Studying Yiddish at Oxford

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazi Jews (that is, Jews whose ancestry hails from Central and Eastern Europe), which was spoken by approximately thirteen million people before World War 2. Its origins date back to the eleventh century when Jews settled in German-speaking lands and came to speak a language that fused elements from Middle High German dialects with Hebrew-Aramaic and Romance. With the eastward migration of Jews in the Middle Ages, Yiddish was transplanted on to Slavic soil, adding Slavic into the mix of languages that shaped the structure and form of Yiddish. For many centuries, Yiddish defined Jewish existence in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in those New World countries to which Jews emigrated. It was the language not only of the home, but also of a rich literary culture which, like Yiddish itself, combined Jewish motifs and content with European form. Classics of Yiddish literature include the works of Sholem Aleichem (the pen-name of Sholem Rabinowitz, 1859-1916), whose Tevye stories are known to a general audience as the basis for the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), who became the only Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

Yiddish sheet music for Bar Kochba, one of Abraham Goldfaden's best known and most frequently performed musical plays. 1917

The secularisation of Jewish culture at the end of the nineteenth century transformed Yiddish also into a symbol of Jewish nationalism and socialism. While the Nazis’ mass murder and the Stalinist persecution of Jews killed the bulk of Yiddish speakers and destroyed much of Yiddish culture and society, Yiddish is by no means a dead language. It is a native language for many Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and is increasingly studied and embraced as a foreign language by Jews and non-Jews alike who wish to gain an understanding of the European Jewish experience and explore the cultural and literary traditions of a language that has always transcended national borders.

At Oxford, Yiddish can be studied both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Undergraduates reading Hebrew or Jewish Studies (in the Honour School of Oriental Studies) have the option of taking a paper in Yiddish literature (as set out in the Examination Regulations under Jewish Studies paper c, Section III (q)). Undergraduates reading for a degree in Modern Languages can offer Yiddish literature or Yiddish linguistics as a Special Subject (Paper XII).

Yiddish Art Theatre program of The Dybbuk, by S. An-Sky. Illustrated by A. Godel.

For both the Yiddish literature and Yiddish linguistics papers, students will need to have adequate competence in the Yiddish language. University funding is available to enable students to pursue Yiddish language study at one of the many summer programmes offered in Europe and the United States. These programmes, which combine study of Yiddish language with courses in appreciation of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, are best taken in the summer of the second year.

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At the postgraduate level, Yiddish forms part of the programme of study for the M.St. in Jewish Studies and of the M.St. in Modern Jewish Studies (both under the auspices of the Faculty of Oriental Studies).

It is also possible to read for an M.St. in Yiddish Studies (under the auspices of the Faculty of Modern Languages). The M.St. in Yiddish Studies programme provides a one-year course in the fields of Yiddish literary and linguistic study. Candidates take three paper options, ranging from Old and Modern Yiddish Literature to Yiddish Sociolinguistics, and write a dissertation of no more than 10,000 words on a subject proposed by the candidate in consultation with the supervisor and approved by the Board of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

For further information regarding the M.St. in Jewish Studies please contact:

Regarding the M.St. in Modern Jewish Studies please contact:

Regarding the M.St. in Yiddish Studies: