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  • Yiddish without Yiddishism:Tacit Language Planning Among Haredi Jews
  • Tatjana Soldat-Jaffe (bio)


Discourse about the Yiddish language over the last hundred years—from the controversies of the Czernowitz conference just over a century ago to the recent debates about proliferation of Yiddish courses in higher education—can been characterized by two kinds of questions in dialectical tension: questions about how to teach the language and questions about language survival. One of the places where this dynamic is most acute is in the communities of Yiddish-speaking Haredim—sometimes known as ultra-Orthodox Jews.1 For this group, Yiddish is still very much a living language, yet it is a language living deliberately apart. This separation remains both among non-Jews and other non-Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Diaspora and among non-Yiddish-speaking co-religionists in Israel, which nonetheless leaves varieties of Haredi-Yiddish exposed to different sorts of external linguistic and sociocultural influences. Consequently, Haredim do what is in their power to maintain the perceived status quo, especially concerning the function of Yiddish in identity formation.

Maintaining the status quo belongs to the discussion of language planning, commonly defined as the purposeful effort to maintain or change language function to preserve and continue the linguistic vitality in a speech community. The earliest implementation of language planning is often through language socialization, for example, the process in which "vocal and verbal activities are generally socially organized and embedded in cultural systems of meaning" - that is, socialization in a particular language and socialization through a particular language at a time when a child establishes his/her first social contact.2

There are numerous publications on language planning, and there has been a growing number of ethnographic and linguistic research into Haredi life and, more recently, language socialization.3 In 1999 The International Journal of the Sociology of Language devoted a special issue to the role of Yiddish among contemporary Haredim. Without question, as many articles in the collection testify, Yiddish provides a linguistic means for the Haredim to maintain traditional [End Page 1] values—that is, sociocultural as well as religious distinctiveness. Not only is the use of Yiddish actively emphasized within Haredi enclaves, but it also garners support from various formal and informal educational practices; Yiddish is believed to be the language of instruction.

Linguistically anchored ethnic identities, such as the Yiddish Haredim, seem to be remarkably resilient. The extent to which these communities use Yiddish to maintain boundaries with outsiders (both gentile society and non-Yiddish-speaking Jewry) depends on three factors: the role of ethnicity in preserving cultural continuity across generations, the manner in which language is linked to ethnicity, and the differing attitudes towards Yiddish across the variety of Haredi communities. And yet, Glinert, Isaacs and Fader illustrate extensively how Yiddish as the evident and stable ethnic marker in Orthodox communities slowly enters a time marked by changes due to the polyglossic exposure that some members of the speech community experience on a daily basis - such as Haredi women occupying a job outside the Orthodox community in the secular world - which has proven to put a strain on Yiddish in its function to reinforce communally-defined linguistic and ethno-religious boundaries to the outside.4 Instead, English has often replaced or supplemented Yiddish in the form of code switching or borrowings, creating a stable bilingualism.

Researchers such as Lewis Glinert, Miriam Isaacs, and Ayala Fader document that the function of Yiddish language use has changed in Orthodox communities. Once an evident and stable marker of Haredi difference from outside communities, it has been strained by polyglossic language exposure - in particular, employment of Haredi women in non-Yiddish contexts outside the Orthodox community. English has often replaced or supplemented Yiddish in the form of code switching or borrowings creating a stable bilingualism. Their data shows that Yiddish not only takes on different symbolic values in different Haredi communities but also among different individual speakers in a single given community. Attitudes about the language point less to a religious identity marker and more to an ethnicity marker, an aspect of the linguistic functional use of Yiddish as boundary marker. Even if Yiddish simply signifies an unmarked...


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