Was Yiddish ever a kind of lingua franca among European and non-European immigrant Jews to America?

I’ve always wondered whether Yiddish was ever a kind of lingua franca among European and non-European immigrant Jews to America. I haven’t been able to get a satisfactory answer to the question.

In the early part of the 1900s in New York City (NYC) at least Yiddish did become the lingua franca among the Central and Eastern European Jews. Yiddish was used so much, that NYC English has a lot of Yiddish words (along with Italian & Spanish words) in common use. I think the NYC Metro area was the only place where the concentration of Yiddish speakers was dense enough to be a lingua franca. Most US Yiddish speakers still reside in NYC, over half I believe.

The Sephardic Jews generally don’t speak Yiddish. So I guess they were left out of this.

This pretty much exhausts my limited knowledge on the subject.

Why would non-European Jews know Yiddish?

Upstate New York has Yiddish Farm too.

Here is a 4 page PDF about Yiddish in the United States, from a 1987 article.

An excerpt from that article:

New York City has the largest concentration of Yiddish speakers in the country; more than half a million claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue according to the 1970 U.S. Census.

Another article (not a PDF):

And a relevant snippet:

By the early 20th century Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe came to New York in droves, bringing with them a few things that became quintessentially New York: bagels and cream cheese, comedic theater, a proclivity for arguing, and the Yiddish language. By 1910, the seven Yiddish language newspapers had a daily readership of over 500,000 people! There was a Yiddish theater district where klezmer music played night and day. The lower east side, gentrified now to look like any city, everywhere once bought, sold, and thrived on Yiddish.

Not even all European Jews used Yiddish. Maybe @Octagon is conflating it with Hebrew?

I kind of forgot just this weekend that Bar & Bat Mitzvah are in Hebrew and not Yiddish. A brain fart in my case but easy to do.

Just in case anyone needs the clarification:

Yiddish is a Germanic language related to High German written in Hebrew characters. It’s heyday was the early 20th Century when somewhere between 8 and 11 million people used it, most in Central and Eastern Europe with a large segment moving to New York City at a certain point in history. Currently, there are about 1.5 to 2 million people conversant in Yiddish.

Hebrew is an a Semitic language in the Afroasiatic family (equivalent to the Indo-European family). It, too, is written in Hebrew characters. It spent many centuries as a dead language used for liturgical purposes, much as Latin these days (and to a much more limited extent to allow Jews of different origins to communicate, again, with parallels to church Latin) until being resurrected in the late 19th Century. So far as I know it is the only language that has truly come back from the dead.

There are some significant differences between “Biblical Hebrew” (the ancient form) and “Modern Hebrew” (the living language). If you want to study Hebrew you’ll probably be asked which type you want to study.

Who were these non-European Jewish immigrants? If they were from North Africa, they would not have spoken Yiddish. Some of them might have spoken Ladino which is a dialect of Spanish but unrelated to Yidddish. Of course, many from Southern Europe, refugee families from Spain would also have spoken Ladino, not Yiddish. And I knew two Jews, one from Germany and one from Austria who spoke German of course, but not Yiddish.

But it certainly was a lingua franca among all sorts of northern European immigrant Jews and their children. My father was born in South Philly and didn’t learn English till first grade. All the kids he played with before that spoke only Yiddish.

My grandparents were collectively from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. They all spoke Yiddish, and it was my father’s first language since my grandmother lived with them and didn’t speak English.

I have a cousin who moved to Spain and married a guy from Argentina. Their mothers converse in Yiddish since it’s the only language they have in common.

And because I’m an iconoclast, I still refer back to classic straightdope columns (this one by Dex) that are pertinent.

Which has more information that anyone would want to type out, and less than a PDF.

OTTOMH I recall Philadelphia having a few Yiddish newspapers back in the day. The Museum Of Jewish American History here in Philly even has typewriters made to write in Yiddish.

Semi Related story- A few years ago, a Soviet immigrant (my neighborhood is filled with them) sought my attention. I don’t speak much Yiddish. But, I quickly understood that’s the language he was speaking in. I brought him inside and called a friend who speaks fluent Yiddish. It turned out that he was moving and since I seemed like a nice Jewish boy, he wanted to know if I wanted some free furniture. It further turned out that he’d made the furniture himself. I gave one beautiful end table to the friend who spoke Yiddish and kept a wonderful red chair for myself. I keep meaning to learn Yiddish. Partly, I’m embarrassed I don’t already know it. Partly, it makes me mis my Bubby (Yiddish for grandmother) who always meant to teach my sister and me Yiddish but never got around to it.

Yiddish is somewhat mutually intelligble with the German dialect spoken by the Amish, isn’t it? I’ve heard that on the occasions when Hasids and Amish cross paths, they are able to understand each other enough to have a conversation.

Which is why Israel chose Hebrew (the language of all Jews) as its official language, rather than the much-more-widely-spoken Yiddish.

According to SuperVenusFreak , may his memory be for a blessing, the syntax of Amish German and Yiddish is indeed very similar. For example “Throw the cow, over the fence, some hay.” is proper syntax for the Amish.

Apparently they are not mutually intelligible. Yiddish originated in the 9th century, Amish in the 18th, and they were then subject to further linguistic drift by religious isolation and emigration.

Mutual intelligibility is always a spectrum. Are we talking about someone butting in on a conversation, or about two people speaking slowly, asking for clarification, and otherwise trying to make themselves understood? Are we talking about simple, common things, or difficult, abstract concepts? Yiddish and Amish German are almost certainly more mutually intelligible than either is with, say, Japanese, but they’re probably not as mutually intelligible as Serbian and Croatian.

I mean, on some level, English and German are mutually intelligible if you speak slowly about simple things and ask for clarification. I speak no German, but have done that with people who speak German but no English. My host’s daughter was the harvest queen in the annual festival. I should leave my luggage over there. Yes, they have fat (butter) for the bread.

As recently as the early 2000s, my fully-American elderly aunt was very into Jewish folk dancing. There was a major annual Jewish folk dancing event every year in Caracas, Venezeula in those days. (I can’t imagine if it still happens, with what’s happened in Venezuela since then.)

My aunt said that she was able to converse in Yiddish with other non-Americans that she met there.

Yiddish, when used by Jews from different Yiddish-speaking communities to communicate with one another isn’t really a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language used for communication between people who don’t share a native language. Jews whose inheritance includes Yiddish using Yiddish to communicate with other Jews aren’t really using a lingua franca. If Jews who don’t come from a Yiddish-speaking background learnt Yiddish in order to communicate with other Jews who also don’t come from a Yiddish-speaking background but could nevertheless speak Yiddish, then Yiddish would be a lingua franca. But I don’t know that this happened very much.

It’s more complex than that. The move away from Yiddish began some 50 years before Israel was founded; some of it was because of the non-Ashkenazic Jews (although they generally had a negligible presence in the country at the time), but a lot of it was because Yiddish was viewed as a sort of a “slave language”. According to the early Zionists, the only proper language for real Jews was Hebrew, not some weird German hybrid. Even if no Sephardic and other non-Yiddish speaking Jews had moved to Israel, Yiddish would probably have still been abandoned.

Modern Hebrew does use a lot of Yiddish slang, though.

Yes, and WWII would have still accelerated the loss by killing off millions of Yiddish speakers. That didn’t do the language any favors.