In a small classroom hidden at the end of the hall on the first floor of UC Santa Cruz’s social sciences building, six students and their instructor struggle to say,“I like the weather today”in Yiddish. It sounds simple, but several students have already stumbled over the treacherous, paradoxical grammar.

After a few false starts, one student finally gets it right, eliciting cheers and applause from her classmates. Wielding a shard of yellow chalk in one hand and an enormous eraser in the other, Jonathan Levitow — UC Santa Cruz’s only Yiddish language instructor — holds his arms out wide and grins sheepishly, as if to apologize for the small triumph enjoyed by his class.

“Yiddish is too difficult to be learned by human beings!” Levitow said.

Illustration by Louise Leong.

Yet humans — at least Jewish humans — continue to learn it, as they have for the last thousand years. Originally the language of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, Yiddish spread across the globe on the tongues of Jewish immigrants, arriving in the United States in the 19th century as the spoken and written language of tens of thousands of Jews on the East Coast.

Following World War II, however, the Yiddish-speaking population of Europe was decimated. The adoption of Hebrew as the national language of the state of Israel dealt Yiddish a second deadly blow by denying it a homeland. In the United States, Jewish immigrants often neglected to teach their children Yiddish in an attempt to expedite assimilation, wiping out a pool of potential Yiddish-speakers in the course of a single generation.

Today, there is a popular misconception that because of all this, Yiddish is a dead language. While this statement is far from true, it is also not quite a lie.

Crippled by genocide and decades of bad luck, Yiddish survives in sizable pockets of speakers — mostly ultra-Orthodox communities of Jews and enclaves of aging native speakers in New York — but lacks the cohesion or popularity needed to regain its stature as a daily language used by Jews at home and in public.

In 1970, the U.S. Census found almost 1.6 million Jews who spoke Yiddish as a home language. By 1980, that number had dropped to 315,953. In 1990, it fell again to 213,054. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of Yiddish speakers in America fell to 158,991 — almost a 90 percent drop between 1970 and 2007.

Despite its wounds, Yiddish continues to thrive in some circles. More than a dozen Yiddish programs have sprouted up in American universities in the last 20 years, according to a 2010 study by Dr. Zachary Berger entitled, “The Popular Language That Few Bother to Learn.” In the midst of budget cuts and slashed language programs, Yiddish has managed to take root at UCSC with only a handful of students and educators.

Openly passionate about the language and the program, a small pocket of students and teachers are making a stand to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of a language they have come to love.

Introductory Yiddish was first offered at UCSC as a course in the Jewish studies program in spring 2010. Thirty students enrolled in the class — about six times the number of students enrolled at the Yiddish program at Stanford, which is also taught by Jonathan Levitow.

Bruce Thompson, lecturer for the history and literature departments, classifies the upcoming generation’s interest in Yiddish as part of a cycle. Photo by Prescott Watson.

Bruce Thompson, a lecturer for the history and literature departments at UCSC, said one reason for the popularity of Yiddish is the renewed interest many young Jewish students have had in reclaiming their cultural heritage.

“It’s a characteristic swing of the pendulum: The second generation wants to lose it, and the fourth generation wants to get it back,” Thompson said. “There’s a recognition that there was a rich Jewish culture in Eastern Europe as well as a rich literature, and it did so much to shape modern Jewish secular culture and identity.”

Rachel Starr-Glass, a third-year Jewish studies major, said her family was originally from Eastern Europe. A major reason she decided to take Yiddish was so she would be able to explore her own cultural connections to the language.

“There’s so much Yiddish literature out there, and I feel like if I could have direct access to that, the whole world opens up,” Starr-Glass said. “There’s a whole Yiddish culture, and I want to be able to directly access that. My grandma speaks a little, and my brother. It’s in the family.”

Professor Murray Baumgarten, co-founder of the Jewish studies program at UCSC, said knowledge of Yiddish also allows students to access thousands of texts accumulated over the centuries that would have been lost to the ages if not translated into Yiddish.

“One of the things that marks Yiddish is the numerous number of texts of world importance that were translated into Yiddish,” Baumgarten said. “I mean, political science, economics, literature — there was a great sense that Yiddish wanted to be connected to the larger world of Western culture.”

Students realize the double entendre in a joke in Professor Jonathan Levitow’s Yiddish class. Photo by Prescott Watson.

At UCSC, finding financial support outside the classroom has been integral for not only the preservation of the Yiddish language course but also the Jewish studies program that runs it. Founded in 2000, the Jewish studies program was given its start by donations from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which allowed the program to establish a major, run independently of university funding, and hire faculty members like Yiddish lecturer Levitow.

Despite a rich literary tradition, some Yiddish scholars worry that even as the number of programs devoted to teaching Yiddish culture and literature at the university level increases, the actual number of speakers learning Yiddish outside of Hassidic or Charedi communities is dropping at an alarming rate.

