University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

In Search of Yiddish

A Toronto couple’s gift will help preserve a declining language

Al Green grew up bilingual in Toronto. His father, Lipa, a bricklayer from Poland, and his mother, Fanny, a native of Russia, both spoke Yiddish – the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Al chose to speak English, which he learned on the streets and in the schools he attended during the 1930s.

Green went on to enjoy a successful career as a builder of homes and apartments, co-founding the firm Greenwin Property Development. Although he never mastered his parents’ language, he didn’t forget it, either. Two years ago, he and his wife, Malka, matched the funds raised by a small group of Yiddish-speaking activists in the city’s Jewish community, enabling the University of Toronto to create a program in Yiddish Studies. “We’ve always been interested in Yiddish,” says Green, now 78. “We liked this project when we were approached, because the language is threatened. Its use is disappearing from daily life.”

Like the language itself, the study of Yiddish had also been in danger of disappearing from the university’s linguistic offerings, says Derek Penslar, director of U of T’s Jewish Studies program. Financial constraints have imperilled the teaching of other languages as well, including Polish, Finnish, Korean and Thai. But a Friends of Yiddish Committee, operating through the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto, raised funds annually to pay for a sessional lecturer to teach Yiddish language and literature. The committee then set out to raise just over $1 million to create an endowed lecturer position to ensure that instruction would continue in perpetuity. But the initiative stalled for several years as the committee raised only half the funds. (“If you want to give God a good laugh,” says an old Yiddish proverb, “tell him your plans.”)

Enter the Greens. In spring 2001 they agreed to donate “a substantial amount of money” to complete the campaign, allowing the university to announce the Al and Malka Green Yiddish Studies Program in July 2002. “By ensuring that Yiddish will be taught, the donors are guaranteeing that the heritage of East European Jewry will be preserved,” says Penslar.

Yiddish is a 1,000-year-old language based largely on medieval German. Before the Second World War there were 12 million Yiddish speakers. Today fewer than one million people are fluent in Yiddish, and it has been eclipsed, even in Israel, by Hebrew. “In 20 years there will be very few Yiddish speakers,” says Penslar. “University-level instruction is the only way to preserve it.”

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