A trip to Israel seems to carry an implicit guarantee: an experience in the Holy
Land of our forefathers will bring any Jew closer to Judaism—or at least, make
them feel a little more connected to their fellow Jews.
In reality, this experience is much harder to come by without conforming to certain
Israeli societal norms, which can stifle creative or different expressions of
A great and perhaps lamentable irony of the Jewish homeland is
its initial suppression of the inherent ethnic and cultural diversity of its
population. A particularly noteworthy example of this can be seen in the
treatment of Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture.
Yiddish language and culture
flourished in the Pale of Settlement. A culture that portrayed the quintessential
characteristics of Ashkenazic identity across mediums that were as varied as the
personalities that participated. After the majority of these native speakers
were murdered, Israel opened its arms to Europe’s surviving Ashkenazim- with one
proviso: Leave the mamme-loshn behind. By abandoning Yiddish along with their
difficult past in the Old Country, they could start fresh-- not as a Zhid or a
Yid but as an Israeli Jew.
This new kind of Jew spoke Hebrew, naturally.
Yiddish had no place in the new state of Israel. This is reflected in laws of
the time that forbid Yiddish schools to be built, theater performances to be put
on in Yiddish, and despite being legal, speaking Yiddish in general was frowned
Fast-forward sixty years. To a certain extent, Yiddish is treated
exactly as it had been sixty years prior. The reception that many young
Israelis’ grandparents received in the country clearly resonated in that Yiddish
has not been passed down. It is rare to encounter an Israeli in their 20s
interested in Yiddish, aside from to share that their grandmother spoke the
It is those same young Israelis who proudly share that their
grandmother spoke Yiddish who seem to disregard it the most. Gal Leshem, 24,
whose bobie speaks Yiddish, says: "to me Yiddish is the language of the
ultra-orthodox Jews. The ones who are so fanatic that they refuse to speak
Hebrew in their day to day lives because it is heretical." He continues, "and I
don't think that Yiddish is relevant to Israeli society. No one speaks it
anymore." It is obvious that there is a separation between heritage and
contemporary culture as his comment reflects the attitude towards Yiddish that
most of his peers tend toward.
It is this disconnect between contemporary
Israeli identity and heritage that is increasingly troubling. How can so many
sit at a Shabes table with their Yiddish speaking grandparents and have no
desire to know what they're saying-- to hear their stories in their native
tongue. These young Israelis could be learning about their grandparents’
experience during the Holocaust. They could be hearing stories of their arrival
in Israel in the language that they spoke at Shabes tables in Minsk or
Israel has raised a generation of Jews more connected to the land
of Israel than to where they came from. It has become the new unintentional
suppressor of what was once the mother tongue of those who brought their
lineage here, what was once the mother tongue of the majority of Jews in Israel.
The fear of Yiddish taking the place of Hebrew resulted in extreme measures
being taken to ensure this was not the case. Hebrew being overthrown by the
mamme-loshn is no longer a concern. So why are people still so harsh towards
A Yiddish identity challenges the very foundation of an Israeli
identity. Yiddish is funny-sounding, full of complaints and with the only words
that can truly describe the Shoah. Hebrew is confident and allows to a certain
extent to forget the past and speak objectively about who the Jews used to be.
Hebrew defines contemporary Israeli identity and separates the Ashkenaz from
their former selves. To disregard Yiddish as something of the past does a
disservice to those that hold it as part of their heritage. Understanding
heritage is the key to understanding the future of identity
Last month a symposium was held at UNESCO in Paris in order to
discuss the permanence of Yiddish. Next week I will focus on the most pertinent
discussions presented during the symposium.
Try it at home: shmues in Yiddish
Vi heystu, what's your name?
Ikh heys Chavi, my name is Chavi
vanen kumstu, where are you from?
Ikh bin fun New York, I am from New York
voynstu, where do you live?
Ikh voyn in Tel Aviv, I live in Tel Aviv
hert sikh, what's new, what's happening?
Responses: vos zol zikh hern, what
should be happening?
es is nito kin nayes, there is nothing new
Nota bene: In
Yiddish there are many ways to answer vos hert sikh, but you can always simply
throw the question back!