Yiddish used to be the universal language for Jews, the glue that held us together across borders of space and time. As a language, Yiddish is slowly disappearing into the past and in Israel, Yiddish is perceived as being restricted to the Charedim.

In 1993, Mendy Cahan decided to fight this trend and preserve a major aspect of Jewish culture by founding Yung YiDiSH. It is a mission with very special challenges and unexpected methods of coping.

YUNG YiDiSH is a non-profit organization that set for itself the purpose of preserving and transmitting Yiddish culture, as well as encouraging contemporary Yiddish creativity in its various forms. The organization’s members and friends consider Yiddish a language alive, an essential ingredient of our cultural heritage to be fostered by looking both back and forward. Currently YUNG YiDiSH has two locations: a library and cultural center with stage and piano in Jerusalem, and a 400 sq. meter book annex at the central bus station in Tel Aviv, which is developing into a Yiddish living museum.

The project began with the intention of preserving Yiddish books, but very quickly became a cultural initiative, including exhibitions, concerts, readings, commemorations and artistic experimentation. They appeared at the International Jerusalem Book Fair, and have helped organize the Israeli Yiddish film festival at the The Jerusalem Cinematheque.

“I decided to make a simple gesture to rescue Yiddish in Israel,” recalls Cahan. “I asked people, if you have Yiddish books that you don’t want, please give them to me. I’ll take them.” His simple gesture has resulted in a collection of over 40,000 manuscripts.

Most interesting is the branch’s location on the fifth floor of the Tel Aviv Bus Station. Unfortunately, the bus station has failed to achieve its expected role as the jewel in the crown of Israeli public transportation. It is a dismal behemoth, generally avoided by Israelis and full of throngs of foreign workers who migrate in to Tel Aviv’s exclusive neighborhoods to do the dirty work. The building is full of tattoo parlors, unsavory elements, and is a haven for drugs. Amongst all this, Cahan set up shop, trying to revive a language that was thriving when Jews were the migrant workers and the minority. It is unclear whether Cahan chose this unlikely spot intentionally, but he appreciates its relevance to his cause.

“This building is a really strong metaphor, because Yiddish itself is about movement, about us going from land to land,” explained Mendy Cahan, the founder of YUNG YiDiSH. “This is a place where so many cultures intersect. It’s interesting to be here because people think Yiddish is passé, but this shows that it’s the opposite. It’s the meshing of creativity, of so many things that aren’t mainstream. Here, you’ve got Hasids from Bnei Barak next to foreign workers. This polyphony of voices and cultures is an essential part of Yiddish.”

Cahan noted that Yiddish was connected with workers’ rights movements in many countries as Jewish workers fought for better conditions, a fact that resonates with the foreign workers in Israel who are vulnerable to exploitation.

A recent Tu B’Shvat musical event organized by the Tel Aviv Arts Council brought more than 100 English speakers to the unlikely location, Times of Israel reported. Mendy had a lot to say about his feelings for the disappearing Yiddish culture. “[The migrant community] are also the Diaspora,” he noted. “All of us are questing to feel at home. There was this dream of the new Jew, that we’ll just define ourselves as new and independent Jews once we have the State of Israel. Now we’re here, and we find that it’s not enough, we still have insecurities. Yiddish is a tool of survival and growth in a world that’s not ideal,” he said.

“Yiddish is a litmus test,” continued Cahan. “Sixty years ago, it was so strong, 15 million people spoke it and even Hebrew was afraid of it. No one could think about such a quick disappearance. It’s a lesson about how precious culture is, and also how fragile it is. We must take care of it, and the migrants feel this. You sit for one or two generations, and it’s gone. You think it’s so strong, but culture must be created and recreated constantly.”

“As the minority language, the outsiders’ language, Yiddish had more sympathy for the types that there wasn’t room for in Hebrew literature – the luckless, clumsy characters. There’s more sympathy for the newcomers to the Land of Israel and the problems they face in Yiddish literature,” he suggests.

Cahan immigrated to Israel from Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. In addition to being an entertainer who has released a CD with his band the Yiddish Express.

Just before the holocaust, approximately 67% of the Jewish people spoke Yiddish. After the holocaust, the language was practically wiped out. The newly formed state of Israel did not help. As a matter of fact, there was even legislation that discouraged the language. Yiddish language theatre performances and newspapers were banned. Posters were placed in the cities, “Jews speak Hebrew”. Today, just three percent of Israel’s Jews – about 215,000 people, most of them Charedim – speak Yiddish.

That trend does show signs of changing. Avraham Novershtern, director of Yiddish cultural center Beit Shalom Aleichem on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Berkowitz, says, “People are curious enough about it to take courses.” He has seen a big growth in the number of students taking part in its Yiddish courses, from 80 a decade ago to 300 today. Partly it’s because of a different approach to the idea of what is Israeli or modern Jewish culture,” says Novershtern, but he adds that there are other reasons too, including a worldwide trend towards multiculturalism. “Israelis feel more comfortable about Yiddish today because they feel comfortable about multiculturalism,” he adds.

That sentiment became official when in the 1990′s, the Knesset passed the Yiddish and Ladino heritage law, which recognized the languages’ importance in Jewish culture and the need to preserve them. The law led to the creation of the National Authority for Yiddish Culture. There are now many Yiddish cultural centers in Israel such as Leyvik House and Shalom Aleichem House. Named after Yiddish poet and playwright H. Leyvik, whose works include the play The Golem, Leyvik House is the headquarters of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel.