To the delight of Yiddishists and language-lovers everywhere, on April 6 the free language learning app Duolingo finally released a Yiddish course for English speakers. While this is most certainly a net positive — a free language learning option to make an endangered language more accessible to students — it’s important to remember that praise towards the Duolingo corporation itself is wholly unwarranted.
Even though Duolingo is a company worth billions of dollars, many of its language courses are created in the same way: through unpaid volunteers, creating language courses in the “Incubator.” For the last five years, a Yiddish course has been crawling like molasses through the Incubator by the sheer goodwill of volunteers. Meanwhile, it cannot be calculated how many Yiddish speakers were lost in that time; the native Yiddish-speaking population is a rapidly aging group that has been decimated by the Holocaust, or the shoah, remembered by Jews on Yom Hashoah, the day after Duolingo released their Yiddish course. Yiddish today is largely spoken by small Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and Quebec. Why then, is it so important that Duolingo released a Yiddish course, and so disappointing that it took them so long?
As Gen Z continues to age up, the American Jewish stance on Israeli-Palestine relationships has further liberalized. I cannot speak for all American Jews, but as one who is surrounded by this discourse, I can confidently say many American Jews feel no connection to Israel at all. It’s a heavily used antisemitic stereotype — called the “dual loyalty stereotype” — that we are double agents, out to subvert the American agenda for the Israeli one. I do not personally know a single American Jew who supports Israeli nationalism, after all, why would we? We’re American. We’re Jewish. We’re not Israeli. In fact, in American politics, it’s most often the Christian Evangelical right that advocates for Israeli nationalism. For leftist American Jews displaced from Europe by the Diaspora and the Holocaust, their opposition to Israel poses a conflict regarding any reconciliation between American Jewish culture and the Hebrew language. The modern Zionist movement, in the creation of the state of Israel, sought a language for their nation, and thus pushed for the widespread speaking of Hebrew for Israeli Jews. The history of Hebrew as a spoken, conversational language is inextricable from the history of Israeli nationalism; Hebrew had never been a conversational language until Zionist advocates successfully pushed for the use of the religious text in everyday life.
It is heartbreaking that the language of our faith now carries the stain of Zionism and the burden of Israeli politics, but that’s the reality, and it’s one that has led many American Jews to feel divorced from their Hebrew education and connect with Yiddish instead. The last few years have seen a revival of digital Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) and modern, leftist content made lovingly in the mame loshn (Yiddish language). Take for example Yidlife Crisis, the popular Yiddish semi-autobiographical web series from Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion as they navigate romance, sex, friendship and Jewish religious questions all with lots of humor and lots of Yiddish. Yiddish is also heavily associated with Bundism, Labor Bundism or “Jewish Socialism” — union activists of the early 20th century, secularists and well-known leftist thinkers like Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin, who both have roots in Yiddish society. All these things signify Yiddish as a language not only with incredible history and cultural meaning but as a secularist, socialist alternative to Hebrew. The historical and cultural connections of Yiddish to socialism and Hebrew to nationalism are undeniable and most certainly play a role in making Yiddish a more appealing option for some.
For years I, and many other American Jews, have tried in vain to reconnect with our culture. I read books, I studied German because of its similarity to Yiddish and I even studied Hebrew (albeit against my will) every Sunday for ten years. But I failed to learn much Yiddish, not due to lack of effort, but due to a lack of any free online language course. Unless I had the time and money to shell out for a class, I wasn’t going to learn Yiddish. And things stayed that way for me and for every other potential learner until almost two weeks ago. But amidst all the reverie, we must remember this: Duolingo made a conscious choice not to fund a professionally created Yiddish course, to let a precious piece of Jewish culture teeter on the edge of extinction for five years all because they didn’t want to shell out; and this is an act of antisemitism and classism that should not be forgiven.