ATLANTA — A group of American college students stands in a semicircle, clapping and hopping on one foot as they sing in Yiddish: “Az der rebe tantst, tantsn ale khsidim!”
In English, the lyrics mean: “When the rebbe dances, so do all the Hasidim.”
This isn’t music appreciation or even a class at a synagogue. It’s the first semester of Yiddish at Emory University in Atlanta — one of a handful of college programs across the country studying the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews.
The language came close to dying out after the Holocaust as millions of Yiddish speakers either perished in Nazi concentration camps or fled to other countries where their native tongue was not welcome. Emory and other universities such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and McGill in Montreal are working to bring the language back, and with it, an appreciation for the rich history of European Jewish culture and art.
“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Emory who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die.”
Experts estimate there are between 1 million and 2 million native Yiddish speakers in the world, but only about 500,000 speak it in the home — mostly Orthodox Jews. When YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City began offering summer programs in Yiddish in 1968, they were the only such program in the world.
Now, they compete with summer intensive Yiddish programs in Tel Aviv, Ottawa, Indiana and Arizona, said YIVO’s dean, Paul Glasser. About 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada now offer some Yiddish courses, though just a few of them have degrees in the language.
The interest has grown because of the younger Jewish generation, which doesn’t feel their parents’ embarrassment that their family spoke Yiddish rather than English, Mr. Glasser said.
“Eighteen-year-olds today don’t have that,” he said. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. No one can question their American-ness.”
“It’s taught me a lot about my own roots and where my people have come from,” he said. “It’s been a really interesting learning experience, not just from the language perspective but also from the historical perspective.”
It’s not just college classes where the interest in Yiddish has grown.
Klezmer music has made a comeback with young musicians like Canadian Yiddish hip-hop artist Socalled — whose real name is Josh Dolgin — and Daniel Kahn, a New York-based folk singer who is recording with some of the most popular Yiddish performers in the world.
At the Folksbiene national Yiddish theater and the New Yiddish Rep theater company, both in New York City, young actors flood auditions for “Gimpl Tam” and “The Learning Play of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, Son of Sara, of Berditchev.” The Congress for Jewish Culture holds coffee houses monthly where young Yiddish musicians perform and bring in guest speakers like graphic novel artist Ben Katchor, hoping to appeal to a younger audience.