Yiddish is Spoken on Mazzes Island

Die Presse (02/02/04)


According to a Jewish proverb, "One speaks Hebrew but talks Yiddish."
Nonetheless, Yiddish, the language of the street, is slowly dying out in Europe.

Vienna. Mazzes - the bread eaten at Pessach, and Mazzes Island, named after the bread, is the area around the Karmelitermarkt and Praterstraße in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt. It is here that the greatest number of Viennese Jews live. And although Yiddish expressions can be found in the Viennese dialect, only some three hundred Viennese Jews claim Yiddish as their mother tongue, said Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg.

These people stem mainly from Israel or Russia, are "very" orthodox and eat only kosher. Whoever would like to hear Yiddish should go to a kosher grocery in the Second District, such as in the Hollandstraße.

One can also hear Yiddish being spoken in the Jewish orthodox Talmud Thora School in the Malzgasse. "Of our two hundred pupils, some 98% have Yiddish as their mother tongue, says school director, Josef Klein.

One doesn’t have to have Yiddish as Mameloschn (mother tongue) in order to speak it: from some 15,000 Viennese Jews, about 1,000 speak a smattering of it. "A large number of Viennese Jews understand Yiddish - at least those whose ancestors come from Poland or Russia," says Leon Zelman, head of the Jewish Welcome Service.

Not everything which sounds like Yiddish is Yiddish. “What is often mistaken for Yiddish is socalled Jiddeln,” explained Eisenberg. It simply consists of German saturated with many Yiddish words, which also has been abused when telling anti-Semitic jokes.

Whereas in Israel the language once known to be that of the uneducated has experienced a renaissance the past twenty years, it is increasingly dying out in Europe. "Yiddish has changed from a language of the street to a language being researched by scholars. Many are interested purely academically in the language, particularly students of German Studies," says Jacob Allerhand, university professor in Jewish Studies. It is actually a world turned upside down because originally Yiddish was the language of the common man: Hebrew as the language of prayer should not be befouled with commonalities. There is a proverb that expresses it superbly: "One speaks Hebrew but talks Yiddish."

"If you are really interested in Yiddish culture, you have to go to America or Israel," suggests Leon Zelman. The larger Yiddish-speaking communities can also be found in Montreal and Buenos Aires. In the U.S., Yiddish has become almost exclusively the language of the ultra-orthodox traditionalists.