Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Linguistics


The overarching aim of our research is to provide the first in-depth description of the grammatical features of the Yiddish used in Hasidic communities worldwide, to analyse their implications for linguistic theory, and to investigate the sociolinguistic context of Hasidic Yiddish using the Stamford Hill community as a case study. Yiddish was the everyday language of Eastern European Jews over the last millennium. In the interwar period, the Yiddish landscape comprised three traditional dialects and a standardised variety. The Holocaust and concomitant historical events contributed to a major decrease in the number of Yiddish speakers to the extent that it has become an endangered language. Today, Yiddish is overwhelmingly spoken by followers of Hasidism (a strictly Orthodox spiritual movement within Judaism). Yiddish-speaking Hasidic communities are dispersed globally with the largest centres in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area in Israel, the New York area in the US, Antwerp in Belgium, and London's Stamford Hill. Even amongst scholars there is little appreciation of the fact that Yiddish is used as a daily language in these Hasidic communities. Consequently, few studies exist on Hasidic Yiddish language use, and none offer detailed grammatical descriptions.

Our project builds on a pilot study on the grammar of Stamford Hill Hasidic Yiddish, which revealed a number of characteristics that differ dramatically from the traditional dialects and Standard Yiddish, demonstrating that this is a distinct variety of Yiddish with its own rules. The first objective of our proposed project is to expand on these findings by conducting an in-depth examination of the spoken and written Yiddish used in six Hasidic communities worldwide (together comprising an overwhelming majority of Hasidic Yiddish speakers) to probe the question whether the language of these communities constitutes a cohesive linguistic system, Hasidic Yiddish. In our pilot study, we have uncovered an interconnected web of grammatical changes strongly suggesting an implicational relationship between them. The rate at which this grammatical shift occurred was so rapid (within the space of a single generation), and so pervasive (changing the typological character of the language) that it constitutes a remarkably rare phenomenon. Our second objective is to examine the significance of such rapid, pervasive and interconnected changes for linguistic theory. The third objective of our project is to determine the sociolinguistic context underpinning this linguistic development using the Stanford Hill community as a case study. We will investigate speakers' language attitudes, their proficiency, multilingualism, Yiddish language education, and speaker attitudes to the written language.

Our research will be relevant to scholars including linguists specialising in Germanic languages; language change and contact; minority and endangered languages; as well as to Jewish Studies, Genocide Studies, and Religious Studies scholars. Our work will also have a direct impact on the lives of contemporary Hasidic Yiddish speakers: First, by putting the unique nature of Hasidic Yiddish centre stage, we will provide speakers with a framework to enable them for the first time to conceptualise and recognise the special value of their language and to gain a deeper understanding of its history and development. Second, we will raise awareness of Hasidic Yiddish among scholars and the general public. We will do this through continued personal contact with our speakers, and through a number of public events including a series of social evenings facilitating cultural and knowledge exchange between Hasidic and non-Hasidic people, and through collaboration with a Hasidic charity on a youth heritage project. We will also hold two festivals of Yiddish and an academic conference open to the public to celebrate this extraordinary language.

Planned Impact

The Yiddish language is a fundamental cornerstone of Ashkenazi Jewish society, in terms of its history and culture. It is the medium of many thousands of books, songs, and poems. This shared mother-tongue connected the geographically dispersed Jewish people across Europe. After the Holocaust, Yiddish language and culture have been widely perceived to be in terminal decline, with ever-decreasing numbers of speakers. However, in actual fact the Yiddish language continues to thrive as the everyday vernacular of roughly 750,000 Hasidic people around the world, with major centres in Israel, London, Antwerp, and the New York area. Although many people are unaware of this, even in the close proximity of such areas, Yiddish is being passed on to the next generations as the norm in these communities, while this has not generally been the case in Yiddish-speaking families outside the strictly Orthodox world. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the fact that recent decades have seen a blossoming of interest in Yiddish language and culture worldwide, the language of the Hasidic communities has been largely neglected as an object of study. Parallel to this, there is in fact relatively little appreciation in the Hasidic communities themselves of the unique role which they play in the preservation of the Yiddish language, as well as of the worth of the language itself. Simultaneously, government and community institutions in areas with large Hasidic populations are becoming increasingly aware of their role in fostering greater cross-community cohesion across Hasidic and non-Hasidic communities, and have recognised the centrality of the Yiddish language to this endeavour.

