For over one thousand years, the Yiddish language was spoken by Ashkenazic Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish was the language of Jewish social and economic life, and increasingly, as Ashkenazic Jews encountered modernity, of a vibrant literary and cultural life as well. Millions of Jews emigrated from Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, spreading Yiddish all over the globe; as a major center of Jewish immigration, New York City became the home of a flourishing Yiddish cultural scene in the first half of the twentieth century.
The tragedies of the twentieth century, the decimation of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the repression of Jewish cultural life in the Soviet Union, drastically reduced the number of Yiddish speakers in the world; linguistic assimilation in the United States, Israel and other countries has meant that few people today are acquainted with the treasures of Jewish history and literature written in Yiddish.
At Columbia, we hope that the Yiddish Studies Program, through instruction in Yiddish language and literature at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, will educate both university students and the general public about the "golden tradition" of Yiddish literature and culture.
The following brief outline traces the history of Columbia's Yiddish program, outlines the current program, and lists academic resources for Yiddish both on campus and off.
The Yiddish Studies Program at Columbia, the oldest such program in the United States, began in 1952 with Uriel Weinreich's appointment in the Linguistics Department. A renowned linguist who made lasting contributions to the study of semantics, lexicography, dialectology, and historical linguistics, Weinreich established Columbia as the world's premier center for Yiddish scholarship.
Weinreich's contributions to the field of Yiddish were enormous. He published the standard university textbook College Yiddish, the Modern Yiddish-English/English-Yiddish Dictionary, edited three volumes of collective research findings, The Field of Yiddish, and authored many articles on Yiddish language, literature, and folklore. In the late 1950s, he initiated the monumental research project at Columbia, The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. During Weinreich's tenure, courses were introduced in Yiddish language, literature, and culture, aided by the generosity of the Atran Foundation.
After Weinreich's untimely death in 1967 at age forty, his former student, Marvin Herzog, assumed the directorship of the Program. Herzog, working with the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, broadened the graduate program in Yiddish and Eastern European Jewry and confirmed Columbia's leading role in training new generations of Yiddish scholars.
In 1989, after the dissolution of the Linguistics Department, the Department of Germanic Languages provided a welcoming and supportive home for the Yiddish program. Aside from the university's specifically designated Yiddish faculty, many members of the Germanic Languages faculty share a major research and teaching interest in the culture of German Jewry.
In 2000, Jeremy Dauber arrived at Columbia to head the reintroduced Yiddish graduate program. Currently, there are seven students enrolled in the Columbia Yiddish Studies PhD program. In 2003, the reinstated undergraduate Yiddish major was inaugurated with the graduation of two senior Yiddish majors. In addition to focused Yiddish study, the program welcomes interdepartmental and comparative work.
Columbia has also, in recent years, appointed several leading scholars to chairs in Jewish history and culture who have expertise in Yiddish. Many of these scholars serve on the Interdepartmental Committee on Yiddish Studies, which provides additional support for guiding advanced undergraduate and graduate research and training. Yiddish Studies at Columbia has just turned fifty; we hope that the next fifty years will be even better.