Popular language-learning platform Duolingo rolled out a Yiddish course for English speakers this week, and I'm kvelling.
The course, which debuted April 6, guides students through speaking, reading and writing the richly expressive language that originated with Jews in Central and Eastern Europe and served as their lingua franca for centuries.
Don't know bupkes about Yiddish? It blends old German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, and drips with humor, irony, pathos and history. While it's still spoken in largely Jewish neighborhoods in places like New York, there's been renewed broader interest in the language, as well its robust tradition of literature, poetry, music, film and theater.
One reason is that many Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to the US and other countries sought to acculturate to their new lands, and now their children and grandchildren yearn to reconnect with their ancestral roots, says Meena Lifshe Viswanath, one of the volunteer contributors to the course.
"Yiddish gives these descendants of assimilated Jews that connection to those who came before them and puts them, their lives and their experiences in a visceral historical context," she says.
These days, Yiddish lovers can join clubs; attend conferences, meetups and summer festivals; and listen to radio shows and podcasts like the Yiddish Voice and Vaybertaytsh. There are religious Yiddish newspapers and magazines and streaming classes in Yiddish for studying sacred ancient Jewish texts.
Some still perceive Yiddish as a language reserved for older generations, but it's becoming equally modern. Many Yiddish words have made their way into the everyday English vernacular and onto shows like Girls, Seinfeld and Jeopardy. Thanks to my mom, the Texas-bred daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, I grew up thinking "oy" was another English word for "ugh" and everyone else in the neighborhood "schlepped," "schvitzed," "potchked" and "schmoozed" as much as my family did.
The Duolingo course will cover everything from vocabulary and grammar to key cultural phrases, connecting participants with the tachlis (brass tacks) of Yiddish culture. Workers Circle and other sites offer online classes as well, but it's a ganze tzimmes (a big deal) that a platform with more than 300 million users is including Yiddish in its catalog.
"Many Americans are familiar with Yiddish, but most are aware of stereotypes, such as 'Yiddish is funny' or 'Yiddish doesn't have grammar,'" says Lifshe Viswanath, a civil engineer whose aunt is editor of the Yiddish Forward newspaper. "We hope that such people will do the Duolingo course out of curiosity, and will come out with an appreciation for Yiddish as a language with a rich vocabulary [and] a complex grammar and the ability to talk about any topic."
Lifshe Viswanath grew up speaking Yiddish, as did fellow course creator Libby Pollak, 32, who started a Yiddish blog and works as a Yiddish translator. So did team leads Isac and Israel Polasak, 22-year-old twin brothers born in Brooklyn and raised in a Hasidic Jewish community.
Duolingo is available for free on iOS, Android and the Web, with an upgrade to Duolingo Plus for $7 a month offering lessons free of ads, plus offline access to lessons and content, and the ability to track your progress. Lessons take about five minutes and teach language through a simple interface and short, video game-like exercises.
The Duolingo Yiddish course is five years in the making.
The contributors had vigorous debates about which of the main Yiddish dialects should be taught on Duolingo, even soliciting public input on how the language should be pronounced in the new course. Ultimately, they decided to go with the Galitzianer dialect prevalent among Hungarian Jews and especially among Hasidic communities in Brooklyn.
"The focus on this particular Yiddish shows a desire to teach a living breathing language, as it's found not in the halls of the academy, but on the streets of Brooklyn, London, Antwerp and beyond," says Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, the New York-based founder of Tech Tribe, a community for Jews in tech and digital media. He isn't affiliated with the course.
Lightstone says he's "very excited" about Duolingo offering the course, as Jews and non-Jews alike are drawn to Yiddish both as a colorful, distinctive-sounding language and a link to history and heritage. "Yiddish opens up a world of profoundly inspiring and influential teachings in their original language," he says.
Duolingo offers 100 total courses across nearly 40 distinct languages, from the most spoken to lesser-spoken languages such as Hawaiian, Navajo, Scottish Gaelic and now, Yiddish.
A few weeks before the Yiddish course started, more than 9,500 people had already signed up. No doubt that makes Duolingo a bit verklempt.
Update, April 7: Adds comments from course co-creator Meena Lifshe Viswanath.