Our project thus provides an exceptional opportunity to raise awareness of the relevance of Hasidic Yiddish among Hasidic and non-Hasidic people. Specifically, it will be of interest to three distinct groups of non-academic beneficiaries. First, members of the Hasidic communities worldwide interested in their language and cultural heritage will be able to gain a better understanding of the unique characteristics of their language and an enhanced appreciation of its significance and value. Second, members of the public interested in Yiddish and more generally in Jewish culture and/or minority languages spoken in multilingual settings will have the chance to experience this widely-spoken but largely unfamiliar variety of the language. Finally, our work is of great relevance to public bodies in the UK including Ofsted, Hackney Council, and the Jewish Museum, with whom we have been in contact and who are seeking to gain and facilitate a deeper understanding of Hasidic culture.

We aim to reach these groups through our three-pronged public engagement strategy. First, we will cooperate with the Interlink Foundation, a Hasidic charity based in Stamford Hill, on a Hasidic cultural heritage project, which will engage young Hasidic Yiddish speakers in the community. Second, we will run a series of social and cultural events entitled 'Yiddish Tish' which will provide a meeting point for Hasidic and non-Hasidic people to interact both in Israel and in the UK. Third, we will organise a day-long Festival of Yiddish in Israel and another in London to showcase the outcome of the cultural exchange between the participants in the Yiddish Tish events. The London Festival will coincide with our project closing conference, which itself will be free and open to the public, thereby offering an opportunity for all three groups of beneficiaries to gain a better understanding of Hasidic Yiddish.
Description We are 12 months into the grant period, and this marks the end of the first phase of the project, the initial data collection phase. We have successfully identified participants in London, Israel and the USA. We have not yet identified or tested participants in Antwerp and Manchester. We have successfully recorded data from participants from London, the USA and Israel on our first bacth of data collection questionnaires.

At 24 months into the grant period, we have analysed a substantial part of the data and wrote research articles on various aspect of the language including the pronominal system, and the Hebrew and Aramaic component. Another paper was presented at the Annual meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies on Yiddish language and identity and on formal address. The presentations form parts of the sociolinguistic strand of our project, which is now also underway.

At 36 months into the grant period, noting that one of the two postdoctoral researchers have been on maternity leave for six months, we have created a new questionnaire on verbal syntax, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been unable to collect data on this from more than a handful of participants. We have written a journal article manuscipt on verbal syntax. We have continued to transcribe our interviews. Based on this information and on other collected material we have also written a journal article on formal address and one on pedagogical materials used for Yiddish-language teaching in Hasidic communities. In addition, we have conducted a set of interviews on the use of Ashkenazic Hebrew in Hasidic communities, resulting in two further journal articles, one planned, one published. We have asked for an extension of the grant for 12 months to be able to reach some of the remaining original objectives.
Exploitation Route This is too early to say, as we are at the end of the first phase of the project. So far, we have been proceeding according to the project milestones.

In the second year of the project, the sociolinguistic strand of our project suffered a setback as the field work component could not start on time, but we have made arrangements to change the course of the research to mitigate the situation.

During the third year, unfortunately the field work component kept being hindered by the ongoing pandemic. We mitigated it by changing topics and branching out into translation studies, language pedagogy and documenting Ashkenazic Hebrew, the other language used by Hasidic communities worldwide.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description Since March 2020, we have been creating Yiddish translations of government and health authority advice as well as police notices for dissemination in Hasidic communities, primarily in London and Manchester but also in Quebec, Canada. We have also been advising the UK Parliamentary select committee on 'Coronavirus and the impact on people with protected characteristics' and the US Centre for Disease Control.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Societal

