Belarusan Institute of Arts and Sciences in the U.S.

Belarusian-Yiddish Writings:
Interesting Material for Ethnography and Philology

Robert j. Tamushanski
Vatican Radio

The Yiddish language originated in medieval times. Jewish settlers, apparently from France, came to the Middle Rhine area of Germany at about 1000 A.D. At the end of the 11th century, Jews from Germany began to settle in Slavonic lands. This migration become a mass movement in the 13th century and increased later after the massacres and the Black Death (1348-49). In their new homeland, Jews from all parts of Germany mixed and formed a new dialect - Eastern Yiddish, which became influenced by the surrounding Slavonic languages. The Slavonic element was, however, not the only element in Yiddish; Hebrew-Aramaic elements were inevitably found in the Jewish language. But many Hebraisms, which did not refer to purely Jewish customs, have been replaced by a term from the Germanic or Slavonic vocabulary. These components of Yiddish become closely fused with basic Germanic element, which has reshaped them according to the general Germanic structure of the language.[1]
The Belarusian language further colored Yiddish, often including such typical Belarusian phonetic features as akannie (the pronunciation of an unaccented o and e as a) and ciekannie-dziekannie (the palatalization of t, d to c, dz respectively).[2] This is especially true of the Yiddish spoken in Belarusian territories.
The first date of the first Jewish settlements in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is not easily established. But we do know that by the end of the 14th century, a number of important communities were in existence, for example those in Brest, Grodno, and Troki. The Grand Duke Vitaut was the first to legalize the existence of these communities during his rule over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from 1388 to 1430. In 1388 the Jews of Brest and other towns in Lithuania obtained from Vitaut a charter similar to Statues of Boleslaw of Kalisz and Kasimir the Great, and the following year, the Jews of Grodno received even more extensive privileges from the Grand Duke. Under the laws enacted by Vitaut, the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed a class of free citizens, standing under the immediate protection of the Grand Duke and his local administration. Living in independent communities, they enjoyed autonomy in their internal affairs regarding religion and property, while in criminal proceeding they were liable to local starosta, but in very important cases, to the court of the Grand Duke himself. The Jews were guaranteed by law inviolability of person and property, freedom of religion, free transit, the free pursuit of commerce and trade on equal terms with Christians. The Lithuanian Jews carried on business in the market places and shops and were engaged in all kinds of trades. Wealthy men lint money on interest, leased from Grand Duke custom duties, revenues on spirits, and other taxes. The Jews often held estates either in their own right or in the form of land-leases. They were taxed according to the character of their occupations, and these taxes on the whole were not burdensome.
The position of the Jews was more favorable in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania then in Poland. The Jews leaving the persecutions of the 12th- and 13th-century German territories for Poland frequently went as far as Lithuania and settled there permanently. Lithuania formed the extreme frontier in the Eastern migrations of Jews. Russia and Muscovy remained almost entirely closed to them.[3]
The considerable Jewish population of the Polish and Lithuanian towns and villages did not form a downtrodden caste, nor an homogeneous economic class as in Germany, but formed an important social entity, taking its place in many departments of socio-economic life. It was not tied merely to money-lending and petty trade, but played its role in all branches of industry - in production and manufacture, and in land tenure and farming as well.[4]
Because of their enterprises, the Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had direct contact every day with the local population. It goes without saying that many of them learned Belarusian and employed this language in every day use.
A still smaller minority in Belarus, the Tartars, used Belarusian written in Arabic script in their writings, especially the Koran and other religious writings.[5]
The Belarusian writer Zmitrok Biadulia, himself a Jew, mentions in the article he wrote in 1921, that the same is to be found among the Jewish people in Belarus.[6] He is writing here about an 18th-century manuscript concerning wizardry. This work consists of some 300 pages in small quarto, written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and a notable part in Belarusian in Yiddish transcription. Biadulia provides two quotes of this Belarusian-Yiddish manuscript as an example of the inadequacies in the Yiddish transcription of Belarusian.
Biadulia considers this work a monument of historical Belarusian ethnography, inasmuch as it handles magic and witchcraft, and that is has value for various branches of science and even medicine, since it handles herbalism, etc. and greatly laments the fact that during that time no research had been done on this text.[7]
Unfortunately the manuscript is at present inaccessible, and to date, others similar to it, if discovered, have not been the subject of serious study. Nonetheless, ethnographers in the last century have collected Jewish folksongs from all parts of Belarusian territories. It is of great interest to note that some of these songs contain other than Hebrew or Yiddish elements - very often they contain words, phrases or even entire verses in other languages, most frequently Belarusian, Polish or Ukrainian, and sometimes Russian and Lithuanian.[8]
Of great is the collection of S.M. Ginsburg and P.S. Marek Jevrejskija narodnyja pesni v Rossii, published in St. Petersburg in 1901. These Jewish ethnographers provide us with a rich collection of Yiddish folksongs collected for the most part from Belarus, especially the gubernii of Vilna, Minsk, Mahilou, and others. No song from any Russian aria is supplied. Among these Yiddish folksongs the reader can find a good many of macaronic language - some with many Belarusian elements, and some in Belarusian transcribed in Hebrew characters. In other Jewish folksongs found in Belarus, one can note Polish, Lithuanian, or Russian words or phrases. Some of these songs are those sung by school children, others are of humorous nature. As one can note in the examples provided in the appendix, the Hebrew script is often inadequate in accurately representing Belarusian phonology.
Yiddish-Belarusian writings, both in their ethnographical and philological aspects, provide much interesting material for further research.

