In the eyes of many modern Israelis, the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are relics; a people living in the past that have failed to keep up with the times. A cursory glance at their dress or an overheard snippet of a conversation reinforces this image; from the long gabardine coats and fur shtreimels of the men to the covered elbows, knees, and hair of the women these ultra-Orthodox Jews offer a sharp contrast to contemporary Israeli ideals.
Or do they? Have you ever considered that this is all a form of counterculture? A concept as modern as they come, not what you’d expect from the fervently religious.
At the heart of this counterculture is the continuity of the Yiddish language. This is particularly notable among the Hassidim - their use of Yiddish spanning generations, geography and resisting prejudice. Speaking Yiddish not only keeps the ultra-Orthodox connected to their rich heritage, it also keep them connected to each other. Most secular Jews speak the language of the country in which they live, and may have difficulty communicating with other secular Jews from other countries. In the ultra-Orthodox world, Yiddish is still the universal Jewish language of the Jews.
From Jerusalem to Antwerp, Brooklyn to Buenos Aires, these groups are able to stay connected through Yiddish.
So why do haredim speak Yiddish? The specific reasons for choosing to speak Yiddish may vary from sect to sect, or even from family to family. Maintaining a connection to Jewish life of the past is a way to keep some moral grounding in one’s sense of identity. This sentiment is important to ultra-Orthodox families across the board. In order to maintain this connection, living in isolation becomes necessary. This distance from those out of touch with their roots helps keep the ultra-Orthodox communities’ link with the past from being diluted by Jews who do not share their priorities.
The desire among Hassidim to project a sense of continuity regarding their sect’s geographic origins is honorable, yet cannot always be fulfilled. This is reflected in the names of sects, which are often names of the towns where the founding rebbe was born or lived. For example, the Satmars get their name from Satu Mare, a town now in Romania, or Chabad Lubavitch, which gets its name from Lubavitch in Russia.
For the Hassidim, from their name to the way they tie their shoes, the manner in which they shape their way of life links them to how their ancestors behaved. Yiddish binds all of these activities from Torah study to dinner table gossip and allows for a well-rounded way of life. It is Yiddish that allows for a sense of continuity among the Hassidim, a textbook case of language as a transmitter of culture.
However, it is crucial to be careful about how we construct the modern identity of Yiddish. It would be superficial to say that Yiddish is only for the ultra-Orthodox. Secular Israelis often lament that the discourse surrounding religion should be more modern.
Many fail to recognize the secular cultural history that haredim share with secular Ashkenazim in Israel. The discussion today is far too entrenched in politics to foster an understanding among secular Jews of how intertwined their story is with that of the haredim. The hostility between the two groups has caused a polarization of Israeli society. Unfortunately, this means that secular society is unlikely to accept Yiddish because the language has become such a de facto marker of political identity Yiddish is an unfortunate victim of all of the unbalanced dynamics at play in contemporary Israeli society. Not to say the ultra-Orthodox are without their faults, but when it comes to Yiddish and maintaining a connection to heritage, maybe we all have something to learn.
Yoni Eilat is a young Israeli performer, next week I will discuss his contributions to Yiddish creation in Israel.
Try it at Home: Kvetch in Yiddish Complaining is an important part of Yiddish life, here some words to help you to communicate your tsuris effectively.
Bubkes, an offensively small amount
Dreck, junk, garbage, crap
Oy vey iz mir, oh, woe is me!
Oy gevalt, oh goodness!
Nudnik, a pest, a nuisance
Sha, shut up!
And a few Yiddish curses for good measure…
Eyn umglik iz far im veynik, one misfortune is too few for him
Zayn mazl zol im layhtn vi di levone in sof khoydesh, his luck should be as bright as a new moon.
Me ois vaxen svi a tsibele miten cup in vant, you should grow like an onion with your head in the ground.