Jewish Words: Yid­dishkeit

Rabbi Ju­lian Sin­clair’s dip into the dic­tionary

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

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.

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