Yiddish literature in the USA is an irony. It was written by men and women who wanted to preserve the language, but at the same time they raised their children to speak English first. They put great effort into their writing, but they encouraged their children to not be writers. My grandmother, for instance, spoke Yiddish and loved all the stories and plays that came with it, but she didn’t pass it on to her kids. Few Ashkenazi Jews today speak Yiddish anymore, and the Yiddish theatre companies of the Lower East Side are all gone too. The Satmar Hasids speak Yiddish, but it’s totally different from the kind you’d see in plays. I remember the part in Unorthodox, where the author sees the old Yiddish for the first time and gets a shock. She says “boy was I surprised, the Yiddish we spoke was not the Shalom Aleichem Yiddish, that stuff was really naughty compared to what we had.” Come to think of it, Shalom Aleichem raised his children to speak only Russian. Yiddish seems to stop at the next generation.
From Our Springtime is a journal written by Reuben Iceland (died in the 1950’s) and translated by Gerald Marcus. Some of the essays are bit on the mournful side, like the one where he and I.J. Schwartz meet in Miami and talk about the death of Opotashu. He clearly accepts that Yiddish as he knows it will die out soon, as the next generation of Jewish Americans moves on. His entry on Anna Margolin says that her son became a politician in Israel in 1948, and that says quite a lot about the end of Yiddish; first generation Israelis never, ever, spoke Yiddish. They regarded it as a remnant of the Golah, a relic of their weakling past. There’s a famous Israeli story by Aaron Megged called The Name (aka Yad Vashem) where an old man goes to war with his granddaughter because she won’t name her son Mendel. He’s like “what do you mean the name is embarrassing?” and she says “you can’t give an Israeli kid a Yiddish name, he might as well be born with a hump!”
It’s a shame that Yiddish didn’t last the way other languages did, but then again, it didn’t have the strength to survive. Back in the Shtetls, the Jews didn’t write lots of plays and stories in Yiddish, and by the time Shalom Aleichem started archiving them, Jews were struggling to integrate. The Yiddish theatre in New York was prominent, but the children of the actors and writers had to learn in English if they wanted to succeed here.
The same thing has happened with lots of other languages worldwide. Gaelic is rarely spoken by young people in Ireland or Scotland, and the Breton language might cease to be spoken in France. Basque might disappear in one or two generations, along with Native American languages. In Cape Town, the Malay language has been lost, and in Louisiana the Cajun language might die out too. Perhaps the life and death of Yiddish in the USA is like that of other minor languages. Once the next generation integrates, the strands of the older language become lost.