, according to a recent study, and digital communication remains overwhelmingly in English, Chinese, Spanish, and just a few other languages. Those with far fewer speakers, and especially those without official status, may lack even the tools to type a sentence, let alone build a website.

And yet Yiddish, decimated by the Holocaust, is thriving online. Once the primary language of Central and Eastern European Jews, Yiddish had over 10 million speakers before the Second World War and boasted a thriving literature, a theater scene centered on New York’s Second Avenue, and a wide array of educational institutions. Now spoken primarily by a vanishing generation of elders and a growing but cloistered community of ultra-Orthodox Haredim and Hasidim, Yiddish is down to less than ten percent of its former speaker base—so how did a mixed group of savvy secular enthusiasts and Orthodox nonconformists take it high-tech? If linguist Max Weinreich were here to add a chapter to his sweeping History of the Yiddish Language, what would he say about YouTube videos of mame-loshn hip-hop, Haredi chatrooms, and the instant accessibility of almost the entire Yiddish literary canon on the Internet?

The first Yiddish tweets, links to a pair of poems, are thought to have been sent on December 3, 2009 by Zackary Sholem Berger, a physician in Baltimore, who is also a Yiddish poet and translator. Since then, hundreds of users have sent nearly 32,000 of them, according to the Indigenous Tweets database. Berger also started the first online Yiddish journal, Der Bavebter Yid (The ‘Webbed’ Jew) all the way back in 1998, and was also one of the earliest Yiddish bloggers, writing entries on everything from healthcare reform to Mexico City slang to his own Yiddish translation of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.

Yet Berger’s blog is just one node in a wider virtual community, and he links in turn to Katle Kanye—since his 2002 debut the best-known Hasidic blogger writing in Yiddish and a man whose real identity nobody knows, but whose pen name means “woodchopper.” Katle Kanye’s “ruminations and hesitations, observations and experiences” are of a high literary caliber, indifferent to the clipped and hyperlinked soundbytes of so many blogs. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s one of the most vital Yiddish writers working today, and he’s doing most of his writing online. A long-time fan, Berger says that Katle Kanye covers “the whole spectrum of day-to-day Hasidic life—a lot about the ‘hidden’ aspects of life that we don’t speak about much on the bima or in newspaper columns: boredom, depression, family problems, the worries of living an entirely frum life in the modern world, doubts and unbelief.”

The Internet may have become a refuge and revelation for Hasidic rebels and skeptics, but Hasidim also “use the Internet to be in touch with friends and acquaintances, exactly like people in the rest of the world,” says Pinchus Glauber, a real-estate appraiser from Rockland County, NY who is one of the moving forces behind the massive message-board Idishe Velt (Jewish World). Berger, whose blog receives many Hasidic visitors, agrees with this assessment, with one addition: “To a certain extent, they are learning about an outside world that is not permitted to them.” The sheer range of topics and active discussions on IVelt and the similar message-board site Kave Shtiebel (Coffee House) indicate the degree of intellectual and practical curiosity that are powering the Hasidic Internet. Popular news stories jostle for space with debates on Jewish law and questions about what cars to lease—and there are sometimes even Yiddish-language pop-up ads. It’s a sure sign of vitality when a language is still being used to sell you something.

While the use of Yiddish to some extent makes the Internet “safer” for Hasidim—Yiddish spam and Yiddish porn, kholile (G-d forbid), are still rare—it has “enabled contact between frum [observant] and fray [secular] Yiddish speakers, who otherwise would almost not know each other,” observes Leyzer Burko, a graduate student in New York who runs an e-mail group called Yiddishland. Other factors are surely involved, but the arrival of the Internet has coincided with a definite uptick in the number of Hasidim leaving their communities to various degrees, exploring and even joining the fray world.

