Yiddish in America: Cultural Encounters

Introduction to this Year's Decade of Discovery Theme

The story of Yiddish in America is the story of encounters between cultures. We might never know when the very first Yiddish speaker arrived on American shores, but it’s clear that Yiddish speakers had arrived in America in substantial numbers by the middle of the nineteenth century, and that they quickly found their way to almost every corner of the developing nation. In the 1880s and 1890s an enormous wave of European immigration brought hundreds of thousands and then millions of Yiddish speakers to America.

Free from the strictures imposed by European governments, American Yiddish speakers created newspapers and theaters, and before long they had built one of the most vibrant centers for Yiddish culture in the world. At the height of the language’s American popularity in the 1920s, a handful of different Yiddish newspapers circulated hundreds of thousands of copies every day, and Yiddish theaters on 2nd Avenue, in Manhattan, seated thousands of spectators every night. As the primary language of a vast immigrant community of poor laborers and their upwardly mobile children, Yiddish became a crucial part of American politics—at a moment when Socialism, Anarchism, and Communism competed for American’s votes with more familiar political orientations—and of American business, entertainment, cuisine, and speech.  

In short, America, famously a nation of immigrants, was the site of many of Yiddish’s greatest triumphs—a Nobel Prize, bestsellers, and theatrical smashes, as well as political movements that changed the way people everywhere work. As specific as its history might be, like any language, Yiddish is, for all intents and purposes infinitely capacious: you can say anything in Yiddish that you want. And of course, in America, all kinds of people have done so: factory-owners and Communists, Hasidic Jews and Christian missionaries, anarchists and political fixers, scientists and quacks. To dive into the diversity and complexity of American Yiddish culture is one wonderful way to appreciate the wild possibilities of life in the United States.

—Josh Lambert