The New Yiddish-Ukrainian Dictionary by Linguist Dmytro Tyshchenko

Dmytro Tyshchenko

Dmytro Tyshchenko is a Ukrainian philologist and a Germanist who specializes in Yiddish. He created the Yiddish-Russian (2013) and the Yiddish-Ukrainian (2014) dictionaries. Before a presentation of his dictionary in Beth Sholem Aleichem in Tel Aviv (Israel), the scholar talked about the project’s evolution and the peculiarities of working with the Yiddish language and its translation into Ukrainian. The program “Encounters” is sponsored by the Canadian philanthropic foundation Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  The dream to compile a Yiddish dictionary came to me in 1984, when I got a copy of the Russian-Jewish Dictionary just published in Moscow.

Iryna Slavinska:  Was it indeed called “Russian-Jewish”?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Yes, it was. And a Ukrainian one simply didn’t exist, though the first Yiddish dictionary was published in Ukraine. It was a Jewish-Russian dictionary released in Zhytomyr, and its author was Yehoshua Mordechai-Lifshitz, the pioneer of Jewish lexicography who lived in Berdychiv.

Back then, in the 1980s, I wasn’t a Yiddish speaker. I knew a little bit from my family. My maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish with each other.

Iryna Slavinska:  In what region did they live?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  My mother’s roots are from Grodno, the west of Belarus. But we always lived in Odessa. I was born in Tiraspol and lived in Odessa since I was six. In 1998, I moved to Germany and I live in Frankfurt.

I really longed to learn the language spoken by my mother’s parents. Although they had already passed away by that time, my longing was so strong that I started rewriting the Moscow dictionary in the reverse order, in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. My Grandpa had showed me the Hebrew alphabet, and had taught me some Hebrew phrases. One never “studies” Yiddish, it’s all about knowing it or not.

Iryna Slavinska:  I guess we need to comment on this. Our listeners who are less acquainted with the subject probably might need a deeper explanation of this situation. It just sounds far from being obvious. Yiddish is never studied, but people know it.

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Yiddish is the spoken language of the Eastern European Jews and used by them over the course of almost a thousand years. Yiddish has existed as long as Rus/Ukraine. However, the Jewish people are much older than that, and their language, common for all Jews, is Hebrew. And a hundred years ago this language was revived. It hadn’t been spoken, and now it is. It is a full-fledged language, the mother tongue of five million Israelis. I agree with you, this situation is somewhat strange, because the dead language—Hebrew—was revived, and the living language [Yiddish], began to perish.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why was Hebrew a dead language?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  For two thousand years, from the time when Jews were expelled from their homeland by the Romans, Hebrew was used only for prayer and for reading sacred texts, but it wasn’t used in everyday life. The Jews spoke the local languages, or, under certain historical circumstances, special Jewish languages evolved. Yiddish is the most famous of them, the most spoken. A hundred years ago, 95% of Jews spoke Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska:  So in this case—I just want to make sure—it turns out that the Hebrew language is important as a common language for all Jews, unlike Yiddish, which had been spoken only by part of the Jews. Right?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  It was like that once. This was the goal that was set by the Zionists: to revive the Jewish state and the language common for everyone, the language that belonged to the ancestors of all the Jews. They succeeded, but on the other hand, they disunited the Jews. Because 95% of the Jews, regardless of where they lived—whether they stayed in Russia, or emigrated to America, or Brazil, or to Australia or South Africa—in every place they used Yiddish. Jews could communicate in this language everywhere. Ninety five percent of them knew this language.

Now the situation is different. It is necessary to learn Hebrew. This language is foreign, let’s say, for Ukrainian Jews, it is native only to Israelis. The same is true for American, South African, and French Jews. They learn it as a foreign language.

Iryna Slavinska:  Well, then there arises a question about what we discussed in the beginning. It’s about your dream to create the dictionary. Why do this if Yiddish isn’t widely used today?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  I appreciate when a person knows the language that was spoken by their grandparents. It’s relevant for the Ukrainian language also. Country folk move to cities and no longer speak Ukrainian. This also grieves me. And it’s very good there is more Ukrainian in schools. In my hometown of Odessa there were very few Ukrainian schools and very little “Ukraine” in general. But nowadays the situation is quite different.

Iryna Slavinska:  I’m not sure this can be such a straightforward analogy. It’s likely that a lot depends on the region. I can’t imagine what the situation was in the Odessa region a few dozen years ago, but now this tendency you described of losing Ukrainian after moving to the city… it’s barely relevant today.

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  But there’s something that happened to Yiddish that we can’t allow to happen to the Ukrainian language. Yiddish has become… It is spoken only by specialists, it engages only specialists and people who are indeed interested and willing to know their roots, their national culture, willing to read the literature in its original language. And that’s a very noble thing, those aspirations.

