Tel Aviv’s Central Station is hardly the place you’d expect to find a Yiddish
revival. Possibly the largest bus station in the world, it is also a multistory,
multicultural bazaar teeming with all the languages of humanity. Here you’re
just as likely to hear Mandarin, Russian or Tagalog as Hebrew. But surely not
Yiddish – right? Well, wrong actually. It is precisely here, in Tel Aviv’s bus
station of Babel, where you can find – excuse the mixed metaphor – an oasis of
Tucked away on the fifth floor, past the “Only Love”
Filipino dating agency and a dingy employment office promising factory jobs in
Ukraine, is the Living Yiddish Museum and Library.
Walk through its door
and the din and chaos of the bus station fade away. Strident shouts of shwarma
sellers and the tinny beats of bubblegum pop are replaced by the melodic tones
of klezmer. Before you is a vast hall filled from floor to ceiling with tens of
thousands of books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts, journals, festschrifts,
periodicals – everything from weighty philosophical tomes debating the meaning
of life to titillating pulp fiction tales about buxom Jewish
“There’s a life-force in these books,” says Mendy Cahan, a
Belgian immigrant and Tel Aviv resident who constructed the museum and library
volume by volume.
Energetic and smiling with piercing blue eyes, Cahan –
who grew up speaking Yiddish on the streets of Antwerp – is passionate about the
(mother tongue): so much so that in 1993 he founded YUNG YiDiSH, a
nonprofit that preserves and spreads Yiddish culture in Tel Aviv and in
“I decided to make a simple gesture to rescue Yiddish in
Israel,” recalls Cahan. “I asked people, if you have Yiddish books that you
don’t want, please give them to me. I’ll take them.”
gesture” turned into a wide-scale rescue operation spanning the length and
breadth of Israel. So far, he has collected over 40,000 Yiddish books from
private homes, institutions, and libraries. He has even rescued them from trash
cans and garbage dumps. Cahan points out a set of 30 handwritten manuscripts of
Yiddish jokes, dating between 1968 and 1972 – author unknown.
glad I rescued these,” he says.
IS THIS just an amusing anomaly – a
“living museum” for a dying language in the most multicultural spot in Tel Aviv?
Not at all: After following the trail of Yiddish in Israel, Metro
that the formerly reviled and banned language is alive and well and living in
Tel Aviv – just perhaps not where you’d expect.
It seems an odd concept,
searching for Yiddish in the Jewish state. After all, Jews have spoken Yiddish
for 1,000 years, starting in the 10th century, when they settled in Germany’s
Rhineland. As they migrated East, Yiddish traveled with them and – like a
snowball picking up debris from its path – collected words and syntax from
wherever its speakers settled.
In fact, the history of this incredible
language – its ancient roots, its cosmopolitan vocabulary, its cultural
richness, its near-extinction and yet refusal to give up – is in many ways the
story of the Jewish people themselves.
“On the eve of the Holocaust,
around 67 percent of world Jewry spoke Yiddish,” says Dr. Rachel Rojanski, an
associate professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University. In the five years
that followed, the thriving lingua franca of around 11 million Jews was almost
There is no official agreement about the worldwide number of
Yiddish speakers today, but recent estimates of around two million stand in
stark contrast to the prewar figures, a chilling testimony to the almost total
annihilation of Europe’s Jews in the Shoah.
The founding of the State of
Israel in 1948 secured Hebrew as the new Jewish lingua franca. In contrast to
Yiddish, the vernacular of the Eastern European shtetl, Hebrew was the language
of the tough new Jewish man and woman, the brave soldiers of the IDF, the
glorious pioneers who built a new Hebrew city on the sands outside
Fearing that Yiddish would damage the fledgling status of Hebrew,
overnight the mameloshen became an outlaw. Theater performances and newspapers
in the language were banned. “Yehudi, Daber Ivrit
!” (Jew, speak Hebrew!)
exhorted placards carried by special “language defense” patrols.
a deliberate program to belittle Yiddish,” says Mendy Cahan.
ensuing linguistic battle, Hebrew emerged triumphant. Yiddish was marginalized
and all but disappeared from the Israeli cultural scene. Today, just three
percent of Israel’s Jews – about 215,000 people, most of them haredim – speak
For decades, Yiddish was decidedly uncool. Few Israelis bothered
with it. After all, why bother studying a “dying” language? “The attitude used
to be that there was simply no point in learning Yiddish,” says Rojanski. “After
all, what would you do with it?” In today’s Tel Aviv, it seems as if this
hard-line attitude is changing fast, but why? “It’s becoming hip to learn
Avraham Novershtern, director of Yiddish cultural center
Beit Shalom Aleichem on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Berkowitz, tells me. “People are
curious enough about it to take courses.”
In fact, Beit Shalom Aleichem
has seen a big growth in the number of students taking part in its Yiddish
courses, from 80 a decade ago to 300 today.
“Partly it’s because of a
different approach to the idea of what is Israeli or modern Jewish culture,”
says Novershtern, but he adds that there are other reasons too, including a
worldwide trend towards multiculturalism.
“Israelis feel more comfortable
about Yiddish today because they feel comfortable about multiculturalism,” he
NOWHERE IN Israel is more multicultural than Tel Aviv, the Jewish
state’s multiracial melting pot. This cosmopolitan atmosphere, says Novershtern,
is the reason why Beit Shalom Aleichem and Tel Aviv University chose Tel Aviv to
host the annual Yiddish Summer Program, a month-long intensive course that
attracts a diverse range of students from all over the world.
is the perfect place for Yiddish. It’s multicultural, it has a cosmopolitan
touch, an acceptance of diversity,” Novershtern explains.
Over a hundred
students, mostly Israelis, took part in this year’s International Yiddish Summer
Program. What motivated them to spend the sweltering Tel Aviv summer in a
classroom learning a supposedly dying language? Actress Hadas Kalderon says she
has personal reasons for signing up for a summer of Yiddish. The granddaughter
of the late acclaimed Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever, she wanted to know more
about her roots and culture.
“My grandfather wrote only in Yiddish,” says
Kalderon. “I wanted to understand his poems, so I signed up to learn the
Does Kalderon believe it’s important for young Israelis to
learn Yiddish? “Yes. It’s the history of the Jewish people,” she replies. “It’s
all there, everything about our culture, our roots, our literature, but we can’t
read it. We are the third and fourth generation of survivors and now we have the
possibility to learn, to return to our roots.”
A return to our roots it
may be, but the revived interest in Yiddish cannot be dismissed as simple
nostalgia for a lost past.
According to young novelist Lilach Nethanel –
one of Kalderon’s fellow students on the Summer Program – Israeli writers, poets
and translators have started seeking out Yiddish as a new, meaningful form of
“Yiddish is part of Hebrew culture,” Nethanel
says. “The great works of Hebrew literature were written by people – like Agnon,
Y.L. Peretz, Bialik, Brenner – who knew Yiddish as well as Hebrew. So now we are
returning to a multilingual past.”
In the past, Israelis feared that
speaking Yiddish meant that Hebrew culture was weak.
Today, it’s a sign
that it has actually matured and become stronger, sure of itself.
can turn the page of the Hebrew book and see that the other side is written in
Yiddish,” adds Nethanel.
So is Yiddish a part of Hebrew culture? Yes,
says composer and pianist Daniel Galay. As chairman of Leyvik House – the
Israeli Center for Yiddish Culture and the Association of Yiddish Writers and
Journalists – Galay has been promoting Yiddish and Ashkenazi identity since his
aliya from Argentina in 1965. He is passionate proponent of the idea that
Yiddish is a contemporary force in Hebrew culture born of a sea change in
Israeli attitudes to their identity.
“The younger generation has
undergone a change in outlook about Yiddish,” he says.
possible to be both Ashkenazi and Israeli. Before, you couldn’t do
Does Galay think it surprising that the Hebrew city is the scene
of a Yiddish revival? Hardly. “Tel Aviv is the avant-garde of Yiddish,” he says
with some pride.
If more proof is needed of Yiddish’s multicultural
nature, look no further than Leyvik House’s Kindervelt (Children’s World)
Run by Daniel Galay’s son Asaf and his daughter- in-law, Hannah
Pollin Galay, Kindervelt offers a rich program of Yiddish language and culture
to third-graders at Tel Nordau elementary school.
Three years ago, in an
attempt to open up Yiddish to the wider community, Pollin Galay decided to
approach Tel Nordau, “an incredibly diverse local community
Kindervelt began as an after-school class, but gained momentum
“It was so popular that the principal said ‘Why not teach the whole
grade?’” recalls Pollin Galay, who learned Yiddish at college in the US and on a
Fulbright Scholarship to Lithuania.
WHAT’S ASTONISHING about Kindervelt
is its wide appeal: Tel Aviv children from vastly different family backgrounds
and cultures have signed up to learn Yiddish, perform Yiddish theater and make
“Filipino kids, Arab kids, Russian kids from mixed
backgrounds choose Yiddish,” says Pollin Galay. “Yiddish is for
If it’s multiculturalism you’re after, then why Yiddish and
not teach, say, Esperanto? “Israeli kids like Yiddish because it uses ‘their’
Hebrew alphabet. It’s both new and familiar, so kids can grasp it easily,”
explains Pollin Galay. “Also, Yiddish was the elephant in the room of Israeli
society for so long, that big part of our culture that nobody talked about. It’s
passed on as an enthralling secret – and kids love that.”
If Yiddish is
an enthralling secret, it’s certainly one that more and more ordinary Tel
Avivians want to talk about. No longer the preserve of a tiny group of highbrow
“Yiddishists,” the mameloshen is being coopted by regular people and woven into
the fabric of regular Hebrew culture.
Take Tel Aviv’s Yiddishspiel
Theater, for example, which exhorts audiences to “Listen in Yiddish, laugh in
Hebrew!” as they enjoy performances of plays like Paul Fox’s sidesplitting
comedy How to be a Jewish Mother in 10 Lessons
and The Megillah
, a musical based
on the poems of Itzhak Manger.
It’s only fitting that Yiddishspiel is
located on Rehov Bialik, a street at the heart of the White City named for Chaim
Nachman Bialik, Israel’s beloved pioneer of Hebrew language poetry.
Yonatan Rozen is part of the Yiddishspiel troupe. Although he regularly performs
plays in Yiddish – and has won awards for his performances – he admits that when
he first auditioned for the theater, he did not know the language.
parents spoke Hebrew,” he explains.
“My grandparents came from Poland, so
I knew a few words from them. But that was basically it.”
not about nostalgia or retro chic. Rozen is adamant that he and his fellow
actors are bringing something new, modern and Israeli to Yiddish.
not talking about the past, but about sucthe present,” he says. “When I speak
Yiddish at the theater, when I sing Yiddish songs, I add my own interpretation.
I want to give them new expression.”
How times have changed. Things were
not always so easy for Yiddish theater. In 1950, the officious-sounding Council
for the Control of Films and Plays decreed an outright ban on performances in
the language, except “by overseas troupes and in immigrant camps.” Going to a
Yiddish play in Tel Aviv was less an evening of old-world culture, more an
Tel Aviv’s theatergoers are not the only ones
discovering that Yiddish has a cool factor.
With classic hutzpa, the
mameloshen is also elbowing its way into Tel Aviv’s nightclub scene. Heavy metal
band Gevolt, for example, is gaining a following for its reinventions of
traditional Yiddish songs.
By adding heavy metal rhythms, acid electronic
beats and a topping of klezmer to traditional Yiddish ballads, drummer Vadim
Weinstein, bassist Mark Lekhovitser, guitarist Michael Gimmervert, keyboardist
Dmitry Lifshitz, violinist Eva Iframov and singer Anatoly Bondar have jolted the
“dying language” back to life for Tel Aviv’s metalistim.
beginning, it was sort of an absurd joke,” Bondar explains when I ask him why
the band chose to sing in Yiddish. “Then we started to see that Yiddish is a
bridge between the different generations. Grandmothers could listen to our music
as well as their kids.”
Bondar, who adds that his family did not speak
Yiddish at home, learned the language mostly from the Internet. “And, baruch
, there are still people alive who can speak it.”
repertoire includes “Zog Nit Keynmol
, Az Du Geyst Dem Letstn Veg
” (Never Say
You’re On the Last Road), the anthem of the Jewish partisans in the Vilna
Composed by Hirsch Glick, a young Yiddish poet, Zog Nit Keynmol
became a powerful symbol of Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany.
chose these old songs because we want to give them a new flavor,” explains
“And to make today’s youth aware of them.”
In 1944, Glick
escaped the Vilna Ghetto, but was never heard from again. It is presumed he was
brutally murdered by Nazi soldiers.
That a new generation of Tel Aviv
club kids is singing his song is a powerful tribute to the memory of this brave
Bondar says it’s for reasons like this that it is important
for young Israelis to know Yiddish.
“Not so much the language,” he adds.
“But the culture, yes. It’s part of Jewish culture, and we’re forgetting it.
It’s important for the future that we remember.”
It is impossible to
predict what the future holds for Yiddish. Hannah Pollin Galay believes Yiddish
is here to stay, not as a vernacular but as a cultural medium.
not going to use it in our daily lives, to communicate, but there is so much
that is valuable in the language, so much that is part of Jewish and Israeli
identity,” she says.
“Yiddish is everywhere in Tel Aviv. If your ear is
attuned to it, you will find it.”
After all, it’s only fitting that the
Hebrew city continues to be the avant-garde of Israel’s Yiddish revival. Just as
the mameloshen itself became rich by absorbing the idioms of many languages, so
Tel Aviv is a place where cultures converge, fuse and are transmuted into
something new and modern, but undeniably Jewish.For more information
about: YUNG YiDiSH: www.yiddish.co.il Leyvik House Center for Yiddish Culture:
www.leyvik.org.il Yiddishspiel Theater: www.yiddishpiel.co.il/ Tel Aviv Yiddish
Summer Program: http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/yiddish/summer- index.eng.html