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The Yiddish Language Alive in... Japan

A Japanese linguist, who compiled the world's first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, proves one doesn't have to be Jewish to love Yiddish.
By Rachel Hirshfeld
First Publish: 4/17/2012, 12:22 PM

book image
book image
Israel news photo: Flash 90

A Japanese linguist, who has spent decades compiling the world's first Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, has proved that one does not have to be Jewish in order to love Yiddish.

“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,” National Public Radio (NPR) reported.

Ueda, who originally specialized in German, is now Japan's leading scholar of Yiddish.

"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."

Since Ueda was isolated from actual speakers of the language, Ueda immersed himself in Yiddish newspapers and literature. 

His magnum opus, the 1,300-page, 28,000-entry Idishugo Jiten, or Yiddish-Japanese dictionary, was published several years ago, notes NPR. Ueda’s publisher refused to release details but said that the sales of the dictionary, which coasts more than $700, are expected to be extremely low.

"Every day, he would sit down to work on his dictionary right after breakfast. He never took any time off," said Ueda’s wife. "But for him, this wasn't work but sheer joy. So I thought, this is the way things had to be."

Jack Halpern, a Yiddish-speaking resident of Japan and one of Ueda’s great admirers said the passion of the Japanese linguist often baffles Jews.

By taking on Yiddish, Ueda grappled with a language that defies easy translation because of its many culturally specific words. "You can translate it, but you can't translate the connotation, the feeling, around the word," says Halpern. "There's something about shlimazel, that when you say it in Yiddish, it's the right language to say it in."

However, Ueda has no regrets. "I wrote it purely for the pursuit of learning," he says. "I don't expect a wave of people to start learning Yiddish," he says.