Jonathan Boyarin's feelings toward the Yiddish language go beyond mere scholarship.
"I heard a lot of Yiddish in my childhood, growing up in a community of Jewish chicken farmers," he says. "I can't say I learned the language there, but I picked up a heritage of nostalgia for it at least."
Now, Boyarin is trying to help share that heritage with Kansas University students and to turn KU into a hub for Yiddish study.
He's in his second year as a professor of Jewish studies at KU, an endowed position that allows him to travel back to the lower east side of Manhattan about twice a month, where his wife still lives.
Boyarin, 50, took a winding road to get to university scholarship after first studying Yiddish in the late 70s.
"I was absolutely thrilled," he says, "that, after more than 20 years, I had a chance to come into the university system, and at a level which gave me the freedom to explore this field by my own lights."
Yiddish certainly has made its impact on American language and culture.
Yiddish words - shmooze, shmok, chutzpah, shlep and others - have crept into American English.
But it continues to be the primary language in pockets around the world, including Jewish communities in New York City and in western Europe, and in parts of Israel.
"It's still a living language," Boyarin says. "Most recently, it seems to be agreed in the last decade the number of speakers had declined, but it's starting to grow again in parts of the Orthodox Jewish world."
Zalman Tiechtel, rabbi at the Chabad Jewish Center, grew up speaking Yiddish in New York. He also is a friend of Boyarin's.
"It's more a cultural aspect of Judaism," he says. "Yiddish to me personally is a very dear language. So many communities are still speaking strictly Yiddish. You speak it at the schoolhouse, in the streets."
Tiechtel says he thinks the Yiddish revival is a result of people wanting to feel more connected to their Jewish identities.
"I definitely think it's becoming more popular," Tiechtel says. "People feel connected. It's the language of their parents and grandparents."
Yiddish finds its roots in late Medieval Germany. It includes a mix of Hebrew, Aramaic, German and Slavic languages, among other influences.
Do you use yiddish?
- Chutzpah (pronounced KHOOTS-pah) - Nerve; insolence; presumption and arrogance
- Nosh - Snack; bite
- Shmaltz - Chicken fat; lard; corn; pathos; mawkishness
- Shmok - Self-made fool; obscene for penis; derisive term for a man
- Shmooze - To chat; network
- Shmutz - Dirt; grime
- Shlep - To drag; to accept a burden greater than anyone should be expected to bear
"Yiddish is a great example of what linguists call a Creole or fusion or hybrid language," Boyarin says. "But make no mistake - it is a real language."
Gradually, the language spread as its original speakers emigrated from the area.
Yiddish didn't just end up in larger cities. Boyarin says there was a significant Yiddish-speaking population in Leavenworth in the late 1800s.
And there apparently was Yiddish spoken at the Battle of Black Jack, the 1856 skirmish near Baldwin that scholars say was the first armed conflict of the Civil War.
August Bondi, a free state man, later wrote recalling a conversation he had with another man, Theodore Weiner, during the battle about abolitionist icon John Brown.
"Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?" Bondi asked. Translated, it means "Now, what do you think of this?"
Weiner replied in Hebrew: "Sof odom muves," meaning, "The end of man is death."
Start of scholarship
Boyarin's own interest in Yiddish was sparked in 1977, when he took an intensive summer language course from Columbia University.
Hear Jonathan Boyarin read in Yiddish
He later used Yiddish to conduct interviews for "Polish Jews in Paris: The Ethnography of Memory," a book he wrote in 1991. He also has edited or contributed to several other books on Yiddish and Jewish culture.
Boyarin continued some scholarship on Yiddish, but only on the side. He received his law degree from Yale in 1998, but knew someday he wanted to return to studying Yiddish full-time.
"It's a growing community," he says of Yiddish scholars, "to the extent that Yiddish remains alive. Universities have been more and more important as the center of gravity for Yiddish scholarship and continuity."
Tim Miller, professor and interim chairman of the religious studies department at KU, says Boyarin is key to an increased emphasis on Jewish studies, including the recently added Jewish studies minor.
"He's had this experience in this larger society doing things that aren't classically academic," Miller says. "Meanwhile, he's been doing academic things on his own. Really, it's the best of both worlds."
Boyarin currently is translating Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Kotzk: The Struggle for Integrity," a well-known Jewish text, into English. He's also planning a study on a Yiddish-speaking community in New York that has seen a resurgence in young residents.
Boyarin says he hopes to continue encouraging people to learn Yiddish. And he's looking forward to knowing more about Jewish people in Kansas.
"I told my wife last weekend it feels like I'm in New York on weekends to be Jewish and in Kansas during the week to teach it," Boyarin says. "That's a cute line, but I wouldn't want to say that without also saying I'm very interested in what it means to be Jewish here."