IN 1925, AN ECLECTIC group of scholars gathered in a modest room in an unassuming building in the heart of Vilna (present-day Vilnius, Lithuania), a vibrant city once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” for the founding meeting of a new institute.
Their purpose was grand: to create a sanctuary for the intellectual and cultural traditions of Eastern European Jews. The institute would weave a unified fabric out of the scattered threads of Yiddish scholarship, resilient enough to endure the passage of time. The institute would foster research in history, linguistics, literature, and ethnography, ensuring the continued vibrancy of Yiddish culture.
Vilna, then in Poland and now the capital of Lithuania, was a thriving hub of Jewish intellectual and cultural life, and in this fertile ground, YIVO's founders set forth on their mission: to study, preserve, and promote the Yiddish language and the rich intellectual and cultural heritage of Eastern European Jewry. They called their ambitious endeavor YIVO—the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (ייִדישער וויסנשאַפֿטליכער אינסטיטוט), or the Yiddish Scientific Institute.
YIVO’S EARLY YEARS were marked by the passionate dedication of its main figures.
Max Weinreich, a prodigious linguist, was the driving force behind the institute's work. As head of the Language and Culture Department, and later director, Weinreich steered the institute’s course, shaping its legacy. Highlighting the significance of the undertaking, Weinreich noted: “Yiddish is a curious mixture of the entire range of elements in Jewish culture, plus a good deal of what Jews have acquired from their Gentile neighbors.”
Zelig Kalmanovich, a philologist and historian, worked alongside Weinreich, bolstering YIVO's academic prowess. Zalman Reisen, a folklorist and lexicographer, Elias Tcherikower, YIVO's first director and historian, Yitskhok Noyekh Prilutski, an ethnographer who breathed life into the stories of his people, and Simon Dubnow, a renowned historian and philosopher who advocated for a “Science of Judaism,” contributed their expertise to the institute's growing body of work.
Prilutski succinctly captured their purpose: “YIVO should serve as a vital center for the flourishing of Jewish culture, and a testimony to our heritage.” Of its ultimate goals, Reisen said: “The greatest reward of our work will be to show that Yiddish is a language capable of expressing the highest thoughts and most profound emotions.”
In its earliest years, YIVO faced considerable challenges in securing funding for its research and activities, but soon the project gained steam—and increasing support.
Simon Dubnow, a giant in the field of Jewish history, declared in one of his inspiring speeches, “We must create an organization that will be a treasure chest of Yiddish culture, a fortress where our people's achievements can be preserved for generations to come.”
Dubnow's rallying cry echoed through the streets of Vilna, igniting a fire in the hearts of the Yiddish-speaking masses. Soon, YIVO was awash with support from both the intellectual elite and the Yiddish-speaking populace, and the institute's reach began to stretch beyond the boundaries of its birthplace.
OF ALL THE CHALLENGES YIVO’S founders faced, none was so difficult nor so urgent as the most ambitious of their dreams: to create a unified orthography, grammar, and vocabulary for Yiddish that could be understood by speakers of all dialects. They believed that the future of Yiddish depended on it. But the task was daunting, as it required reconciling regional and historical differences in the language while creating a neutral and accessible form of Yiddish.
The project, however, was too important to forgo. In the words of Max Weinreich: “A unified Yiddish will strengthen our cultural bonds and allow the beauty of our heritage to flourish.”
YIVO's linguists began the painstaking task of harmonizing the alphabet, grammar, and vocabulary of Yiddish dialects. They pored over books, manuscripts, and documents, carefully studying the linguistic features of different Yiddish dialects. They engaged in lively debates over which features of the language should be included in the standard, striving to find the right balance between simplicity and authenticity.
Finally, in 1936, after more than a decade of tireless work, YIVO published its guidelines for a unified alphabet and orthography, creating, after a thousand years of Yiddish's existence in myriad dialects and variants, a single Yiddish for all: Standard Yiddish.
