A bisl Yiddish: Printing in the mamme-loshn

Exploring the role of Yiddish in Israel to bring you a weekly dose of Yiddishkayt.

December 17, 2012 16:51
3 minute read.
Daniel Galay

Daniel Galay. (photo credit: Daniel Galay)


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Those who love Yiddish, particularly in the secular world, are often confronted with a question that seems perhaps redundant. But isn’t Yiddish a dead language? Yiddish is often equated to Latin for example, which is hardly the case.

It would be unlikely to see a revival of, say, Latin or another such language that is actually six feet under, aside from occasional groups of enthusiasts getting together to recreate a sense of what was. The difference with Yiddish is that it still lives; Yiddish has never ceased to be a living language despite the passing of many of its speakers. A revival of the Yiddish language has taken root from Buenos Aires to Manhattan to Paris, and even in Tel Aviv, Israel’s haven for secular Jews, Yiddish is making a comeback.

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But how do we know that? Daniel Galay chairman of Beit Leyvik in Tel Aviv, responds: “A new Yiddish book, or articles in Yiddish means that Yiddish is living, creating and reinterpreting. We have something to say. This is how we know Yiddish is making a comeback.”

Beit Leyvik, founded in the late 60s, serves as home of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists, the H. Leyvik Publishing house, in addition to a host of cultural activities for Yiddish speakers of all levels.

Galay says, “Our approach [at Beit Leyvik] is to embrace religion and secularity and acknowledge that they are both part of Yiddish identity and literature.” There is often a stigma attached to Yiddish by the secular society, calling it the language of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox). Beit Leyvik aims to debunk the misconception and feature all aspects of Yiddish literature and culture, from religious to secular and everything else in the spectrum.

Galay himself is a Yiddish writer and musician, raised in Argentina, and came to Israel as a young man. On moving to Israel he struggled to build a new life without giving up his language, Yiddish. Since being elected chairman of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in 2001, Galay has applied a new method in advocating for Yiddish specifically in Israel.

At Beit Leyvik, it's not just about classes and one-time activities, it is about building a community committed to both preserving Yiddish and projecting it into the future. Galay shares, “We want to pass on the desire to develop Yiddish; here students become active and help to create new Yiddish institutions.”

Part of this is developing and safeguarding the interests of Yiddish writers. Several Yiddish books are published in-house every year, from poetry to stories to plays. Continuing this tradition of publishing texts, which do not cater to the religious community, is an invaluable contribution to the continuation of Yiddish within a secular context.

Contemporary publications in Yiddish are proof that the language is still alive today, but what about 10 or 15 years down the road? Galay says, “This is an open question, but we are fighting for that, teaching the language and encouraging young talent. Everyone says Yiddish is a treasure; we say we must not only preserve it but develop it because Ashkenaz identity is part of Israeli society.”

When the mainstream starts to understand how much Ashkenaz identity has contributed to the development of their own Israeli identities, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi or otherwise, perhaps it will become evident that Yiddish literature is relevant. Or perhaps not, only time will tell.

The Haredi community does in fact understand the contributions of their Ashkenaz heritage to their sense of identity. Next week I will take a look into Haredi Yiddish and why the language is so important in ultra-Orthodox communities.

Try it at home: gut yontiff, happy holidays!
Hanukka may have just ended, but it’s never too late to add some Yiddish to the holiday season!

A freylekhn, likhtikn khanike, happy Hanukka!
Tzindn di khanike likht, to light the Hanukka candles
Zingen lider, to sing songs
Mit dreydlech shpiln mir, we play dreidel
Men est oyf beyder bakn, to stuff your face

Nota bene: Music is an integral part of Yiddish culture. Chiribim is a classic Yiddish song for Hanukka as well as all year round.

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