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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Keeping Shmoozing Alive in Lithuania

ReutersStudents playing during a break at Sholom Alecheim school in Vilnius. It is the only Jewish school in Lithuania.
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- If you are having a shmooze over some nosh, but maybe you do not like schmaltz then, whether you know it or not, you are speaking Yiddish.

Though the language -- known to Jews as the mame-loshn, or mother tongue -- has made inroads into English, it has all but died out in daily use in its homelands of Eastern Europe.

This includes Lithuania, which was once home to more than 200,000 Jews. But now schools and universities are trying to spread Yiddish again.

"Yiddish is a key to the rich culture of East European Jews, the heritage of European culture," said Roza Bieliauskiene, a teacher at Lithuania's only Jewish school, named Sholom Alecheim after the famed Yiddish writer whose stories inspired the "Fiddler on the Roof" musical. "I feel a very rich person by knowing this language."

The school has 260 students aged 7 and 8. Children take only one hour of Yiddish a week, starting at age 15, in a small step toward reviving the language.

Yiddish was originally seen as the language of women and children as opposed to the holy tongue of Hebrew, which was studied by men, earning it the name mame-loshn. Yiddish writers also include Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1978. It was once spoken by about 13 million Jews in Eastern Europe from all walks of life, but the combined effects of the Holocaust and Soviet repression caused a drastic fall.

At the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, founded in 2001 and the only one of its kind in Eastern Europe, Professor Dovid Katz is keeping the flame alive with more than talk of matzo balls, gefilte fish and schmaltz (which is Yiddish for chicken fat). "Our institute is committed to real Yiddish, rather than the touch and the feel and the sound and the cooking," he said.

He said non-Jews were more interested in learning the language than Jews: "There is an interest, some of it superficial, some of it deeper."

The language is a mishmash -- itself a Yiddish word -- of German, Aramaic, Hebrew and Slav, but written in Hebrew characters. The word Yiddish means Jewish.

Estimates of how many people speak Yiddish worldwide today vary widely, ranging from 2 million to 4 million. It is mainly the language of everyday use among Orthodox Jews. Otherwise, it is primarily spoken by older people.

Ints Kalnins / Reuters
A student learning Yiddish during a Jewish history lesson at the school.
Its rich history in Lithuania came from the fact that Vilnius, or Vilna in Yiddish, was a strong regional Jewish center. Jews from Lithuania had their own name, Litvaks. Vilnius -- once known as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania" -- used to be home to the Yiddish Institute of Learning, which had the largest collection of Yiddish books in the world but moved to New York in 1940.

Much of the heritage was lost when Nazi forces marched into Lithuania and the other Baltic states during World War II, killing much of the Jewish population.

Today, only 4,000 to 5,000 Jews remain in Lithuania, and Yiddish was dealt further blows in the former Soviet Union because of pressure to speak Russian. Even the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 did not help, because Israel adopted Hebrew as its official language.

But Simon Gurevicius, 26, has a passion for Yiddish. He learned it from his grandfather and speaks it as a native language. "It was like on a heart machine, the signal was at the lowest level for a long time, but now it is picking up again," said Gurevicius, sitting in the headquarters of Lithuania's Jewish community in downtown Vilnius.

"There is too much that we would lose if we lose the language," he said.

Perhaps more typical of young people, eighth-grader Katerina Soldatova, 15, is less enthusiastic. She already has to deal with learning Lithuanian, Russian, Hebrew and English.

"It is only history," she said dismissively after her Yiddish class.