1. F.J. Beranek, "Jiddisch" in Deutsche Pihilologie im Aufris, ed. W. Stammler, vol. 1, cols. 1551-1590,
Berlin-Bielefild, 1953.
Cf. also Robert Joseph Tamushanski, German Loanwords in Middle Byelorussian Ph.D. thesis, London University, August 1974, p. 50.
2. Uriel Weinreich, "Yiddish and Colonial German in Eastern Europe: The Differential Impact of Slavic" in American Contributions to the Fourth International Congress of Slavicists, Moscow, 1948, pp. 372-374.
3. S. M. Dubnov, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland from the Earliest Times until the Present Day, vol. 1: From the Beginning until the Death of Alexander I (1825), (trans. J. Friedlaender). Philadelphia, 1946, pp. 41, 43, 59-60.
Cf. also R. J. Tamushanski, op. cit., pp.82-84.
4. Dubnov, op. cit., p. 67. Tamushanski, op. cit., p. 84.
5. G. M. Meredith-Owens and Alexander Nadson, "The Byelorussian Tartars and their Writings" in Journal of Byelorussian Studies, [London], vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 141-176.
6. Zmitrok Biadulia, "Rukapis carnakniznika XVIII vieku (Bahatyja matarjaly pa bielaruskaj etnahrafii)" in Volny Sciah, Minsk, December 1921, pp. 33-35.
7. Ibid., pp. 34-35.
8. Uriel Weinreich, "Di forsung fun 'missparakike' jidise folkslider" in YIVO Bleter, [New York], 1950, pp. 282-288.
Cf. also Musij Berehovskjy, "Cuzomovni I riznomovni pisni v Jevreiv Ukrainy, Bilorusi j Polsci" in Etnohrafycnyj Visnik, VI/9, 1930, pp.37-51.

Examples of Yiddish folk songs from Belarus:

All these songs are taken from the collection edited by S. M. Ginsburg and P. S. Marek: Jevrejskija narodnyja pesni v Rossii, published in 1901 in St. Petersburg. The Latin script is provided by the present author.

No. 85. From Vilna:

Karagod is a Belarusian dance. Interesting to note is that Yiddish has lost the qualitative distinction between long and short vowels, just as in the phonology of the Slavonic languages spoken in the same territories.

No. 112. The refrain in this longer song from the Minsk gubernia is in Belarusian:

No. 351. This Jewish song from the Viciebsk gubernia contains elements of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian:

No. 352. This song from Minsk gubernia is Belarusian albeit with many Russicisms. Berehovskyj (op. cit.) even provides us with three variants of this melody (Nr. 7, 8, and 9).

No. 372. This Jewish song from the Mahilou gubernia manifests elements from Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian in addition to Hebrew:

No. 374. This mixed language Jewish song originated in the Minsk gubernia: