This Cellphone speaks Yiddish

In a surprising testament to the power of the Chassidic market, Partner Communications (Orange) is now offering a Yiddish cell phone. This is newsworthy for a host of reasons, especially considering that the distributor, Accel Telecom, reportedly spent months developing the Yiddish interface.

Like their American contemporaries, who speak English as a second language, most Israeli Chassidim are fluent in Hebrew. But in addition, the learning curve to operate a phone, even in a foreign language, is just not that high. Considering that these are “kosher” phones, which don’t provide text or Internet capabilities, there’s really not much to learn.

When the kosher phones first emerged, there were the usual comments about the cell phone providers “bowing to Charedi pressure” and the like. This time, though, the existing phones were already sufficient to satisfy rabbinic concerns. It’s simply about marketing, which, of course, was the truth behind the kosher phone, as it is about kosher certification on foods. Orange believes that this new phone will give them a competitive edge which justifies the investment — and that’s what makes this so interesting.

The Chassidim are the entire market for this new phone. The overwhelming majority of Israeli “Lithuanian” Charedim speak Hebrew at home, and the Sephardim most assuredly don’t speak Yiddish.

For decades, academics have been telling us that Yiddish is a dead or dying language, which would only live on in Chassidic enclaves like Borough Park and Williamsburg. They are right about its limits. Many Lithuanian Yeshivos have lectures in Yiddish, and that may continue into the future (although that, too, is an open question), but only the Chassidim keep it as their first language. As for “secular” Yiddish, it’s something that older Jews clinged to as a reminder of the Judaism they left behind in Europe, but inspires little interest among Jews under fifty. The University of Maryland is set to cut funding for its Professor of Yiddish at the end of this year.

Their mistake, reflected in sales of this new phone, is the belief that the Chassidic enclaves will remain small. Although I don’t have the Avi Chai survey at hand, I recall that the number of children in U.S. Chassidic schools has doubled in the last ten years. This new phone is all the proof you need that Yiddish is anything but dying!

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8 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    There are variants of Yiddish pronunciation among Chassidim, based on where they lived before WW2. Which variant was chosen for this project?

  2. mb says:

    Both Harvard and Oxford Universities have a Yiddish Dept.
    This prompted Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks to comment that at one time Jews went to such fine schools to forget Yiddish, now they go there to learn it.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    The U of Maryland position may be one thing, but generalizing based on that one example might not be valid.

    There are probably more universities today that offer Yiddish than ever before, both on an undergraduate and graduate level, and numerous institutes, programs, etc that continue to draw interest from younger students (many, but not all of whom, are Jewish).

  4. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, probably none. The phone’s interface is probably written, and I think the written language is standarized.

  5. Joe Hill says:

    In line with the point R. Menken is making, Chasidim are continuously becoming an ever larger proportion of the Jewish community, and with it their ever increasing influence on our culture. (I would posit this is a very good development, but that is a separate issue.)

  6. J. says:

    R. Menken is right about the paucity of Yiddish as a spoken language outside of Hassidic communities, with one exception – Antwerp. There one will still find clean shaven, acculturated Jews speaking a Yiddish no less rich than their Hassidic neighbours. This remarkable community is pretty much the last vestige of European ‘yiddishkeit’ as it survived for hundreds of years.

  7. another Nathan says:

    Studying Yiddish at university is akin to studying Latin. It’s a curiosity, perhaps a research tool, not a living language. The great body of Yiddish literature (including my father’s works) will be studied, not read. The people who live their lives in Yiddish, the Chassidim, have no interest in the body of works produced by enlightened Jews over the course of the 19th & 20th centuries. The latter substituted Yiddish culture for the Torah way of life, as the form of Judaism. It didn’t hold. It would have perished even without the holocaust.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    I love the Yiddish language and am sorry that it has largely ceased to be the common language of the Jewish exile. The Yiddish of the yeshiva is an amalgam of some Yiddish and a lot of Aramaic, English, Hebrew,etc. The Chassidim are insular and they still use Yiddish as a daily tongue. I think many Israeli Chareidim now speak Hebrew in their daily conversation, not Yiddish. Secular Yiddish can’t be a mass tongue because there is no land where it is the language any more. I think that had there not been a Holocaust, the Jews of Poland would be speaking Polish today, it was becoming that way in the years between the wars.

    Yiddish is beautifuol because it has the flavor, the taam of Eastern European Jewish life. That ethnicity has changed and now we have this religion centered Jwishness where the Peoplehood is not as evident as the common observance.Tribal loyalties seem less important than religous rules in keeping Jews Jewish. That’s just the way it is. But, I wish I could speak more Yiddish , but most of the people who are orthodox around here don’t know Yiddish, especially the ones in Chassidishe garb, they are Baalei Teshuva.

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