Conservative rabbis were not long in responding to this challenge. Already in 2000, a number of prominent Haredi rabbis in Israel banned use of the Internet for purposes other than business. “The Internet is a danger one thousand times greater [than television, also banned],” according to these rabbis, “and is liable to bring ruin and destruction upon all of Israel.” This message was dramatically emphasized in New York in May 2012 at an anti-Internet rally attended by more than 50,000 men, where many prominent rabbis spoke in support of a common ultra-Orthodox front against baleful online influences. Some have dissented from and remained indifferent to the ban, while others have sought compromise—all acknowledge the Internet’s usefulness for business. At least in Israel, web-filtering services, aiming to make the Internet halakhic (compatible with Jewish law) and heymish (Hasidic-friendly) by blocking certain content, have found a serious business opportunity. There are even “kosher” smartphones—with web browsing disabled and a special rabbinically-approved app store.

Far from these battles, but much closer to Silicon Valley, is Philip “Fishl” Kutner, the 87-year webmaster and editor of Der Bay (“The International Anglo-Yiddish Newsletter”), which is run from his home in Northern California. “A website is easily accessed and is free,” he wrote to me in an e-mail when he took the newsletter online in 2009. “Its greatest asset is that it is updated.” From a one-page newsletter started in 1991 for Sholem Aleichem’s 75th yortsayt, Der Bay now instantly reaches a global audience of mostly non-Hasidic Jews, like Kutner himself, through a comprehensive, user-friendly website.

Kutner is legally blind, but has customarily spent six to eight hours a day just three inches away from his computer screen, constantly maintaining and editing a near-comprehensive global database of Yiddish teachers, translators, language clubs, klezmer groups, and others. He’s proudest of his site’s Internatsyonaler Kalendar (International Calendar), which has become a central clearinghouse for Yiddish language and culture events worldwide.

Spread far and wide, and accustomed to diaspora, Yiddish speakers and enthusiasts have rapidly found each other online. One discussion group brings together Yiddish-language teachers from around the world, while an email list connects activist parents raising their children in Yiddish. In 1991, Noyekh Miller, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, pioneered a very early online forum for academics concerned with things Yiddish. The result, “Mendele,” now includes a website with numerous resources—and until 2009 a superb online journal called The Mendele Review—but the best way to take the project’s pulse is to subscribe to its active email list.

Often in a mix of English and Yiddish, more than 1700 subscribers discuss and debate obscure questions of etymology, Ashkenazi folk customs, long-forgotten song lyrics and the like, under the moderating influence of a troika of shamosim (“moderators”). One shames, Victor Bers, a classicist at Yale, reported that one of the community’s most intense debates concerned the “theory that Yiddish is a Slavic language hidden by Germanic relexification,” as proposed by Paul Wexler at Tel Aviv University. Kalman Weiser, the current shames and a professor of Jewish Studies at Toronto’s York University, remarked on the list’s lively controversy “over the ‘death’ of Yiddish and the question of whether a viable virtual community is a substitute for a more conventional one.” He adds that Mendele’s success and endurance “paradoxically” reflect “the precarious state of the language.” In recent years, the traffic is less academic, adds Bers: “With few exceptions, people turn to us, faute de mieux, because of the dwindling number of speakers.”

Online academic, archival, and literary materials in Yiddish are wide-ranging and often of high quality. Henry Sapoznik’s Yiddish Radio Project airs broadcasts from the golden age of Yiddish radio, with an accompanying English-language website that “allowed us to show many of the visual graphics and ephemera we had collected and better contextualize the radio materials,” says Sapoznik. Other sites contain a treasure trove of audiobooks and recorded lectures (from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Isaac Bashevis Singer), extensive video interviews with living legends at YiddishLives.com, and hundreds of yizkor books, poignant testaments to communities destroyed in the Holocaust, which have been digitized by the New York Public Library. Perhaps the most ambitious project of all is the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, a project of the National Yiddish Book Center and the Internet Archive comprising some 11,000 free digital books. The dream is to make every Yiddish book ever published freely and universally available, and it might just be within reach.

