A bisl Yiddish: A bisl what?
New JPost column explores the role of Yiddish in Israel, bringing you a weekly dose of Yiddishkayt.
Remnants of Yiddish life in Vilnius Photo: Chavi Moskowitz
I spent the better part of last summer in Vilnius, Lithuania, often called Vilna by those who know it well, and an encounter with the president of the
small but resilient Jewish community that makes its home there made a lasting
impact. Dr Simon Alperavicius was born and raised in Vilna, a lawyer by
profession, and a man too humble to boast of the unending achievements he has
reached in assisting the Jewish community there. He then leaned forward to share
his story of hardship, escaping to Russia during the war, and returning to his
beloved Vilna to find everything familiar destroyed.
He was then asked why he
didn’t leave for Israel after the war, or after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Why does he stay in a place where anti-Semitism still runs rampant and Jews are
treated as second-class citizens? Alperavicius answered that he could go to
Israel, but then he would just be an old Jew playing cards on the beach. His
response revealed his dedication to passing the torch to the next generation of
Ashkenazim in Vilna. He felt he had important work to do in the community- from sharing his stories of the city’s vibrant Jewish past to teaching young
people what it means to be a Jew- in Yiddish, of course.
So, what is
Yiddish? To many it is known as the language their grandparents spoke when they
didn’t want the children to understand. Over time, many funny-sounding words
have been lovingly adopted from Yiddish into the English language, particularly
in the United States, where Oy!, schlep, and meshugene are uttered by Jews and
It is still unclear precisely where and when Yiddish came
about, but most scholars agree that the earliest roots can be traced to Germany,
which is where the first Ashkenaz are believed to have made their home. Ashkenaz
historically referred to an area in Germany, and the Jews that lived there were
Ashkenazim. Yiddish quickly became their universal language, and throughout
modern history, Yiddish has been the language of the Jews much more so than
It was during the medieval period that the heart of Yiddish
culture began to make its home in the East. The ‘Ashkenaz’ of Germany began to
move eastward, and consequently the word ‘Ashkenaz’ adapted to describe a people
or an imaginary space as it were, rather than a specific place. The Yiddish
language stands as a metaphor of the Jewish experience in Europe. It is an
amalgamation of components of the languages that the Ashkenazim came into
contact with; their movements from western to Eastern Europe can be identified
as the smattering of Slavisms in the eastern variations of the
In discussions of modern Jewish history, the Holocaust and the
creation of the State of Israel tend to be the focus. Although this makes sense
to a degree, it has contributed to a growing tendency to ignore the rich culture
and history that was murdered along with the Jews of Europe. There is much
dialogue about what it means to be Israeli and its significance, the Hebrew
language and one's identity as a Jew in Israel, but what about all that was
lost? Who were our grandparents and great-grandparents before they were Israeli?
That which fails to be mentioned is our heritage, a Jewish identity vastly
different from that of most modern-day Israelis’ sense of self. We spend a lot
of time focusing on the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe and the
creation of a new Jewish state and identity in Israel, and proportionally little
time learning about what it meant to be a Jew less than 100 years ago. Yet this,
is what defined the history of the Ashkenazim for far longer than where we are
Yes, many Israelis make pilgrimage in their youth to Poland, and
before leaving might learn a bit about Yiddish and pre-war social dynamics in
school. But is that really enough? If Yiddish is to continue as a language of
the Jewish people, we need to start talking about it, not as what used to be,
but as what is.
When I was in Vilna, I was able to fully understand how
lucky we are to have a Jewish state. A place where their religion doesn't
prevent Jews from being employed in certain field or hold them back from
fulfilling their dreams. In Vilna having a job at the Jewish Community Center on
your resume will make future employers wary and potentially loathe to hire you.
However, at the same time in Vilna, some young Jews speak Yiddish to their
children and make a conscious effort not to forget the past and ensure that
future generations understand fully their Jewish identity.
Israel has made me nostalgic for Vilna, as it would appear the transition from
Jewish melting pot to salad bowl is easier said than done. Yiddish for many of
us is the language of our grandparents, of our history and many here seem far
too comfortable to rest on the strong sense of Israeli identity instilled in
them. Being free to be Jewish without consequence is one of the greatest things
afforded to those of us living in a Jewish state. So, why not feel free to
explore your unique Jewish ethnicity and take interest in those languages that
are quickly withering away.
With this column I intend to explore
Yiddish's rich, yet hidden, presence in Israel today. I will deliver news on the
most important Yiddish happenings such as the relaunch of the National Authority
of Yiddish in Israel and the UNESCO conference 'Permanence du Yiddish' as well
bringing as an inside look at the people and organizations keeping Yiddish alive
in Israel today. In next week's column... I will take a look where Yiddish
stands among the younger generation in Israel today.
Try it at home: di
yidishe grusn, yiddish greetings
Sholem aleikhem, hello
A gut morgn, good morning
A gutn ovnt, good evening
A gute nakht, good
Response: a gut yor, have a good year!
Nota bene: Any Yiddish greeting
starting with a gut, or simply gut, can be responded to with a gut yor! In
Yiddish you always want to wish someone better than they did you!
Zay gezunt, good bye