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What was or what is Yiddishland? 

What volunteering for YAAANA and Yiddishland California has taught me is that, while academics argue about the intricacies of the Yiddish language and write brilliant books and dictionaries, the general Jewish American population still, for multiple reasons, is foreign to  the Yiddish past of their ancestors. Many families have negative memories concerning Yiddish. We have a long way to go, as Yiddishists, to make a true change in society, going beyond our Yiddish classrooms and making people proud of their Jewish roots and celebrating them.

Can Yiddish culture become fashionable globally, or does it belong only to narrow circles of college nerds, artists, and academics? How do we bring it to the general public? Can the concept of Yiddishland help achieve that goal? And first of all, what is Yiddishland?

Yiddishland refers to the cultural and linguistic domain where Yiddish, the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews, is spoken and maintained. It encompasses both historical and contemporary communities that preserve and celebrate Yiddish language, literature, music, theater, and other cultural expressions.

The specific term “Yiddishland” was popularized by cultural and linguistic movements, particularly those associated with the Yiddishist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement sought to promote Yiddish as a national language for Jews and was supported by institutions like YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute), which was established in 1925 to advance Yiddish scholarship and culture.

Historically, Yiddishland primarily existed in Eastern Europe, particularly in regions like Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Russia. In the early 20th century, significant Yiddish-speaking communities also thrived in the United States, especially in New York City, as well as in other countries to which Eastern European Jews emigrated.

Today, there is no physical Yiddishland per se. Yiddishland can be seen as a metaphorical or symbolic space where Yiddish culture continues to be cultivated and celebrated. This includes educational and cultural initiatives, such as schools, universities, and summer programs that teach Yiddish language and culture,  groups and organizations that organize events, performances, and festivals celebrating Yiddish music, theater, literature, and other arts. There are lots of online communities, including websites, forums, and social media groups dedicated to promoting and discussing Yiddish culture. Books, magazines, and journals that publish Yiddish literature and research on Yiddish culture, are available in many languages.

An example of such an initiative is Yiddishland California, which is an organization that promotes Yiddish culture and education through events, movie screenings, and collaborations with other cultural and educational institutions. Events and classes are geared towards the general public, including non-Jewish populations.

What would it mean to have a physical permanent Yiddishland in the 21st century? Would it be mostly residential, or open for tourism? How would it protect itself against anti-semitism attacks? How would it be sustained? What kind of activities would be offered? Who would run it? Our vision is summarized at https://yiddishlandcalifornia.org/yiddishland-future-project

Sustaining this endeavor would require international collaboration among cultural organizations, dedicated leadership, and active participation from both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Let’s discuss how we can make it happen. 

Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh

Additional historical references regarding the term “Yiddishland” can be found below