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Seeking to schmooze forever, devotees try to preserve Yiddish

CHICAGO -- Itche Goldberg and Jason Rubin are separated in age by 82 years, but they're linked by a common passion for an ancient Jewish language that threatens to slip into obscurity.

The life of Goldberg, who is 102 years old, spans the recent decline of Yiddish to its heyday early in the last century, when about 13 million people -- or some 70 percent of Jews worldwide -- spoke the lilting language that gave English such words as chutzpah, as in audacity, and schmo, as in fool.

``You can't possibly see a future Jewish life with the disappearance of a 1,000-year-old language and with it a 1,000-year-old culture," Goldberg, a leading Yiddish scholar since the 1930s, said by telephone from his New York home. ``Somehow it has to be there."

Rubin, a 20-year-old student of Yiddish, embodies the hope that somehow, some way, the language can survive, though there are now fewer than 2 million speakers.

Ensuring that the language and culture that Jews brought from Eastern Europe is there for posterity is the goal of devotees across the nation.

Some students of Yiddish hold summer camps; others stage theatrical shows in a bid to turn people on to the language.

Revival bands perform traditional Yiddish klezmer music with the same aim. And one New York group trying to pique interest among children recently published ``Di Kats der Payats," better known as Dr. Seuss's ``The Cat in the Hat."

Others, like Rubin, contributed to the cause by putting in hard hours to learn the language, closely related to German, with Hebrew mixed in. After two years of studying it at the University of Chicago, Rubin, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, is now close to fluent.

``I almost felt I was cheated by not knowing Yiddish growing up," said Rubin, who squeezes in Yiddish studies between premedical classes.

``My appreciation of Jewish culture has increased tenfold by learning it," Rubin said.

From Jake Morowitz's office atop the Board of Trade building, he can see what has been lost in Chicago, which once had 200,000 Yiddish speakers.

In clear view is Maxwell Street, where shoppers haggled in Yiddish over unfixed prices in the street's market until 40 years ago.

Today, there's almost nothing left: Most of the original Jewish families have long since moved to the suburbs, and large swaths of the district were bulldozed in the 1960s to make room for a University of Illinois campus.

No more than 5,000 Jews still speak Yiddish in and around Chicago today, said Morowitz, head of the YIVO Society, which promotes Yiddish in the area. Yiddish has lost ground in New York, as well: After World War II, several hundred thousand people spoke Yiddish in the city; now about 100,000 do.

The Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper in New York, reflects the decline. Its circulation was around 275,000 before the war; it's around 3,000 today. And where there were scores of Yiddish theaters in New York, just one is left -- the Folksbiene.

These days, it displays subtitles in English at most performances.

One last bastion of Yiddish is the Hasidic community, which employs the language to insulate members from outside influences and to hedge against assimilation.

So numerous are the Hasidim in parts of Brooklyn that some ATMs offer the option of conducting transactions in Yiddish.

``In our world, Yiddish is flourishing," said Rabbi Moshe Unger, the dean of a Yiddish-language Hasidic school in Chicago.

But there's a catch: Since Hasidim tend to shun the secular world, their affection does not extend to nonreligious Yiddish literature, theater, and music.

``We don't have time for that," Unger said.

Morowitz said Yiddish was once associated with memories of the Holocaust, whose victims were mostly Yiddish speakers. Israel's decision to adopt Hebrew as its state language also caused many Jews to shirk from Yiddish.

``When Jewish immigrants came here, they wanted to put that old ghetto life behind them," Morowitz said. ``But young Jews today are no longer embarrassed by the language. There is a new influx of Jews wanting to learn Yiddish."

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