Oy vey! What did you say? The Yiddish language in Hackney

Verbal vanguard: Orthodox Jewish children are taught Yiddish as an important part of forging their cultural identity (NORTE_IT)
Verbal vanguard: Orthodox Jewish children are taught Yiddish as an important part of forging their cultural identity (NORTE_IT)
Verbal vanguard: Orthodox Jewish children are taught Yiddish as an important part of forging their cultural identity (NORTE_IT)

There are some sounds that are always associated with certain places. For the East End of London it’s usually the cockney accent and the call of market traders but now, according to the 2011 census, the Yiddish language should be added to the list.

Hackney, which has a population of 247,200, is called home by 75 per cent of the 3,987 people nationally claiming Yiddish, a tongue traditionally associated with Judaism, as their main language.

Hackney has a large Jewish population, with 15,477 residents, or one out of every 16, defining themselves as Jewish. It is the third largest religion in the borough after Christianity and Islam.

Although Jews in Hackney account for only six per cent of the UK Jewish population of 263,300, it is still the authority with the second highest concentration of Jews in the country after Barnet.

Hackney councillor Simche Steinberger says the community may be even larger than the census lets on. He said: “Many Jews were scared to fill out the census, I know for a fact that the Jewish population in Hackney has been undercounted.”

The community is particularly concentrated around Stamford Hill, an area recognised across the world for its Haredi Jewish community. Rabbi Sufrin, of the Chabad Lubavitch Centre in Stamford Hill, said: “If you say Hackney to a lot of the people in the Jewish community they won’t know what you’re talking about, but if you say Stamford Hill then they understand. They know of Stamford Hill in many parts of the world.”

The Jewish community in Hackney is predominantly orthodox. Laura Staetsky, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, says this explains the concentration of Yiddish in the area. “It’s very unusual in this day and age for non-Orthodox Jews to speak Yiddish.”

Lifelong pursuit

Large families are encouraged within the orthodox community, often with up to ten children in a household. Dr Staetsky explains that this can be quite a financial strain, especially as the majority of men devote their lives to scholarship.

“It means they often stay in areas where they can afford housing, like East London,” he said.

Barry Davis, a lecturer in History and Yiddish at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, said: “Orthodox Jews allow Yiddish to act as a carrier of their culture and a little bit to insulate themselves from external cultural forces, it’s a protective language for them.”

Rabbi Sufrin agreed, commenting: “We live in a world where values have largely disappeared and we are paying for it. One way or another we will make sure our children can pray and learn and stay kosher and live a life that their grandparents would be proud they are living.

“After the Holocaust there were many families who decided ‘Hitler will not win’ and the only way we will be sure he won’t win is to regenerate the values we had in Poland and Russia. There are schools in Stamford Hill where the first language of those children in the schools is Yiddish and once you start with that it grows on its own.”

There are just over a dozen schools in Hackney which teach primarily in Yiddish. The Beis Trana Girls School in Clapton spends half the day teaching in Yiddish, the other in English. Many of the girls arrive speaking no English at all, with Yiddish as their first language.

“It separates us from others, this is our language and we’re proud of it, it’s been passed down from father to son. We encourage the children to speak in Yiddish amongst themselves,” explains the school’s secretary Reizy Lebrecht.

She added: “This is what the children speak at home. When they arrive at school they speak Yiddish, when they leave at 17 they speak English as well.”

Hebrew: the holy tongue?

Yiddish speakers are concentrated in Hackney, but Hebrew – traditionally the language of Jewish prayer but now the national tongue of Israel – is spread out across the UK.

Out of the 6,207 people who put Hebrew as their main language on the census, only 651 live in Hackney. Despite the low number, Hackney still ranks second in the country for the number of Hebrew speakers, again after Barnet.

Mr Davis said this is because most Orthodox Jews do not think Hebrew should be used day-to-day: “To speak Hebrew you have to use all sorts of mundane notions and it is better to reserve Hebrew as a holy tongue. Hebrew is debased in their eyes because it is spoken daily in Israel.”

Rabbi Sufrin added that Hebrew’s association with the secular movement of Zionism also makes it less appealing to the Orthodox community.

Despite the high concentration of Yiddish speakers in the borough, it ranks only sixth out of the area’s most spoken languages after English. The highest ranking is Turkish, which one out of every 25 Hackney residents speaks as a main language. Out of all those nationally who first learnt to speak in Turkish, more than one in ten live in the borough.

Yiddish is a language that has endured for over a thousand years and while the community in Hackney is small, it is the last bastion of the lexicon in the UK and shows no signs of letting either it, or the values that come with it, disappear.