A smattering of Yiddish words has crept into the American vernacular: Non-Jews go for a nosh or schmooze over cocktails. Yet the language itself, once spoken by millions of Jews, is now in retreat.The Forward, which was originally a Yiddish paper, wrote about Ueda earlier this year.
It was in the hills of Kyushu Island in southern Japan where Kazuo Ueda carried out his impressive and quixotic quest, devoting his life to a language few Jews understand, and even fewer Japanese have even heard of.
Now Japan's leading scholar of Yiddish, Ueda was originally a specialist in German. He stumbled upon the Jewish language while reading Franz Kafka, himself a fan of Yiddish theater.
Ueda was immediately smitten with the language that is written in Hebrew letters, but is a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Russian and other languages.
"Yiddish was full of puzzles for me," Ueda says. "That's what I love about it. Reading sentences in those strange letters — it's like deciphering a code."
Ueda made several trips to Israel, but most of his research was a lonely, solo affair. Isolated from actual speakers of the language, he taught himself, with the help of Yiddish newspapers and literature.
Ueda would later publish a series of books on the Jewish language and people, but he considers that a prelude to his magnum opus — the 1,300-page, 28,000-entry Idishugo Jiten, or Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, published several years ago. His publisher wouldn't release details but conceded sales are most likely tiny for the dictionary, which costs more than $700.
"I actually think $700 is pretty cheap, considering," Ueda says.
Cheap, considering it took 20 years to finish the volume — and that Ueda's doctors say the project may have shortened his life. As his dictionary neared completion, Ueda began to show signs of Parkinson's disease. Now 69, he was forced to retire from the faculty of Fukuoka University in March and struggles to walk and speak.
Ueda's wife, Kazuko, blames years of desk-bound devotion to the dictionary for aggravating his disease.
"Every day, he would sit down to work on his dictionary right after breakfast. He never took any time off," she says. "But for him, this wasn't work but sheer joy. So I thought, this is the way things had to be."
"I wrote it purely for the pursuit of learning," he says. "I don't expect a wave of people to start learning Yiddish."
Ueda’s target readership is small but dedicated, and while Ueda may be Japan’s leading Yiddishist, he is not alone. Yoshiji Hirose, an expert on Yiddish literature at Japan’s Notre Dame Seishin University, honed his Yiddish in Brooklyn’s Boro Park; Chitoshi Hinoue is an art historian specializing in the work of Marc Chagall and is also a klezmer clarinetist; Sadan, who immigrated to Israel for a full-time position in Hebrew linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, is equally at home in Yiddish, Hebrew, Japanese, English and Esperanto.If you want to buy this dictionary, it is available at Amazon Japan for 68,000 yen.
Sadan pegs the number of Japanese proficient in Yiddish at fewer than 20, though more have partial knowledge of the language. All, he says, are driven by “healthy intellectual curiosity and interest in traditional Ashkenazic culture, which, unlike modern Israeli culture, seems to have much in common with traditional Japanese culture.” Zachary Sholem Berger, an American Yiddishist who has spent time in Japan, notes that many Japanese Yiddishists are also believing Christians. Several Japanese universities (Tokyo, Fukuoka and Sapporo, among others) offer Yiddish classes, and four Yiddish study groups now exist (in Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Okayama). Regularly there are a handful of Japanese participants at Yiddish language immersion programs, klezfests and Yiddish conferences around the world.