Yiddish originated in Germany, but was eventually spoken by Jews all over Europe.

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Early Modern Yiddish

Yiddish publishing became widespread in the 1540s, nearly a century after the invention of the printing press. To ensure the broadest possible readership, books were published in a generic, accessible Yiddish, without the characteristics of any particular Yiddish dialect. In the 1590s, the Tsene-rene (also called Tzenah Urenah) was published for the first time (eventually, more than 200 editions were printed). The book, which retells the weekly Torah portions woven together with homiletic and moralistic material, became known as "the women's Bible," because it was read in particular by women on the Sabbath and holidays. 

By the 18th century, German-speaking Jews were quickly acculturating. In Western Europe, leaders of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) campaigned heavily for the use of German over Yiddish, which they referred to as "barbaric jargon." At the same time, Yiddish was flourishing in Eastern Europe, where compact settlement helped the number of speakers reach the millions by the 19th century. 
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The rise of the Hasidic movement also did much to further Yiddish along--in both numbers of speakers and spiritual prestige. Two of the key early works of hasidism were written in both Yiddish and Hebrew: Shivkhey ha-Besht (Praises of the Besht), which were stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov, and Sipurey Mayses (Telling of the Tales), a collection of stories from the Ba'al Shem Tov's great-grandson Nahman of Bratslav.

Modern Yiddish

The late 19th century saw the birth of modern Yiddish literature. The "grandfather" of this new literary movement was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, known by his pen name Mendele Mokher Seforim (Mendele the Bookseller). I. L. Peretz, a Polish writer, poet, essayist, and dramatist became known as the "father" and humorist Sholem Aleichem, born in Ukraine, the "grandson." The realism, irreverence, satire, and moralism found in the works of these three writers heavily influenced the development of Yiddish literature.

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Mordecai Walfish

Mordecai Walfish is Director of Special Projects for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner (bjpa.org). He comes from a long line of Yiddishists and has studied Yiddish at New York University, Tel Aviv University, and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.