The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture hosts the Vancouver’s only Yiddish library, tucked into a side room of the Vancouver Public Library Oakridge branch.

Every week, people gather in the unassuming gray building to speak and sing in Yiddish, a language historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. It has traveled wherever Ashkenazim have immigrated, including Vancouver. It’s the language my ancestors spoke, but no living relative knows.

The Peretz Centre has not historically gotten the same attention as other aspects of Vancouver’s Jewish community — it's secular rather than religious, carries a historically left-wing reputation and sustains a language with a shrinking base of native speakers.

In winter 2024, UBC will offer introductory Yiddish courses to students for the first time. Some Yiddish educators, including librarian and UBC alum Faith Nomi Jones, are not only keeping the language alive, but redefining how it’s taught and what it stands for.

Eleven million people spoke Yiddish in the early 20th century. Its numbers declined dramatically soon after — 85 per cent of Holocaust victims were Yiddish speakers. Yiddish also faced competition from Hebrew, the chosen language of the Zionist project, which actively suppressed Yiddish in its mission to turn a diaspora into a nation.

Now, nearly eight decades later, the Senate approved the new program UBC Yiddish last May — along with the introductory courses YDSH 101 and 102. The program is spearheaded by professors in the department of Central, Eastern, and Northern European studies (CENES), including Dr. David Gramling and Dr. Ervin Malakaj, and guided by community experts.

“One of the main things we’ve heard [from partners] is to ‘make sure to keep it Jewish’” said Gramling, “but Jewish in a really broad sense: secular, Queer, progressive, truthful, light of spirit, deep in experience, deep in history, hopeful about the future.”

The program now faces questions about how to balance cultural specificity with inclusivity — especially when even within Jewish communities, what it means to “keep it Jewish” isn’t clear.

What is Yiddish?

While Hebrew is considered the language of Judaism today, before the 20th century Hebrew was a formal language reserved for holy books and religious observance, not for everyday speech. Jewish communities spoke many languages — including Yiddish in Eastern Europe, Ladino around the Iberian Peninsula and the languages of the cultures they lived among.

Jews moved around a lot due to persecution, and they brought their languages with them. Yiddish dialects bear the linguistic traces of where they’ve been — German, Polish, Latvian and Romance vocabularies, all written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Today, less than one million people speak it worldwide, with the 2021 census finding 20,155 speakers in Canada.

Its legacy of art, theatre and labour organizing on both sides of the Atlantic continue to resonate as a way to connect to Jewish history beyond stories of violence.

From New York to Warsaw, Yiddish has historically been a diasporic language tied not to a state or territory, but to the ethno-religious group that speaks it.

This can make it difficult to get popular support for Yiddish education. Gramling said most people in university courses want to learn languages that are “useful,” or that come with national funding opportunities. Yiddish, which has no state to back it up and little utility for trade or diplomacy, is the opposite.

To Gramling, that’s part of what makes it exciting.

“It’s the epitome of a grassroots, diverse, messy, lively, human language that is lived and loved by real people, and doesn't have a state budget behind it,” said Gramling. “I love that.”

Gramling said that starting a Yiddish program was one of his main goals when he started his term as the head of the CENES department in 2021.

For a department that covers Eastern Europe, “it’s bonkers that we don’t have a dedicated professorship for Jewish studies,” he said.

Yiddish in Vancouver

Yiddish isn’t quite endangered, but its population of speakers is small, and aging rapidly. Jones, at 58, is “considered to be a younger Yiddish speaker.”

As a translator, she is a bridge between a Yiddish culture that a shrinking few can access, and the growing community who identify with the language but can’t understand it.

“There [are] lots of people who are not going to learn the language in any intensive way, but who have an affinity for it and who respect what it means and how it enriches their lives in one way or another," said Jones.

Musicians working in Jewish styles like klezmer come to the language to understand their repertoire better. Jones translates lyrics into Yiddish for her Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, plays for the Digital Yiddish Theatre Project and even recently helped new parents pick out a Yiddish name for their child.

Jones, like most Yiddish speakers in Vancouver, didn’t grow up with the language. Only one of her grandparents spoke it, and she didn’t pass the language down.

“I really had to decide I wanted Yiddish,” said Jones. “And that was a very long process.”

She only started learning at age 30, with night classes at the Peretz Centre. After she finished a master’s in library science at UBC, she began taking intensive courses in New York.

The language of a people, not a nation

In Yiddish, she found a different story of Jewish history— one that doesn’t necessarily point towards Israel.

“I guess I was looking for a way to be Jewish,” she said. “My family was both not religious and not Zionists, which leaves you with a small number of ways to express yourself.”

In the early 20th century, Yiddish was historically championed by Eastern European Jews who angled to build power against antisemitism and exploitation where they were, using the language their people spoke. On the other side of the Atlantic, Yiddish immigrants organized unions and established newspapers and cultural centres.

Meanwhile, Zionist movements for the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine spoke Modern Hebrew, which was invented only in the 1880s. They actively repressed Yiddish, associating it with the fragility of statelessness that they wanted to leave behind in Europe. Hebrew represented a chance to redefine Jewish identity — by defining the borders of a nation-state.

“My feeling about Yiddish was that it gave me this connection to a historical reality of the Jews, which is that for most of our history, we’ve existed in diaspora,” said Jones. “I felt more connected to that than to something like the state of Israel.”

The history of Yiddish and of Hebrew is bound up in the history of Jewish people as both victims of and perpetrators of violence. To some Yiddish revivalists, like Jones, Yiddish is a way to connect to Jewish identity in a way that aligns with anti-Zionist values.

Of course, Yiddish speakers run the ideological spectrum – a shared language does not translate to a shared worldview.

“I will say that the current situation in Israel is incredibly hard on our Yiddish community, because we have the same splits that are in every Jewish community; they are happening the same in Yiddish,” said Jones.

Schisms between Yiddish speakers that are speaking out against the genocide in Gaza and those that support Israel are fracturing the small community into even smaller pieces.

Malakaj said that it's still uncertain how UBC Yiddish classes will address the tensions that are currently impacting Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab community members. Gramling said that the program hopes to move the focus away from Israel and Zionism entirely, centring instead on celebrating Yiddish’s Eastern European roots.

Still, Malakaj hopes that the classroom can be a productive space for critical discussion about how languages speak to identity, culture and conflict.

Building Yiddish at UBC from the ground up

While Yiddish isn’t in the classroom yet, Gramling, Jones and Malakaj are laying the groundwork.

They’re looking to successful precedents at UBC like the First Nations and Endangered Languages (FNEL) program for insight on how to build a minoritized language program that lasts. According to Gramling, that means designing a program for speakers, not for academic linguists.

“What makes language programs more successful is often really infusing them with culture,” said Jones. Rather than just grammar and vocabulary, learning Yiddish is inseparable from art, politics and the other ways the language is animated through community — past and present.

They’re currently working on hiring a teacher. Then, they plan on focussing on recruitment and enrollment for students across campus, and even for remote access students across BC.

While Malakaj is hopeful for “long waitlists” for the YDSH courses, Gramling and Jones have more modest expectations.

UBC penalizes classes with average enrolment below 30 with reduced funding. To Gramling and Malakaj, the uncertainty of teaching smaller languages is worth it.

“We always run a risk when we add a new language, and that is simply something that we're doing because we believe in it because it follows our principles,” said Gramling.

While the actual number of Yiddish speakers is small, the community around it is much larger. According to Jones, much of it is not Jewish. In UBC’s Yiddish class, it’s unlikely that everybody in the room will be.

Jones said Yiddish won’t survive at UBC by only teaching to students with Yiddish in their family histories.

“I think this is really an ethical responsibility for everybody who does Yiddish or who works with small languages,” said Jones. “Part of the responsibility is to invite everybody in … I'm not gatekeeping.”

Jewish communities have historically held themselves apart to keep themselves safe from persecution. Now, the survival of Yiddish might depend on how well we can open up.

The Queer Yiddish connection

Like Jones, most people do not have relatives that taught them to speak or understand Yiddish. The communities that form around learning the language instead become chosen families.

“Yiddish community is intergenerational, but often among unrelated people, and in a way, that's very Queer,” said Jones. "It's also very feminist.”

That resonates with me. I learned about Yiddish from books that sat side-by-side on my late grandmother’s bookshelf with a dusty copy of iconic lesbian cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. To learn more, I reached out to a family friend — a Queer Yiddish musician whose short hair and glasses mirrored mine.

Gramling and Jones affirmed that a lot of people that seek out Yiddish in 2023 happen to be gay or gender-nonconforming.

“I think there’s a siblingship between Yiddish and Queerness in terms of how both … struggle against certain types of normativity,” said Gramling.

Queer family structures exist outside the boundaries of what is conventionally useful or profitable. Yiddish learners do something similar.

“Families are different if you're Queer, if you're a feminist and also if you're Yiddish,” said Jones.

Families, chosen and inherited, are also often contentious, diverse and messy. Still, learning a language that holds so much fragmented history requires an effort that communicates more than the words themselves.

“When somebody speaks to me in Yiddish, I really feel it as an act of great care and great love,” said Jones.

This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 language supplement, In Other Words.