I have a lot of associates. When we published the first edition of the dictionary, it was in increasingly short supply. I kept getting orders…Fifty copies were ordered from Lviv, from Chernivtsi. We could not provide all that, and now, thanks to the grant from the Canadian organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, I hope that we’ll meet all the demand, and the dictionary will also get into every library, into all the academic libraries of Jewish organizations (every Jewish organization has its own library), and into Jewish schools, although Yiddish is not studied in these schools. But children are interested, and perhaps someday there will be such a subject.

Fifty years ago, in the 1930s, in Odessa, there were more Jewish than Russian schools, with the Jewish language, and not Russian.

Iryna Slavinska: Do you mean Yiddish?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Yiddish. Only Yiddish. Hebrew was then banned, because Zionism was subject to prosecution. Well, it’s a long story, but it’s a fact that fifty years ago there were Yiddish schools… More than fifty… in the 1930s. Most of them were closed. They switched, by the way, to the Russian language. In Ukrainian towns in Podillia and Volhynia, there was a typical situation where there were no Russian schools, only Ukrainian and Jewish schools. Then they introduced those Russian schools. For there were about 50% to 50% Jews and Ukrainians. More or less.

Iryna Slavinska:  So you say that earlier you were short on the dictionary copies, and it was ordered in small batches of a few dozen copies from different universities. I can’t but ask again: who is the recipient of a book like this? Is it meant for an academic coterie?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Yes. First of all, it is designed for professionals, historians, political scientists, and literary scholars who deal with the original texts in Yiddish. Can you imagine how many documents in Yiddish there are in the archives? How many documents that were never read? Waiting to be researched.

Iryna Slavinska:  That’s exactly what I’d like to ask next—about those sources and those texts in Yiddish that are available for reading in Ukraine. Obviously, these are archival materials. What can be found there?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  [In the early years of the Soviet Union – MFB] there was a policy that announced all languages equal, and citizens were supposed to be served in all fields in their native language. So, if in a city or a town fifty percent of the population was Jewish, Yiddish was not only in schools, but it was also in public institutions, in courts, in all state institutions and enterprises. The Jewish language was present everywhere, if Jews lived there. So, all of that remained in the archives. The Soviet period is indeed a big blank spot, believe it or not. There was research on the nineteenth century and earlier periods, and in this case, on the contrary, many things were kept in secret, and made taboo. Even showing interest in it was dangerous. And now these documents are revealed. I also want to emphasize that there is a special institution, the Institute of Jewish Studies, which trains specialists. There are two Jewish Studies training programs in Ukraine—at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and also in Lviv at the [Ukrainian] Catholic University, which also trains specialists in Jewish Studies, but not in the Yiddish language.

Iryna Slavinska: I think here we must explain what we are talking about to those who are not acquainted with the context. Why is it important to notice that these are not experts in Yiddish, but in Jewish Studies? What is Judaica?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  In the 1930s, Jewish Studies [in the Soviet Union – MFB] were possible only in the context of Jewish [Yiddish] language and literature studies. There were classes for these subjects at Jewish schools—and that’s all. And the rest of the culture, including religion, traditions, rituals, ancient history, were disregarded. Now the situation is absolutely different, yet Yiddish still engages experts in Jewish Studies. Yiddish studies are part of Jewish Studies, and all those organizations that I mentioned above, those educational institutions, have Yiddish language courses. And students and teachers there are looking forward to getting my dictionary. They have been waiting for a long time.

Iryna Slavinska:  And what did they use before? I am a translator also. I translate from the French, and I can’t even imagine… now, of course, it’s easier to imagine working without a printed dictionary, because there are online resources etc. However, thinking about working without a dictionary even a few years ago is really difficult.

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Computers… I remember, when I started to compose the dictionary, someone told me: “Why are you doing it? Now everything is on the Internet.” One can find everything on the Internet, only if someone else has uploaded the data there. There were no such people. I am the person who is going to do it.

Iryna Slavinska:  Which means this dictionary will have an online version?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  It’s not only about this dictionary. I have… this dictionary which we are now talking about has only thirty thousand words, and this is about one-fifth of my material. So, I have way more to share. I don’t expect to publish it one day. Actually, this isn’t necessary. It will appear on the Internet soon… I hope on the “Jewish Kyiv” website, which earlier had a smaller version of my dictionary, and it will be available to all the experts. You just guessed the direction of my thoughts.

Iryna Slavinska:  Well, it’s not about me. It’s just some kind of expected logic for information exchange development today. I also wanted to ask if there is a major corpus of literature for reading. Because earlier we touched upon the academic studies and the research work with the sources, but if we think about the entire Jewish history on the lands of Ukraine, and not only Ukraine, we can assume with 100% probability that there should exist a Ukrainian literature written in Yiddish. And, again, not only Ukrainian. Are there many texts, many books one can read in this language?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  An entire ocean. And it’s not just fiction. As for fiction, indeed, there are many works that are worthy of being translated, and that has not been done yet. But there are translations that appeared lately… I had no idea about it, and it was pleasant to discover that there appeared a number of young scholars who translated from the original. Because earlier everything was translated [into Ukrainian – MFB] via the Russian translations. The Ukrainian [Yiddish – MFB] writers Bur, Lizen, and Polyanker—they were translated via the Russian translation.

