Yiddish in Jazz

Sarah sez, "BBC radio is doing a piece about the influence of Yiddish on American culture - they have a great clip describing the ways in which Yiddish songs made their way into jazz (see blurb below). My grandma - the last surviving member of my family who remembers hearing Yiddish spoken in the home - got a real kick out of it."

Hell, I get a kick out of it! My father's first language was Yiddish, and I grew up taking Sunday Yiddish classes at the secular Workman's Circle school in Toronto. It's still the language I use to communicate with my family in Russia (they don't speak English and I don't speak Russian). It's a fantastically expressive, ironic language made for joking and tummeling and kibbitzing. It's a kind of weak Sapir-Worf: it's nearly impossible to speak it without turning ironic and funny.

And of course, Yiddish jazz like Mickey Katz (brilliantly covered by Don Byron) and the Yiddishisms in Slim Gaillard's music (Matzoh Balls, anyone?) just plain kicks ass.


Yiddish - a language once spoken by more than 10 million Jews - had a profound effect on American culture in the first half of the 20th Century.

It originated in central and eastern Europe - and spread to the United States when thousand of immigrants arrived in New York.

Zalmen Mlotek is the Artistic Director of the city's last surviving professional Yiddish theatre - the Folksbiene.

With the help of his piano, he has been telling Radio 3's Dennis Marks how the language influenced jazz music - and the likes of George and Ira Gershwin.

Audio slideshow: Inspired by Yiddish (Thanks, Sarah!)