In his superb study of Yiddish, Words on Fire, Professor Dovid Katz tells of an incident that troubles me. The Israeli government hosted a reception in the early years of the Jewish state for Rozka Korczak, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto who organized partisan units in the forests to fight the Germans. Korczak, according to Katz’s account, was one of the first partisans in the nascent Jewish state to speak about her experiences and her heroism in the Shoah.
At the reception, she told her story in Yiddish.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, became visibly upset as the survivor told her tale. Eventually and abruptly, he stormed out of the reception, claiming – in Hebrew – “the language grates on my ears.”
Yiddish was Ben-Gurion’s first language, as it was for every Israeli leader at that reception. Zionists had even published exhortations in Yiddish to convince young Jews in Eastern Europe to join the movement and make aliya.
At first glance, the prime minister’s behavior was insulting and reprehensible and beyond comprehension. Millions of Yiddish speakers had just been murdered and thrown into mass graves. Stalin was destroying Yiddish language and culture in the post-war Soviet Union. Ben-Gurion offended a Jewish hero who had an important story to tell, in any language.
The story Katz tells about Yiddish in prestate Palestine and in Israel does not end there. Groups arose in the 1920s in Tel Aviv that were committed to repressing any attempts by olim from the Pale of Settlement to speak in Yiddish or conduct any activities in the language. The Battalion of the Defenders of the Language used “hooligan tactics” to interrupt lectures in Yiddish and to close down the offices of Yiddish publications. Even the great Hebrew poet of the Zionist renaissance, Chaim Nahman Bialik, could not escape the wrath of Hebrew zealots who excoriated him for speaking in his mother tongue to fellow Jews from the “old country.”
After statehood was declared, the Israeli government tried to muzzle Yiddish newspapers.
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem had no chair in Yiddish literature for its first 25 years. This obsession with the first language of many of the immigrants reveals not only disdain but great fear. Zionists were afraid of the “momme lashen.”
While there is something unsavory and very intolerant about the Zionist movement’s assault on Yiddish, I would argue that it was, in some ways, necessary. Those readers of this essay who look at “the jargon” through the lens of our own epoch – who pity Yiddish because it was being picked on by those nasty Zionists – are actually doing Yiddish a great disservice and also distorting the reality of the Jewish “language wars” of a century ago. We must put out of our minds, at least for a moment, the Nazi mass murder of Yiddish speakers, Stalin’s war on Yiddish and his execution in August 1952 of many of the luminaries of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union, and the failure of immigrants to America to teach their children Mendele or Peretz in the original.
We must also push aside the nostalgia that older Jews have for New York’s lively Yiddish theater and the embrace of kitsch by children of the immigrants epitomized by Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In fact, the Zionist founders had much regarding Yiddish about which to be concerned.
Yiddish was not a “jargon” or a “dialect” – it was a powerhouse that could have undermined the Zionist project. We should not pity Yiddish. Let us explore the reality of a vibrant and vital language that sustained a civilization for over a millennium. Let us dispense with misplaced sentimentality.
It has taken me a long time to respect Yiddish. For many years I only had disdain for “the language of Exile.” I am a product of Religious Zionism and its B’nei Akiva youth movement. For the good and the bad, this education has shaped my worldview.
Like Ben-Gurion, I have found that not only Yiddish but Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew is loathsome to hear and a corruption of all that I hold dear. I am not proud of this bias – it is my reality. Nevertheless, I began to recognize the vitality and rage of Yiddish literature while a student in college almost 30 years ago.
My introduction to the world of Yiddish literature was Professor David Roskies’ compelling study of modern Jewish literary responses to persecution, Against the Apocalypse. This study, published in 1984, transformed my understanding of “the jargon.” While Roskies discusses many writers in his analysis, two figures stand out for me and I find them both compelling: the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and the writer of short stories and essays Lamed Shapiro. Greenberg’s Yiddish classic “Uri Zvi in Front of the Cross” is a poem that is audacious, defiant and courageous. Composed originally in the form of a cross, it presages the prophetic impulse and the testimony of the witness to history and destiny that suffuse Greenberg’s work in Hebrew. As for Shapiro, the protagonist of his story “The Cross” is mad, damned and unknown, bearing a survivor’s scar that converts a luftmensch into a man forced to deal with a world deadly to Jews. No – this is not Zero Mostel’s Tevye by any stretch of the imagination.
Professor Ruth Wisse has persuasively made the case for a modern Jewish literary canon. Modern Yiddish literature reflects the concerns of modern Hebrew literature and modern Russian literature. Peretz’s “Bonshe” is not presented sympathetically as an example of folk piety in the shtetl but as a silent Jew who lacks the imagination to strive for something more than breakfast.
The protagonist in Mendele’s “The Nag” is gripped by the insanity of a man torn between two worlds.
These stories were not meant to comfort.
They were meant to confront. They were meant to criticize. They were meant to transform a world that was ossified and atrophying. I hear in Yiddish literature the voice of Hazaz’s Yudka and Babel’s Lyutov and Kafka’s Ape. In Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and German – all are damning condemnations of the Jewish condition. Not nostalgia or kitsch.
One hundred years ago, Zionism was on the defensive. The movement was in the minority, challenged by Yiddish secularists of the Bund and the Yiddish speakers of the Hassidic world. We forget that Zionism was a movement of a small minority until its early adherents and thinkers proved to be prophets in the aftermath of the Shoah. The Zionists struggled with the reality of a mass movement that did not speak the language of the Jewish masses.
Zionists struggled with the claim to Jewish authenticity.
The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in a Jewish state was criticized by Zionism’s opponents as the reactionary dream of intellectuals and elitists. It is not that Zionism – or the rabbinic Judaism of Yavneh – won by default as “the last man standing” in the Jewish struggle to chart the future destiny of our people. Zionism triumphed on its own merits. But Yiddish is not the language of Jewish history’s “losers.”
It is the authentic Jewish voice of an authentic Jewish civilization. Better to have despised Yiddish as an authentic and serious challenger, than to pity its decline or drown it in nostalgia.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.