Description Leverhulme Research Fellowship
Amount £43,487 (GBP)
Funding ID 181011 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2022
Description Collaboration with the Modern Hebrew language research group 
Organisation Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided insights into the nature of the Yiddish language, one of the influencial languages that was present when Modern Hebrew developed during the 20th century.
Collaborator Contribution The Modern Hebrew research group provided expertise on the development of Modern Hebrew, one of the most important contact lanaguages for hasidic Yiddish native speakers.
Impact We had a very successful workshop in 2018, which was followed up by a workshop in 2019. Unfortnatelu, however, the leader of the Modern Hebrew research group at Hebrew University suddenly passed away and the research group was disbanded, and consequently the collaboration has ended.
Start Year 2018
Description Development of automated phonetic tagger for Hasidic Yiddish 
Organisation City University of New York (CUNY)
Department The Graduate Center, CUNY
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We developed a working relationship with the CUNY researcher and provided her with partial funding and necessary raw data.
Collaborator Contribution The partner provided her unique expertise in developing an application that can tag audio files phonetically in an automated fashion. They also employed computing experts to create and validate the application, which now works.
Impact An automated phonetic tagger has been created that has been validated for pre-War Yiddish dialects. This tagger needs to be validated for Hasidic Yiddish dialects, work in progress. Afterwards the tagger will reduce audio data transcription time to a fraction of the currently necessary time.
Start Year 2019
Title Automated phonetic tagger for Yiddish and Hasidic Yiddish 
Description An automated phonetic tagger, based on the Montreal Forced Aligner, has been created and validated for pre-War Yiddish dialects. This tagger needs to be validated for Hasidic Yiddish dialects, work in progress. Afterwards the tagger will reduce audio data transcription time to a fraction of the currently necessary time. The software will be made available to anyone under an open source format. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The Montreal Forced Aligner for Yiddish will be a fundamental tool for linguistics researchers working on Yiddish audio data. 
Description Chulent: informal meeting between Hasidic speakers and Yiddish enthusiasts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have held a series of informal gatherings to provide an opportunity for Hasidic Yiddish speakers and Yiddish language enthusiasts to meet and exchange views.
Two such events took place in YUNG YiDiSH Tel Aviv, a cultural centre and Yiddish book library (May 2019, Feb 2020). One event took place in Boro Park, New York (Mar 2020). On event took place in Jerusalem, Israel (Nov 2019).
Each event was attended by about 40-50 participants. In an informal setting, over food and drinks, people spend an evening together talking Yiddish. The unique feature of such events is that there is a big social divide between Hasidic Yiddish speakers, who are adherent to an ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism, and secular or worldy Yiddish enthusiasts. There are few opportunities, places for these groups to meet. The common denominator between these groups is their love of and expertise in the Yiddish language. We have also successfully used these events to find participants for our research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Hasidic music concert 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We organised a music concert for two Hasidic musicians from Israel and the UK to perform at a venue in London. We advertised the event to Yiddish and more generally Jewish cultural enthusiasts. The Hasidic musicians had a chance to perform their music to an interested audience of about 50 people. The Yiddish cultural enthusiasts had a chance to meet Hasidic musicians and have a conversation with them. The musicians also benefited from payment as the event was ticketed and all the income was given to the musicians. This event raised the profile of our project in the Yiddish cultural sphere of London as well as provided us with good working relationship with these Hasidic musicians. These contacts will be useful for future events as well as to recruit participants for our work more generally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description On Hasidic Yiddish 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a public lecture/presentation about Hasidic Yiddish language to an audience of Yiddish language enthusiasts on several occasions in different places and settings.
-at an international summer school on Yiddish language (July 2019, Yiddish Summer Weimar, Weimar, Germany)
-at an informal gathering of ex-Hasidic people (Nov 2019, Jerusalem, Israel)
-at an informal gathering of Hasidic people, ex-hasidic people and Yiddish enthusiasts (Mar 2020, Boro Park, New York, USA)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Recurrent translations for government and health authorities of COVID-19-related information into Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I reached out to health and government authorities to offer translation services of COVID-19-related health guidance and government regulations. We also provided translation services to the Quebec Health Authority in Canada. We have translated dozens of leaflets and posters into Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish and disseminated it in the London and Manchester communities. We worked with the Metropolitan Police, Doctors of the World and the British Society for Immunology. We produced a 18-page booklet on Immunity, Vaccines, COVID-19 in Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish and disseminated 300 copies in the London and Manchester Hasidic communities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021,2022