“A hundred years ago, ninety percent of the Jewish nation spoke Yiddish; whoever wants to be a historian and to know what they thought and said, has to learn Yiddish”, says Yonah, who is about to begin a doctorate in Israeli history.
“As a child I loved to impersonate the different ethnic groups - Russians, Moroccans, Iraqis and Ashkenazim. I had no consciousness of 'us and them'. At a certain stage I discovered that there were different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but it never made me feel that we were not a part of the same nation."
It appears that Diaspora Yiddish is no longer the exclusive domain of Ashkenazim. More and more young Mizrahim are now choosing to learn a language that at first glance appears to be as close to their childhood provinces as Korean. They, as opposed to their parents, no longer see Yiddish as a symbol of the European establishment that rejected them. On the contrary, they are able to connect to it and identify with the culture that it represents.
The oppressing establishment
The signs of the revival of Yiddish can be found in almost any place. Yonah claims that the connection between Yiddish and those of Eastern descent is more natural than it appears.
“It is true that many Mizrahim see Yiddish as a symbol of the establishment that oppressed them, but the oppressive establishment is always something else”, she explains.
“Yiddish is also an oppressed language - those who spoke Hebrew denigrated the Yiddish as a ghetto-like language. The categories of oppressed and oppressing are very popular, but I think that whoever wants to understand what is happening in Israel has to look deeply. The official history of the Zionist movement has been written in Hebrew, but unofficially it was in Yiddish”.
However, not all Mizrahim who learn Yiddish are happy to wave it around. T. (28), who has an Algerian father and a Turkish mother, has been learning Yiddish for two years “just for fun”. In university he learned German, and from there the jump to Yiddish was not too far.
“I am not comfortable waving the flag as a Mizrahi who learns Yiddish”, he says. “I am a Sabra, and my parents are successful and never suffered discrimination. I learn Yiddish the way somebody else would learn French or Italian. My wife is Ashkenazi and doesn’t speak a word of Yiddish, so this is the subject of many jokes between us”.
Mizrahim are not the only students in the class who did not imbibe it with their mother’s milk. Take for example Pinhas Harel (35), who emigrated from Ethiopia 22 years ago. In university he chose Yiddish as his second language.
“I chose Yiddish in order to learn through it the culture of the Jews in Europe and to find a common denominator”, he explains. "The Jews in Ethiopia were not allowed ownership rights and we were forbidden to work in agriculture; we lived on hills, and the Christians were the ones who enjoyed the fertile land. The same thing happened to the Jews in Europe, there they were also considered second-class citizens.
"Through Yiddish, and the literature of Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sefarim, I connected to their difficult poverty. I would imagine the hard lives that they led there - and I would remember our lives”.
Does the automatic identification between Yiddish and Ashkenazim bother you?
“Many people in my community ask me: ‘Pinhas, why do you need this?’ Sometimes I joke around and say that I have a Polish grandmother, but my real response is that I do it in order to understand the culture of the other side, and through that to find the common denominator between us”.