A 2006 study by the Modern Language Association found 969 students enrolled at four-year colleges and graduate programs learning Yiddish. In 2009 (the most recent year available), that number dropped to 336. Although this drop is partly due to the drastic class reductions in one rabbinical academy and one state school, it still represents an enormous blow to the national Yiddish-speaking community.

Michael Wex, Yiddish scholar and New York Times best-selling author of “Born to Kvetch,” a humorous linguistic and sociological history of Yiddish and Jewish culture, said the plight of Yiddish is best reflected in the Jewish community’s sudden interest in preserving Yiddish.

“There’s a very positive attitude towards Yiddish these days, and has been for a couple decades now — and that worries me,” Wex said. “When Yiddish was healthy and flourishing, everyone was ashamed of it and trying to hide it. Now it’s not very healthy and it’s become our legacy.”

Wex said symptoms of Yiddish’s poor health are evident in the popularity of Yiddish phrase books that promise to teach readers exotic food words, cute endearments and juicy curses. Wex said these books promote a superficial knowledge of Yiddish that at best scratches the surface of Jewish culture, and at worst misinforms the reader.

“The interesting thing about Yiddish is that the number of people who know the difference between ‘fuck on’ and ‘fuck off’ is tiny and diminishing,” Wex said. “I’m not a prig, but the Yiddish is wrong — a book that tells you how to ‘fuck on’ is absolutely useless.”

One of the most basic problems obstructing Yiddish education is the lack of certified teachers. Berger cites the Yiddish Teacher’s Seminar in New York — which was closed in 1987 — as one of the last institutions to offer graduate students serious education as Yiddish instructors. Wex mentioned the article as he addressed pressing issues facing Yiddish advocates.

“Who is teaching the spoken language in universities? How many of these people are native speakers?” Wex asked. “It’s a big problem because you’ve got some relatively capable people who are trying to immerse themselves in the language, but it gets harder and harder because there are fewer places to go.”

Jesse Kirchner, a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at UCSC, studied Yiddish throughout his graduate career. In discussing what might endanger a language like Yiddish, Kirchner drew parallels between Yiddish and other extinct or endangered languages.

“What has caused those languages to become extremely endangered are things that were done to break the connection between one generation and the next,” Kirchner said. “As long as something like that doesn’t happen, Yiddish can endure indefinitely.”

However, given that this generational break has already occurred with Yiddish, Kirchner could not predict whether it would survive as a spoken language.

“It’s safe right now because there’s a generation of speakers learning it,” Kirchner said. “But to project out further than that, the future is very much in question for all the other languages in the world — and that would include Yiddish.”

Although Levitow did not agree with the idea that Yiddish is a dying language, he did say that Yiddish culture has been made increasingly irrelevant in modern Jewish communities, especially with the adoption of Hebrew as the official spoken language of Israel and, consequently, the global Jewish community.

“To me it seems kind of obvious — the whole center of Jewish life changed,” Levitow said. “When I was a kid, if you went into the synagogue, people spoke Yiddish. Now, you have to make an effort to go out and learn it. It takes hard work.”

Starr-Glass’ glowing opinion of the class and Reb Yankel (the Yiddish title for Levitow in class) was echoed by her classmate Ian Flanagan, a fourth-year history major.

“If there was one person [in the class] he’d still teach it,” Flanagan said. “He teaches the class — he doesn’t let the book teach the class. He’s so passionate about the course, but not overbearing.”

Flanagan said he has frequently encountered people who do not understand that Yiddish is still a spoken language with vital communities around the world.

“A lot of people will ask, ‘Why are you taking Yiddish? Nobody speaks Yiddish,”’ Flannagan said. “But [Levitow] brought in Yiddish newspapers from New York, so it is prevalent in certain areas, in New York and European countries. If people understand that it’s still in use, it will come back.”

Levitow’s normally cheery face clouded over as he addressed the notion that Yiddish had been left behind in the modern age.

Illustration by Louise Leong.

“Here in California, you really get the sense that Yiddish is of another time,” Levitow said. “But in fact, it’s not true. There are a lot of people who still speak Yiddish — they make an effort to keep it going in their families. New York is a center, also Toronto, and Chicago and L.A. All places where people speak Yiddish day-to-day.”

The absence of an iconic, permanent Yiddish-speaking community is something author Wex believes is permanently stunting the growth of Yiddish.

“One of the big problems [with] teaching Yiddish is it’s very difficult to get any outside-the-class support,” Wex said. “You can’t say, ‘Well here’s a program where you can go to Yiddish Land during the summer.’ It’s not the fault of anybody teaching Yiddish — it just doesn’t exist.”

