With Yiddish this wouldn't work. It would never occur to me to stand in front of the Knesset plenum and pronounce with great seriousness: “Nudnik, yachneh, shloch, klafte, lokshen.” That wouldn't work not because Yiddish is not a language of culture. Au contraire: Yiddish is the language in which the Jews became modern in the Western sense of the word.
Great works were written in Yiddish and are appreciated by critics throughout the world. But the cultural baggage of Israel’s language wars, of the elimination of Yiddish in favor of Hebrew is still with us, and the Hebrew words borrowed from Yiddish show the disdain with which Yiddish was treated for many years.
In pre-state Israel there was an organization called “The Brigades for the Defense of Hebrew.” Brigade members prevented Yiddish films from being shown and even interfered with conferences being held in Yiddish, a language they contemptuously referred to as “jargon.”
Even after the destruction of Jewish life in Europe the dispute over language did not die down. In the first decade of Israel’s existence a Yiddish daily was prevented from being published and Israeli artists were not allowed to appear in Yiddish. Yiddish, which had more than 10 million speakers before World War II, has become an endangered language in less than 50 years.
In the Soviet Union it was viewed as an enemy, and Yiddish writers were murdered one after the other. In the United States the younger generation turned its back on Yiddish, which became a nostalgic vestige of the past, lacking in content. In Israel Yiddish was fought through laws and through use of a weapon no less violent: ridicule.
But this is all history. Today it is irrelevant to discuss the discrimination against Yiddish. No one makes fun of Yiddish anymore, not only because it has been cleared of blame, but because a generation has grown up in Israel that doesn’t get what the joke is about. Yiddish is not a part of public discourse, so it is not considered funny. Entertainers don’t need a soft yod sound or nasal speech. Those who make their living making fun of others long ago turned to the rolling r’s of Russian speakers.
Torn between two worlds
Hebrew has a weighty corpus of excellent translations from Yiddish. Anyone who is interested can get a comprehensive picture of Yiddish literature without knowledge of the language. However, it is difficult not to get the impression that the translations have not reached a critical mass, and Yiddish literature is still not an essential part of modern Hebrew literature.
Furthermore, it would appear that those who seek to write about Yiddish literature must do so as if they were discovering it for the first time. Yiddish is an unknown relative, a distant, eccentric cousin, who is never invited to the table.
Modern Yiddish literature was written over the course of about 100 years—from the 1860s to its decline in the second half of the 20th century. In Yiddish Jews were torn from each other and scattered all over the world.
Yiddish literature became a tool for expression in new places where Jews settled. In Yiddish the Jews became totally secular—socialists, Communists, Marxists, and anarchists. In Yiddish some Jews also became ultra-Orthodox. In fact, this is the sole function the language fulfills to this day, a language with which certain groups fence themselves off from modern influences.
Yiddish is the language in which Jews suffered during times of persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust. It’s the language in which Eastern European Jewry expressed its longing for Zion, but it was also the language acceptable to the anti-Zionists. In short, reading Yiddish literature is a one-time opportunity to look into a one-time Jewish kaleidoscope, a moment before it split into many parts.
Modern Yiddish literature is a reflection of that moment before the bang. It’s a literature of people split between two worlds, of emigration, both intellectual and geographic.
I.L. Peretz described the Hassidic way of life so well because he grew up in the city, among Poles. Shalom Aleichem wrote about Katrielevka but lived in large cities: Odesssa, Kiev, New York. The great voices in American Yiddish literature, Jacob Glatstein and Isaac Bashevis Singer, were best at writing with a backward look, devoid of any hint of nostalgia or sentimentality.
Yiddish is not, of course, the only Jewish language, but until quite recently, it was the language in which most of the Jewish people spoke. In this sense there has been no replacement for Yiddish, nor apparently will there be.
Davka in Yiddish
Those wishing to get an impression of Yiddish culture should look at Davka, a new journal that deals with Yiddish culture, which means Yiddish culture in its widest sense—literature, film, music—but also the daily life of East European Jews. Alongside a translated section of a novel by Jacob Glatstein is an article on The Little Prince in Yiddish, as well as a recipe for cherry borscht.
The gem in the volume is undoubtedly the comic strip “Malopolska” by Yirmi Pinkus, which describes a trip to Poland in an intimate and emotional way, through the eyes of a boy from Tel Aviv, which is referred to as “the first shtetl on the Mediterranean coast.”
This first volume is part of a growing list of books dealing with Yiddish culture that have been published in Israel in the past year. It’s hard to see a common thread in all the publications, but one thing they do have in common is a sympathetic reception.
If in the past the appearance of books about Yiddish culture was met with a deafening silence, today it is evident that there is interest in the subject. Yiddish culture’s fortunes have risen lately.
Though Chava Alberstein’s Yiddish singing career was ignored for years, her latest disc has received widespread and favorable coverage. Israel’s Yiddishpiel theater is still active, and this year two universities have held Yiddish summer courses, so there is definitely room for optimism.
It is doubtful that Yiddish will ever be revived as a spoken language, but its cultural heritage is increasingly gaining the recognition it deserves. It is no longer seen only as a funny language, the language of “yachneh” and “nudnik,” and it is not seen only as a language of nostalgia, but as a language that expresses an entire life experience, with both its high level and its popular level.
The writer is a 27-year old student of Yiddish literature at Tel Aviv University in the program for outstanding students