Alongside this milestone, YIVO also published textbooks, dictionaries, and grammars to support Yiddish education and promote the use of their Standard Yiddish.
With the birth of YIVO's Standard Yiddish, the institute succeeded in this vital step in ensuring Yiddish's survival and growth. Its adoption enabled Yiddish writers, educators, and artists to share their work with a broader audience and facilitated the growth of Yiddish literature, theater, and journalism.
In the years following, the institute's influence grew. Yiddish schools and educational programs, both in Europe and the United States, adopted the standardized alphabet, grammar, and vocabulary, strengthening the bonds between Yiddish speakers of various backgrounds. As Max Weinreich proudly noted, “Through our efforts, we have created a bridge for Yiddish speakers across the world, allowing our shared culture to flourish.”
YIVO's standardization efforts also played a critical role in shaping the fields of Yiddish linguistics and dialectology. The systematic study of regional dialects and the compilation of dialectal features provided a foundation for further research in these areas. Moreover, YIVO's efforts to document and analyze the historical development of Yiddish helped to establish the language as a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry.
YIVO’S PURPOSE BECAME all the more vital as the world around it began to crumble. World War II brought a devastating blow to YIVO and the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Nazis occupied Vilna, looted YIVO's archives, and closed the institute. The future of Yiddish seemed bleak.
Determined to protect Yiddish culture and history, a group of YIVO scholars, known as the “Paper Brigade,” smuggled books and documents from the archives to prevent their destruction. They hid the materials in attics, basements, and underground bunkers, risking their lives to save Yiddish culture.
Their actions, a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of Yiddish, ensured the survival of invaluable Yiddish treasures.
In the face of this existential threat, the leaders of YIVO made a critical decision: the Institute must rise again, reborn on foreign shores. In 1940, amidst the chaos of a world at war, YIVO's headquarters found refuge in the bustling metropolis of New York City.
In 1946, a ceremony was held to inaugurate the new YIVO headquarters, with prominent Yiddish scholars and intellectuals attending the event, symbolizing a new beginning for the organization. As the world began to heal from the wounds of war, YIVO entered a new phase of its existence.
In New York, a city teeming with Jewish life, YIVO found new purpose. Even as the number of Yiddish speakers continued to dwindle after the war, the Institute adapted and evolved, redefining its mission to meet the needs of a rapidly changing global landscape. YIVO now took on the role of a cultural custodian, protecting the memory of a world that had been irrevocably altered. YIVO's post-war activities expanded to include the collection of historical documents, manuscripts, artifacts, and oral histories, providing a precious window into the past. The Institute also emerged as a center for the study and dissemination of Holocaust history, bearing witness to the tragedies that had befallen the Jewish people.
The surviving treasures from the “Paper Brigade” formed the foundation of YIVO's new archives, which today stand as one of the most comprehensive collections of Eastern European Jewish materials, nurturing the study of Yiddishkeit and fostering connections between scholars worldwide.
YIVO's post-war work centered on preserving and documenting the history, language, and culture of pre-war European Jewry, thus becoming a beacon of hope, an enduring symbol of Yiddish culture in the aftermath of unimaginable loss.
Nonetheless, the original commitment to preserve a unified Yiddish remained part of YIVO's mission. As Max Weinreich declared, “The spirit of Yiddish culture will not die. It will find new life through the work of YIVO and the dedication of its people.”
In that spirit, Uriel Weinreich, son of Max Weinreich and a prominent linguist and Yiddish scholar in his own right, became a significant figure at YIVO, and was enormously influential in developing modern Yiddish studies in the United States. His book, “College Yiddish,” a comprehensive work that aimed to teach the Yiddish language to English-speaking college students, became widely regarded as an authoritative resource on the subject and has been used in Yiddish language courses at universities around the world.
Weinreich also developed a comprehensive Yiddish-English dictionary, which was published posthumously in 1968 and had an enormous impact on Yiddish scholarship.
