A Bisl Yiddish: Yiddish connecting Jews and Arabs

Yiddish holds a distinctly unique power, one that can bring people together-from Hasidim to non-Jews.

June 16, 2013 11:33
2 minute read.
Remnants of Yiddish life in Vilnius

A bisl Yiddish: a bisl what?. (photo credit: Chavi Moskowitz)


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Yiddish holds a distinctly unique power, one that can bring people together-from Hasidim to secular Jews to non-Jews intrigued by the rich culture and history surrounding the language. In Israel, Yiddish can even encourage interaction between two groups that are otherwise at odds in this holy land - Jews and Arabs.

How does the language of Old World Jewry connect Arabs and Jews in modern day Israel? Perhaps the more important question is: Why? The plight of Yiddish and its speakers is immediately intelligible to members of any group that has been oppressed or discriminated against throughout its history. The language is not just a means of communication. It is a preservation device that carries the stories of a people’s struggles to maintain its cultural identity in the face of great prejudice.

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Relating to Yiddish doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the language itself. The story and values that are associated with it may be enough to entice people. Yiddish carries those qualities central to traditional Jewish identity formation, qualities that perhaps aren't inherent to the Hebrew language or that it intentionally refutes; most prominently the Jew as the other.

The story of Yiddish is a universally relatable one- a David and Goliath-esque historical, cultural struggle. Perhaps for Arabs, particularly Arab Israelis, learning Yiddish is a way to find common ground with their Jewish Israeli counterparts.

At Bar Ilan University 25% of students enrolled in courses at the The Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies are Arab. This is unique to Bar Ilan, but this phenomenon, non-Jews taking a serious interest in Yiddish language and/or culture, is also seen in Poland, where Polish students taking Yiddish courses often outnumber the Jews. Arabs in Israel are perhaps able to connect with Yiddish in a way that Hebrew doesn't allow them.

It is in fact the story of Yiddish that tends to draw in Arab students, rather than the prospect of studying the particulars of the language, says Ber Kotlerman, Academic Director at The Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies. Ninety-six Arab students take courses in the department, only seven of whom study the Yiddish language. Some Arab students feel a connection to Yiddish because they have worked with Yiddish speakers, or have expressed interest in participating in the Yiddish theater program that Bar Ilan intends to build.

Kotlerman says that taking Yiddish has, in fact, less and less to do with ethnicity. It is just as likely that an Arab student or a Jewish student who is not Ashkenazi decides to take Yiddish as someone of Ashkenazi heritage.

Despite the fact that it is important to understand how Yiddish informs Ashkenazi identity, it is just as important for Yiddish as a language to be normalized within contemporary Israeli society. Choosing to take on the study of Yiddish, not for its link to heritage or Jewish identity, but for its qualities as a spoken language is a choice that helps to positively change the perception of Yiddish as a language, thus enabling it to live on - not only for the Jews but for everyone.

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