There’s a heartwarming fact: when we published the Yiddish-Russian dictionary and were promoting it at the book launch, I was addressed by a young lady named Dana Pinczewska. She said: “I translate into Ukrainian. I don’t need a Yiddish-Russian dictionary, I need a Yiddish-Ukrainian one.” And she, it was exactly she, who inspired me to complete this work, to revise it and make a twin dictionary in the same format.

Iryna Slavinska:  Does it have the same words? I mean, if we compare the vocabulary in the Russian and the Ukrainian version—is it the translation of the same words?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  What appeared in book form is the same, it is identical. And what will appear on the Internet, we’ll see.

Iryna Slavinska:  I still would like to ask about the work here, because I can only theoretically imagine the work of a person who compiles dictionaries. In this story, you are the one who works with a language which is little used now. How did you… how do you do this and how do you go on doing this?

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  This work has its own peculiarities. Of course, when creating a bilingual dictionary of Yiddish or some rare language, let’s say, Swahili, you look for the most comprehensive dictionary of that language. I had no such possibility. A complete dictionary of Yiddish does not exist. There was a lot of work done, a lot of material collected, but only in the 1960-80s… four volumes were released, and then the publication stopped. There was no more money, no more experts, they passed away—and everything was over.

So, I invented my own approach, I just read through it all… Since my goal was to represent the language of modern Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union, I just read all the works in the only Yiddish magazine in the Soviet Union… from its very beginning in 1961 till the end of its publication in 1997. By the way, I published a magazine on my own. In Odessa, we published the Mame Loshn magazine which lasted one year longer than Sovetish Heymland. Its publication stopped in 1998. So, obviously, I personally processed and typed all the materials for this magazine, Mame Loshn, and I worked with all those materials from the Sovetish Heymland magazine. Just to help you imagine, there were twenty thousand magazine pages of text. I worked on it for over ten years.

This was the basis. That’s why I had been working so long. Because writing the text of the dictionary took me only a year. The Russian version took a year and working on the Ukrainian one was even easier, because I drew on the Russian text, and I created it in six months. So I drew on the literature and the bilingual dictionaries published in the other countries, based on the English, French… the German version still does not exist. There is the Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary that I compiled. However, a German-Yiddish dictionary hasn’t been issued yet. The work on it is in progress. The Polish dictionary was published later than ours. The Romanian… nobody is working on the Romanian dictionary although it’s important, because many Jews lived in Romania and Moldova. And there is the Belarusian dictionary. Interestingly, it appeared a little bit before us. It’s a very good dictionary by Astraukh.

Here are the special aspects of my approach—it’s a representation of the modern language and the most comprehensive study of literature. And all this… could have been avoided, if there was a thesaurus. I wouldn’t have had to devote ten years of my life for the groundwork.

Basically, I answered your question. To conclude, it’s all about bilingual dictionaries and real literature. Also, in some cases I turned to… if a certain word just wasn’t defined in literature, and I couldn’t find it in the dictionaries, I just asked elderly people. And some words were quite a discovery for me and, given they have never been defined, a discovery for people.

Iryna Slavinska:  I’ll just ask again to make sure of the nuance. How many speakers of Yiddish are there? You said, “I asked elderly people.” I can’t imagine, for example, if in Kyiv, where I live, there are many Yiddish speakers.

Dmytro Tyshchenko:  Certainly, the number of Yiddish speakers has catastrophically decreased. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, you could hear old people sitting in the garden and speaking Yiddish. Now there are really, really few, these people are indeed very old.

The Yiddish language is not a dead language. Yiddish is spoken by all generations in the milieu of religious Jews—however, sadly outside of Ukraine—and in Israel, in America, and in some religious communities of Europe. It can be heard in Jerusalem, one can just go out and hear young people and children speaking Yiddish. Perhaps it’s mixed with Hebrew, but people understand Yiddish. In Ukraine, Yiddish is studied by those who are motivated. The one who is motivated studies the language. And now there’s this most important tool. Not only our dictionary is available. At almost the same time, a phrase book and a textbook by Feiner, Kerzhner, and Shyrokykh was published in Kyiv. So, there are these two tools for studying. And I hope that the number of people who will know Yiddish will grow. Whether they will speak Yiddish or not—I don’t think that history will repeat itself. It’s a unique case when Hebrew has become a spoken language. I just don’t know any other people like this [like Jews – MFB].

In any case, Yiddish is an integral part of Jewish culture, and a Jew simply can’t be an educated person, an educated Jewish person, without knowing Yiddish. This is my viewpoint, this is the position of my associates, [Arkady] Monastyrsky, the Jewish Forum, the Jewish Council of Ukraine, and the Jewish Vaad. We believe that Yiddish should have its own place, an honorable place in Jewish culture and education.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (podcast) here.

Translated by Miriam Feyga Bunimovich, MF Language Services Platform.
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger.

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