VVC: Yiddish is the Language of the Kabbalists and Dreamers

A new Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary was presented at Kyiv’s Sholom Aleichem Museum. A striking volume of impressive size, the dictionary is the result of serious work by linguists, translators, and philologists. It will delight connoisseurs and lovers of Yiddish not only in Ukraine, but also abroad.


The President of the Jewish Forum of Ukraine, Arkadii Monastyrskii, and the famous scholar Dmytro Tyshchenko, a graduate of Odessa University and Bar-Ilan University in Israel, presented the dictionary, which was published in a print run of one thousand copies.

Tyshchenko performed the lion’s share of intellectual work on the dictionary that contains more than 300 thousand words of the amazing language that was spoken by our great-grandparents and grandparents.

“Yiddish for many years was considered to be a dead language, as it almost died along with its carriers with the death of East European Jewry during the Second World War. The appearance on the world political map of the state of Israel with the official language of Hebrew led to the fact that Yiddish ceased to develop fully,” says Monastyrskii. However, since the 1990s, and especially in the beginning of 21st century, more and more young Jews want to learn Yiddish due to the rapid development of the Jewish community in Ukraine. This genuine interest in their culture, roots, and the Jewish intellectual heritage continues to grow not only in Ukraine but also in Europe and Russia, where a considerable number of Jews live. This is especially true where there is a strong tradition and Jewish culture.

As Monastyrskii described further, Yiddish is the language of magic and that is why it is alive. Newspapers were published in this language before the Second World War. It was studied in schools, and it was used for theatrical productions. Books and numerous collections of poetry were published in Yiddish. A considerable number of poets—natives of Ukraine—wrote poems in Yiddish. The Jewish sages proclaimed: as there are no chance happenings in our world, the same is with the revival of this amazing language today which is not accidental, as Monastyrskii summed up.

“My mother—Edita Zalyshanskaya—is a Jew, and my father is a native Ukrainian from Donbas,” recounted dictionary compiler Tyshchenko. “For many years in my heart and soul the Jewish half from my mother was dearer to me than my father’s half. After all, the Jews were persecuted and oppressed. But after the well-known events of last year, and because of what is happening in Ukraine today, I can say that both halves of my parents are very dear to me, and now I do not even know which one is dearer. Maybe that is why, when I was working on the Ukrainian version of the dictionary, I did my work with trepidation, trying to reveal the potential of both the Ukrainian and Yiddish languages,” said Tyshchenko in sharing his thoughts with the audience.

It is known that Yiddish has German roots, but over the years, as in any other language, it has acquired borrowings from other languages. Its structure has expanded considerably due to the presence of Hebrew, English, Polish, and other words from the Romano-Germanic languages. The contemporary version of Yiddish slang in recent years was also enriched with a modern vocabulary and new words. According to Tyshchenko, Yiddish became like Esperanto to some extent—a language where its creator Zamenhof tried to combine the achievements of all the world’s languages.

The beautiful edition with a dark blue cover will delight any refined bibliophile who is studying the Jewish “mame-loshn” (the mother tongue). “Since my childhood, I knew three dead languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish,” confessed the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer is one of the few writers who have kept the language in all its full-fledged literary capacity. In his famous Nobel Lecture the writer expressed the essence of the language and revealed the cultural code of the Ashkenazi Jews with these prophetic words:

“To me, the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who speak it are identical…Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Kabbalists—rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Is it possible to ask after these words why and who needs this dictionary?

Galina Lebedinskaya

Originally appeared in: http://vvc.kiev.ua/news/5007

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Edited with additional translation by Peter Bejger