To the younger Weinreich, Yiddish contained the essence of a thousand years of Ashkenazi Jewish identity. “Yiddish is not only a language,” he said, “but also a window into the Jewish soul, a key to the secrets of Jewish life, and an approach to the study of Jewish culture.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, YIVO hosted a series of conferences that brought together scholars from various disciplines to discuss the future of Yiddish culture and scholarship. These gatherings played an important role in fostering connections and collaborations among Yiddish academics from around the world.
In 1974, under the guidance of Dovid Katz, YIVO initiated a summer program in Yiddish language and culture. The program, which continues to this day, has attracted thousands of students from diverse backgrounds, contributing to the revival and appreciation of Yiddish language and culture.
DESPITE YIVO’S GROUNDBREAKING work in standardizing Yiddish, it nonetheless encountered considerable controversy. While the standardization of the language was seen by many as a necessary step, critics argued that YIVO’s process had been flawed, and that Standard Yiddish failed to reflect the rich variety of Yiddish dialects.
The most salient criticism was that the standard unduly favored Northeastern, or “Litvish” (Lithuanian), Yiddish, at the expense of the rich variety of Yiddish dialects from the many regions across Eastern and Central Europe. Critics accused the YIVO scholars of bias in their linguistic choices, reflecting the cultural and social prejudices of the Institute's predominantly Litvak founders.
The diverse range of Yiddish dialects, critics said, reflected the unique histories, geographies, and cultures of the various Jewish communities. These dialects, therefore, deserved recognition and preservation in their own right, rather than being subsumed under a single standard.
Sol Steinmetz pointedly criticized the Standard, saying, “The predominance of the Litvish dialect in YIVO's Standard Yiddish has more to do with the concentration of Yiddish scholars from that region in Vilna than any inherent superiority of the dialect.” George Jochnowitz added further: “Standard Yiddish does not include many features that are typical of the southern dialects.”
Marion Aptroot, a Yiddish studies scholar, argued that “no single standard form of Yiddish can adequately represent the richness and diversity of Yiddish dialects.” Others pointed out that Yiddish’s variety of dialects was part of its unique character.
Others worried that the resulting standardization would stifle linguistic creativity and silence the voices of other dialects and homogenize the Yiddish-speaking world.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish author, expressed his concerns about standardized Yiddish in a 1978 interview: “I am against all these regulations, standardizations. [...] I want the language to grow, and to grow in all directions. I would say, let a hundred flowers bloom.”
Some also decried the invention of arbitrary and artificial rules disconnected from the language’s organic use.
Mordkhe Schaechter, the legendary Yiddish scholar whose descendants would include some of the most notable Yiddish linguists and activists, was critical of the YIVO orthographic reforms, noting that “the spelling reforms introduced by YIVO are essentially arbitrary and have little to do with the actual pronunciation of the Yiddish language.” He added pointedly, “To a considerable extent, what has been called ‘Standard Yiddish’ is really ‘Northeastern Yiddish.’”
Dovid Katz, one of the most prolific Yiddish scholars of the late 20th century, agreed. “YIVO's Standard Yiddish has evolved to favor the Northeastern dialect to the detriment of other dialects.” Katz, who is also the founder of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, described the attempt to create a standardized Yiddish as “a lost cause” because “Yiddish dialects are too different from each other and have too many dialectal peculiarities.” The attempt to create a single standard of Yiddish, Katz noted, was flawed, as “the underlying concept of a uniform standard of Yiddish [...] had no basis in linguistic reality.”
Solomon Birnbaum, another prominent Yiddish linguist, suggested also the project could not but fail. “The attempt to enforce a uniform orthography by decree has no chance of success.”
The controversy even found its way into works of popular fiction. In his book “The Yiddish Policemen's Union,” Michael Chabon used a fictional character's perspective to criticize the standardization of Yiddish: “The standardized Yiddish dialect they taught in school here sounded to Landsman's ear like the punchlines of jokes.”
Some scholars offered more measured criticisms, noting that the creation of a standard would, by necessity, dilute the diversity of dialects, but that could not be helped.