It’s one thing to have archival treasures parked for the duration, and quite another to attract and develop an audience able to appreciate them. In January, Itsik Bleaman, a graduate student at New York University, addressed this challenge by launching an online Yiddish book club called Leyenzal (Reading Room). Capitalizing on all this digital access and on the global, hyper-networked community of Yiddishists, Leyenzal features classic texts accompanied by expert Yiddish-language video lectures, with interactivity a given. The same spirit animates Taytsh (Translation), a website created by the National Yiddish Book Center with sophisticated tools for Yiddish translators to share and edit each other’s translations.

Often labors of love built by passionate individuals, most Yiddish sites and projects are on the heymish side, with a certain homespun charm, though none are immune to the powerful forces of web neglect, and many wishful projects are now fragmentary ruins left somewhere along the information superhighway. At the same time, major established Yiddish institutions have followed their adherents online with useful and innovative sites—for instance the Yiddish Forward, the best-known Yiddish newspaper now over a century old, has a website complete with video series, radio programs, an edition for language learners, and even a mouseover tool that provides translations.

And what about the basic tools, the infrastructure of the Yiddish veb? Although Google itself is available in mame-loshn, no Yiddish speaker would wish its search results even on their worst enemy—the best way to surf the Yiddish web is still to follow links from vebzaytl to vebzaytl. Sectarian battles are acted out in the entries of a Yiddish-language Wikipedia, which is now over 10,700 articles strong, mostly the work of a handful of devoted Hasidic Yiddish speakers. Its quality varies, but its scale exceeds that of Wikipedias for much larger, even official languages like Sinhalese, a national language of Sri Lanka spoken by 17 million people.

The flourishing of a language online is far from inevitable. From the Internet’s earliest stages, English has been dominant, reflecting the origins of computer networking in the U.S. Everything from physical keyboards to the domain name system (which governs the addresses, or URLs, of different websites) was designed with the Latin alphabet and American English in mind. For Yiddish speakers, even the work of getting the alef-beys (or Yiddish alphabet) into and onto computers, phones, tablets, and websites has been a challenge, undertaken by a group of tech-savvy Yiddish enthusiasts, including Refoyl Finkel, a computer scientist from the University of Kentucky, and Meyer David of Boston’s “Yiddish Voice” radio program. Yiddish can now be used in a wide variety of applications, formats, and programs, and with tools like a spellchecker, a digitized Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary, and online learning platforms.

If Yiddish now has an outsized presence online, with as much activity as languages much more widely spoken, it’s a sign of both meshugene koyekh (crazy willpower) and of relative good fortune. Most of the world’s languages are not written, let alone have the kind of standardized writing system that really enables and eases online communication. Many are spoken in the world’s most impoverished places, under restrictive regimes, in places where Internet access is all too rare to begin with. We can expect more of these languages to come online as access spreads, but probably not that many.

By contrast, some smaller, stateless languages in the developed world, like Yiddish, are flourishing online. Revival movements for languages such as Welsh and Catalan, gaining momentum since the 1960s, have provided an impetus—and these movements have themselves drawn strength from the Internet. It may even help that the Internet gives special prominence to the written word, since these languages boast unusually high ratios of poets to everyday speakers. Even while they fade as vernacular languages, they seem to be coming into their own in a “postvernacular” way.

“The situation of Yiddish on the Internet is good,” according to activist Leyzer Burko, “or at least better than in the world of printed books and newspapers—because the Internet is free or cheap, and Yiddishists and Hasidim don’t have much money. Anyone can create a blog, but to publish a book is hard. For Yiddishists, the Internet comes in handy, because there aren’t a lot of us in the world, and we’re dispersed in different cities and countries.”

The efforts mentioned here, which one could explore and enjoy for weeks and months on end, represent only the slimmest sampling. For the moment, the Yiddish veb holds up an exciting and wonderfully idiosyncratic mirror to di yidishe gas (“the Jewish street”). Cyberspace rings with the various and struggling sounds of an undaunted hypertext Yiddish.

A version of this post appeared on Jewish Currents.