Mexican American writer and scholar Ilan Stavans says there's a reason why it's not uncommon to hear Latin Americans order “latkes con mole” (potato pancakes with Mexican chili and chocolate spice) at a restaurant, pick up some “postrom” (pastrami) at a neighborhood deli or butcher shop or occasionally call someone a “shmuk” instead of "idiot" or say “tengo que pishar” when they have to urinate.
The award-winning author, who grew up speaking Spanish and Yiddish in Mexico, teamed up with language expert Josh Lambert in a newly released book about the history of Yiddish in the North and South American continents.
How Yiddish Changed America brings together the perspectives of famous authors including Michael Chabon, Alan Alda, Grace Paley and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others, to describe how Yiddish has left such an imprint on American life, promoted Jewish culture in the Americas and survived globally for centuries without the support of a government, an army or a language academy.
Roughly 2 million Yiddish-speaking Jews migrated from central and eastern Europe to North America between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But while Americans may be more familiar with the Yiddish influence in the U.S. — we eat bagels and use the word "klutz" — most people don't know that thousands of Ashkenazi Jews also migrated to Argentina, Brazil and other Latin American countries. There, Yiddish is not only spoken today, but it's also influenced their culture, music and food.
For example, in 1930s Argentina, the singer and comedian Jevel Katz was affectionately called the “Jewish Gardel” by fans — where they compared him to the country's legendary tango singer, Carlos Gardel. Katz sang in Casteidish, telling sad and nostalgic diaspora stories about a lost love, a mother’s longing for a child and the nostalgia for Warsaw and other Eastern European places.
Stavans tells NBC News that because Yiddish is part of U.S. and Latin American history, it can teach valuable lessons about how a foreign language can not only survive but also thrive in different mainstream cultures.
"Their story can remind others how immigrant languages arrived to this country and how those immigrants remained loyal to them,” Stavans said.
Stavans explained that the Jewish language evolved into a hybrid language like Spanglish in the U.S., mixing Yiddish and Spanish words into “Casteidish” or “Yidañol.”
This fusion between Yiddish and mainstream Spanish helped Jews establish themselves in Latin America, also revealing how immigrant groups navigate living in-between competing identities as outsiders and insiders.
Stavans says that Yiddish began as a dialect in the 13th century around the Rhine River region in Germany, combining Hebrew and German. By the 19th century, it had already established itself as a standardized language for the entire Ashkenazi Jewish community — approximately 13 million speakers worldwide before World War II.
Today, UNESCO has classified Yiddish as an endangered language. Experts say that much of this decline is due to the Holocaust — the majority of the 6 million victims spoke Yiddish.
But Stavans urges speakers to ask themselves how and why Yiddish has survived so many centuries.
“Yiddish is always being said that it is in the process of dying. But it doesn’t die. It’s in an eternal state of agony. And this agony ends up becoming a source of renewal, a metaphor for the survival of the Jewish people,” he said. “It survived eight centuries and became standardized without a state, a flag, or a national anthem. And this is an incredible feat, proof of survival that a minority group can live in a country and have something that will travel beyond where they are right now.”
This is similar, Stavans says, to the way many U.S. Latinos continue to use Spanish as a way to preserve their identity, define their culture and if they're immigrants, endure in America.
“The question again is to what extent can a minority language survive when it is besieged so furiously by a dominant language?,” said Stavans. “English! English! English! Can Spanish really survive? But just like with Yiddish, I would twist the question to ask why has Spanish survived for so many generations while other languages like Italian, French, German, Swedish and Danish have declined and almost vanished in the United States."