The scholar Benjamin Harshav wrote: “The standard language was by necessity eclectic, and it is difficult to measure its distance from the Northeastern dialect and its closeness to the other dialects.” The scholar Joseph Sherman offered similar remarks, saying: “The standardization of Yiddish was a bittersweet success, for it meant the death knell for some of the very richness that had defined the language, as the unique dialects and colorful variations began to recede.”
Even the Standard’s proponents recognized its limitations. Max Weinreich, the prodigious linguist who was YIVO’s guiding light from its earliest days, acknowledged as much in his book “History of the Yiddish Language”: “The acceptance of a uniform standard of Yiddish is not an entirely satisfactory solution to the problems of the Yiddish language.”
IF STANDARD YIDDISH HAD FAILED to adequately consider the wide variety of dialects that had previously existed, a more recent, perhaps even greater shortcoming, was its failure to keep pace with Yiddish's new and evolving landscape. While YIVO's mission had been a secular one, the number of secular Jews speaking Yiddish would soon make up a faint shadow of secular Yiddish's once glorious past. Among ultra-Orthodox communities, however, Yiddish was becoming even more vibrant, and due to its explosive population growth, would, by the end of the 20th century, make up the overwhelming majority of contemporary Yiddish speakers by far.
These speakers, however, who largely spoke southern forms of Yiddish, didn't see their dialects reflected in YIVO's Litvish-oriented Standard, and YIVO, for all its merit, didn't concern itself with Yiddish's new direction. Thus, a new, Contemporary Yiddish was born, now the primary dialect of the majority of today's Yiddish speakers, and which diverges from YIVO's Standard Yiddish in key respects.
YIVO’s failure to influence the great majority of today's Yiddish speakers, who see their own variants ignored in YIVO’s Standard, caused them to overlook an even more fascinating and noteworthy phenomenon: the development of new and diverse variants within Contemporary Yiddish, delineated by post-World War II geography, social group, and even broader family unit. Common to them all is a constantly evolving vocabulary, distinct pronunciation shifts, and even their own grammatical features, underscoring Yiddish’s adaptability and resilience.
While Contemporary Yiddish is flourishing among the ultra-Orthodox, YIVO's educational programs and resources primarily teach Standard Yiddish, overlooking the features and expressions of Yiddish as it used by the vast majority of today's speakers. By neglecting the world of Contemporary Yiddish, critics argue, YIVO risks creating a schism between the world of academia and the linguistic reality of Yiddish-speaking communities.
Chaya Nove, a linguist and Yiddish scholar whose research has highlighted the marginalization of “Hasidic Yiddish” within the academic sphere, has pointed out the biases that have shaped Yiddish scholarship and led to the prioritization of Standard Yiddish over other dialects and variants.
In her research, Nove challenges the prevailing assumption that Yiddish is a dying language and highlights the vitality of Yiddish within ultra-Orthodox communities, which is a thriving and evolving dialect with its own noteworthy linguistic features.
“Most people associate Yiddish with the secular Jewish experience, and in that context, it is indeed dying,” Nove wrote. “But for Hasidim, Yiddish is not a relic of a bygone era. It is a living language spoken by hundreds of thousands of people.”
Several other scholars have criticized YIVO and the broader field of Yiddish studies for failing to account for Yiddish among the ultra-Orthodox.
Isaac Bleaman, a sociolinguist who has researched language variation and change in contemporary Hasidic communities, has argued that by focusing solely on Standard Yiddish, YIVO misses out on the rich linguistic diversity that exists in the majority of the Yiddish-speaking world today.
Other Yiddish scholars, such as Jeffrey Shandler, Sarah Bunin Benor, and Ester-Basya Vaisman, have called for a greater focus on the study of “Hasidic Yiddish” as a vibrant, living language that reflects the diversity and dynamism of contemporary Yiddish culture. Dovid Katz, too, has long advocated for a more inclusive approach to Yiddish studies, emphasizing the importance of engaging with the living language as it evolves and is used today.
