A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Note on Yiddish in Israel and Elsewhere

This Jerusalem Post obituary for a major Lithuanian/Israeli poet is entitled "Avrom Sutzkever: Master of a Dying Language." It's a reminder of the curious relationship between the State of Israel and Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European and Russian Ashkenazi Jews. While not entirely unjustified, even in Israel I'm not sure that Yiddish is a "dying" language; some of the more ultra Haredi ("Ultra-Orthodox") groups cling to it insistently, and among more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, it, alongside Russian and the three Baltic languages, plus Belarussian and Ukrainian, still flourishes. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens, it still reigns. Much of what follows is an area on which I have only very secondary and derivative knowledge, so if I get anything major wrong, go ahead and pounce on me in the comments.

But the obit does remind us of the profound bias Israeli secular Zionism had against Yiddish. The project of creating a state for all the world's Jews demanded a language that was not constrained to a particular continent but was universal among Jews: Hebrew, the liturgical language for all Jews but a language no one had spoken in daily life for some 2000 years or more, was the obvious candidate.

In the meantime, Jewish variants of local languages had taken over. First Aramaic (the language of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds), then the Greek of Alexandria, of Philo and the Septuagint, and in time the emergence of such languages as Yiddish (a Jewish dialect of German), Ladino (a Jewish dialect of Spanish, or at least Romance, common in the northern Mediterranean), Judaeo-Arabic in various forms from Morocco to the east, etc. These languages were usually the local language, usually written (like Yiddish) in an adapted square Hebrew character and with Hebrew and Aramaic loan-words. But they were not Hebrew, and a Sephardic Ladino-speaker would not understand a Polish Yiddish-speaker or a Mizrahi Judaeo-Arabic speaker, unless they all had studied Hebrew and/or Aramaic, the scriptural/Talmudic languages.

The father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, seems to have streets named for him in every town in Israel (the bigger the city, the more important the street). Yet to most of us, reading his biography, he seems a monomaniacal tyrant, a single-minded obsessive who managed to create a national language through sheer self-will.

The Wikipedia article I linked to notes that he insisted that his son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda ("Son of Zion son of Judah," a loaded name to begin with: he later changed it to Itamar), was the first person raised entirely in Hebrew. This was because Ben-Yehuda insisted his family speak Hebrew even though no one else could speak it, other than the rabbis. The Wikipedia article tells only part of the story, noting that he rebuked his wife for singing a song in Russian to Ben-Zion when he had forbidden his son to hear any language other than Hebrew. The story as usually heard (perhaps Wikipedia didn't feel it was sufficiently documented) is that Ben-Zion spoke not a word until he was four years old or so. Then, when his father rebuked his mother for singing that Russian song, the boy suddenly spoke his first word: "Avi!" ("Father!") in rebuke of his father. True or not (it's not in Wikipedia), it suggests that Ben-Yehuda's single-minded devotion to Hebrew may have influenced his parenting skills.

The rebirth of Hebrew is unparalleled. Lots of other languages that want to restore their ancient glories have tried to model themselves on the renaissance of Hebrew. I'm told that the Welsh language enthusiasts even call their schools for learning Welsh ulpans using the Israeli term for the Hebrew schools for immigrants. I've also heard anecdotally that some of the former Soviet republics have asked Israel for advice on reviving their own Russian-swamped languages. But these countries generally already have a dominant language (usually English or Russian), and while there are hopes for survival (I fondly remember standing in a pub in a provincial town in Galway years ago and hearing teens and young adults chatting each other up in Irish, a sign the young are keeping it up in the Gaeltacht at least), there is no exact analog to Hebrew in Israel.

One of the victims has been Yiddish, a language with a great literary tradition, well down into the 20th century.

But the influx of ex-Soviet immigrants (including folks like Avigdor Lieberman), the haredi population growth in Israel, and the continuing rich Yiddish tradition in New York and a few other places, may not mean that Yiddish is really a "dying language." I tend to belong to the school of thought that says when a language dies, something of a culture dies. Of course people will always read Yiddish, as they read Latin or Greek or Sanskrit, or as they read Hebrew until Ben-Yehuda almost single-handedly revived it.

Oh, perhaps I should note that I'd never actually heard of the Lithuanian-Israeli Yiddish poet I just used as a starting point for this longish post. It was the headline in the Jerusalem Post that set me off.

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