Levitow said UCSC’s program is exceptionally lucky to receive private funding, because more than almost anything else, steady cash flow is the necessary ingredient for building a stable Yiddish-speaking community.

“The problem really is, in a nutshell, money,” Levitow said. “If you’re running a synagogue, an adult education program, you’re constantly trying to save every dollar you can. So do you hire somebody to teach Yiddish if there are only three students? What we really need are a few more millionaires who could fund Yiddish educational foundations that were stable and could count on funding.”

The Koret Foundation — one of the main donors supporting the program — gave the Jewish studies program a three-year grant to run a Yiddish course. But even private funding cannot guarantee a program’s survival. Last year, as the Yiddish program was just starting up, UCSC’s Hindi/Urdu program lost its own private funding and was forced to close down.

In response to an email query, Koret Foundation communications officer Kirsten Mickelwait said she could not divulge grant information nor speculate on future support for the program. She did say UCSC’s program is the only one Koret funds specifically for Yiddish education.

For students like Starr-Glass, the uncertain future of the Yiddish program and Yiddish itself has had no effect on her enthusiasm to learn the language — in a large part thanks to Levitow’s class and teaching style.

“I love it, I really do,” Starr-Glass said. “His way of teaching is really natural, it’s conversation, and he’s funny — we’re laughing 75 percent of the class. There’s definitely a lot of grammar, the structure of sentences. But the majority of the time we learn by conversation and a lot practice reading and writing.”

For Michael Wex, learning practical conversation skills and grammar is the only efficient way to bring Yiddish back as a language of daily use.

“I think it’s important for the textbook to teach you unremarkable day-to-day expressions,” Wex said. “When the plumber comes, you have to be able to tell him what’s clogged. If you can’t do that, you’re not fluent.”

Lecturer Thompson said there are a number of practical reasons to continue teaching Yiddish, but for the best reason, one should just ask the students studying it.

“Ask any of our students who are taking Yiddish about his or her experience,” Thompson said. “I bet you that the first response before the student says a word is a smile — a broad smile. With all due respect to all the other languages that are offered at UCSC, you don’t get that same smile — but you get it with someone who’s learning Yiddish.”

Asked to elaborate on what students might gain from learning Yiddish, Thompson hesitated, picking his words with care.

“I suppose it’s not only a feeling of accomplishment,” Thompson said. “But there’s also a special feeling of satisfaction that you’re keeping alive something that nearly died. It’s quite a wonderful thing that college students are really doing this.”

Fourth-year student Flanagan said it’s frustrating to see the low enrollment in Levitow’s class, which he blames on the recent arrival of the program and its virtual invisibility on course registers.

“Nobody knows it’s being offered. Once I found out and I took it, I became the biggest cheerleader for it,” Flanagan said. “We have pride in what we’re learning because nobody else is studying it. It’s something unique to me and I want to see more people speaking it.”

Photo by Prescott Watson.

Starr-Glass said that although she is not sure how far she will take her Yiddish education, she would be interested in taking another Yiddish class if it were offered. But it was difficult to imagine learning enough Yiddish to make it the home language of her family, she said.

“I’m not really sure about that — it would be hard. I think I would have to move to a Yiddish-speaking community to do that,” Starr-Glass said. “When I have a family, I want Yiddish to be familiar to them. I don’t know if me speaking alone to them would be enough, but I want to pass it on to them.”

Wex said that in the ideal world, Yiddish would be taught not as a class, but as the language of instruction in an entire university.

“No single teacher, no matter how intelligent or gifted can [possibly] cover it all,” Yiddish scholar Wex said. “There’s never one professor for a whole area. This is what you need in Yiddish, the idea of a university, one that covers liberal arts, and social science, that really does run in Yiddish.”

Wex also noted that despite efforts to make Yiddish a secular language, the religious component is too vital to the vocabulary and structure of the language to be excluded from study. Wex said without knowledge of the forms and rituals that defined Yiddish as a sacred language used by Jews for a millennia, a student could not achieve more than partial understanding of the language.

“I don’t think you can make this stuff work [by saying]… ‘Here are some dirty jokes, here are some insults you can sling at people,”’ Wex said. “You end up with a culture where all you can do is curse.”

By the end of Levitow’s two-hour class, nobody had uttered a curse, but the students had reviewed a quiz and covered several complicated grammatical constructions. Class was concluded with the reading of two jokes from the textbooks. By the end of the first joke, class was over, but nobody wanted to leave until the second joke was finished.

Line by line, the second joke is read through until the last student read the final sentence, sounding out the Yiddish words before translating them into English. It takes a second for everyone to put together the translated joke, leading to a collective groan at the punch line. But Levitow beamed and bobbed uncontrollably on the balls of his feet, unable to hide his delight.

“I saw the light go on in your eyes!” Levitow said. “It was very exciting!”