DESPITE THE CONTROVERSIES, YIVO has made immense strides in preserving, promoting, and developing Yiddish language and culture. Through extensive archives, research projects, and educational programs, the institute remains at the forefront of Yiddish scholarship.
Over the years, YIVO has published various Yiddish periodicals and books. Among them, the renowned Yiddish literary journal “Yidishe Shriftn” provided a platform for many famous Yiddish writers, including Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Grade, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to showcase their works.
YIVO has held numerous exhibitions highlighting the richness of Yiddish culture and history. In 2016, the “Yidishe Kultur” exhibition was launched, displaying rare books, photographs, and manuscripts that chronicled the lives of Yiddish-speaking Jews in Europe and the United States.
YIVO's work in Yiddish linguistics and standardization contributed significantly to the development of Yiddish education worldwide. Today, Yiddish language classes, programs, and workshops in various institutions owe much of their existence to the foundational work carried out by YIVO scholars.
Additionally, its summer program in Yiddish language and culture has attracted thousands of students since 1974, contributing to the revival and appreciation of Yiddishkeit.
Over the years, YIVO has remained true to its purpose. The institute's impressive collection of historical documents, manuscripts, and artifacts provides a precious window into a world long past. Scholars, students, and cultural enthusiasts from every corner of the globe flock to YIVO to immerse themselves in the vibrant world of Yiddish culture.
The indomitable spirit of YIVO was perhaps best captured by Yitskhok Noyekh Prilutski, the institute's first director, who said, “YIVO is a refuge for Yiddish culture, a sanctuary where our language can grow and thrive.” And indeed, that sanctuary still stands, a testament to the resilience of a people and the power of the magic that is Yiddish.
Resources for further study:
- YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. https://www.yivo.org
- The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. https://yivoencyclopedia.org
- Kuznitz, Cecile Esther. YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Wiber, Melanie F., Ball, Natalie J., and Bleser, Joshua. Language Politics of Regional Integration: Cases from the Americas. Routledge, 2019.
- Safran, Gabriella, and Zipperstein, Steven J. (eds). The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century. Stanford University Press, 2006.
- Weinreich, Max. A Short History of the Yiddish Language. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1959.
- Weinreich, Max. “YIVO in Its Heyday.” Translated by Kalman Weiser. The YIVO Annual, vol. 23, 1996.
- Katz, Dovid. “Yiddish Linguistics in the Service of Social Integration.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 79, 1989, pp. 69-85.
- Kuznitz, Cecile Esther. “YIVO and Yiddish: Politics and the Struggle for Peoplehood.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2005, pp. 67-96.
Popular newspaper and magazine articles:
- Brent, Jonathan. “From the Archives: How YIVO Became the Center of the Yiddish World.” Forward, 18 May 2015.
- Holden, Stephen. “An Institute That Rescues Yiddish Works.” The New York Times, 15 Jan 1987.
- Isenberg, Noah. “The Yiddish Renaissance: From Tel Aviv to Berlin.” The Guardian, 22 Nov 2010.
- Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “YIVO: An Institute for Jewish Research.” JTA, 15 Jun 2008.
- Ball, Sam, director. “The Miracle of YIVO.” Citizen Film, 2014.
- Waletzky, Joshua, director. “Image Before My Eyes.” Center for the Jewish History, 1980.
- Aviv, Nurith, director. “Yiddish: A Tale of Survival.” Nurith Aviv Productions, 2015.
- Strom. In the Continuity of Yiddish: The YIVO Collection. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York City.
- A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Centers for Yiddish study:
- YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. https://www.yivo.org
- National Yiddish Book Center. https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org
- The Anne and Max Bailey Centre for the Study of Yiddish Language and Culture. https://www.yiddish.manchester.ac.uk
- Yiddish Summer Weimar. https://www.yiddishsummer.eu
- The YIVO Archives, located at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, house a wealth of documents and artifacts related to the history of YIVO and Yiddish culture in general