Jewish Words: Yiddishkeit
Rabbi Julian Sinclair’s dip into the dictionary
Yiddishkeit is best translated into English as Judaism. However, it is a much frummer word than Judaism. The latter is what you study in university Jewish studies courses, as well as being what more traditional British Jews would call their religion. But whereas Judaism suggests images of reverend ministers in canonicals, Yiddishkeit evokes the teeming vitality of the shtetl, the singsong of Talmud study emanating from the cheder and the ecstatic spirituality of Chasidim.
One reason to use Yiddishkeit rather than Judaism might be to evoke that Eastern European world. Another is that in many circles, anything in Yiddish has a more authentically religious ring to it.
A third reason is that words do actually mean different things. Judaism suggests an ideology, a set of definite beliefs like socialism, conservatism or atheism. The suffix -keit in German, on the other hand, means “-ness” in English, which connotes a way of being.
Yiddish is especially fond of keit words: zeisskeit (sweetness), erlichkeit (nobility), frumkeit (religiousness), narrishkeit (foolishness) etc.
Yiddishkeit denotes a Judaism that is much more than a set of beliefs; not merely a creed but an organic and all-encompassing, pulsing, breathing way of life. It is not surprising that rabbis and others advocating a return to Yiddishkeit use that much warmer and more attractive word to describe what they are offering.