Yiddish and the desert might not seem to be a natural match.
images of Yiddish language and culture are of a pre-War Europe, where the
language was lingua franca for hundreds of thousands of Jews, a language of the
street and of literature, not just the language of the religious study houses
and the yeshivot.
Our popular images of the desert are dry, arid
landscapes, romantic notions of camels and Beduin encampments, and Arabic, as
befits the region within which we live.
So it is somewhat surprising that
the teaching of Yiddish language and culture has become a major component of the
language and literature programs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Together
with a an intensive program in the teaching of Ladino language and culture,
promoted by the Moshe David Gaon Research Center for Ladino Culture, the
university now teaches a unique combination of “Jewish” languages, reflecting
the diversity of the Jewish experience, from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi
Add to that an interest in the Arabic Jewish culture, most
recently brought to the fore by a doctoral student, Nabih Basheer of the Jewish
Philosophy Department and his preparation of the Kuzari (originally written in
Arabic but in Hebrew letters) in Arabic, and we have a unique combination of
diverse Jewish languages, past and present.
The past two decades have
witnessed a renaissance of Yiddish as a spoken language, but only among the
rapidly growing haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population.
In Mea She’arim,
Williamsburg and Stamford Hill, Yiddish has reverted to being the first language
for thousands of young children, at home, in the street and in schools and
yeshivot, to the extent that there are many children within the Hassidic
communities of New York and London who do not have a full or total grasp of the
English language, despite the fact that this is the native language of their
country of residence.
BUT THE Yiddish spoken within the haredi
communities is not the Yiddish of the street and the shtetl of pre-War Europe.
It is not a floury, literary Yiddish of Sholem Abramovitz (Mendele Mocher
Srorim), I.L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis-Singer – who received
the Nobel Prize for literature for his Yiddish stories. It is much more limited
in its repertoire. For the haredi speakers of Yiddish, it is language rather
than literature, and a functional means through which the world and religious
life are negotiated, rather than a form of artistic expression or
Bashevis-Singer was famous for his comment to the effect that
“for a language which has had so many eulogies, it remains remarkably alive.”
There was a period, some 20 or so years ago, when the language did appear as
though it was about to become extinct.
The remaining Yiddish speakers,
mostly first- and some second-generation refugees from Europe, were dying out,
Yiddish theater was on its last legs, and evenings dedicated to Yiddish culture
were becoming a source of nostalgia for the senior citizen population, rather
than a living and vibrant language of daily life.
Along with Tel Aviv
University and the Hebrew University, the development of Yiddish culture has
been awarded a cross-university three-year development grant by Yad Hanadiv (the
Rothschild Foundation) as part of an attempt to promote and reinvigorate those
areas within the Humanities which have been neglected during the past two
decades, some of which were in danger of disappearing altogether.
project will commence in the coming academic year, in October 2012, and will
involve the pooling of resources and cooperation among the three universities in
both research and teaching.
RECENT YEARS have witnessed a growth of
university students enrolling for basic Yiddish language courses, as well as
doctoral and postdoctoral students carrying out new research into Yiddish
culture and literature.
This renewed interest has not been limited to
Jerusalem, where one might expect there to be a greater interest in the Jewish
languages, but has spread to both Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion
As dean of a faculty where I often have to close down
courses which do not have enough students, I am happy to say that the Yiddish
language courses have been growing in popularity in recent years, even if there
is still much to be done to ensure they will continue to be offered on a
There was a time, back in the first two decades of the
state, when it was considered politically incorrect to promote foreign languages
in the public domain, not least of which was Yiddish – the language of decimated
But Israeli society has moved beyond this inferiority
complex, and while it is evidently proud of the way in which Hebrew has become
the spoken language of the Jewish state, there are no more hangups about
speaking other languages, or expressing alternative forms of Jewish cultural
identity other than that of the “new” Hebrew character.
On the contrary,
for a country which desires to be at the forefront of global developments,
knowledge of other languages – English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and
Arabic – have become a must for students, politicians and diplomats
Yiddish and Ladino have their own unique role to play in this
linguistic expansion. They are not, nor will they become, the languages of
business or diplomacy. But they remain the roots to understanding Jewish history
and culture over hundreds of years of Diaspora experience which were influential
in molding the Jewish world as we know it today.
In many senses, they
were global languages long before the concept of globalization was promoted by
contemporary sociologists and political theorists. They were languages which
crossed national and state borders, constituting the cement which held the
widely dispersed Jewish communities together as part of a single, distinct
Yiddish will never become the spoken language of the masses
again. But neither should it be allowed to go the way of other ancient semitic
languages, such as Aramaic or Sumerian.
In an era where higher education
is increasingly being evaluated for its profitability and managerial efficiency,
Yiddish may not be the biggest money-spinner for universities, but if we don’t
continue to preserve the Yiddish culture and heritage here in Israel, among
young students and researchers, then it is likely to disappear
altogether.The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben- Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.