Borderline Views: Studying Yiddish in the desert

Enrollment in basic Yiddish language courses, doctoral and postdoctoral students carrying out research into Yiddish is rising.

June 25, 2012 22:17

studying library man woman laptop 311. (photo credit: Stockbyte)


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Yiddish and the desert might not seem to be a natural match.

Our popular 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.

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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 heritages.

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 beauty.

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.

The 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 Universities.

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 long-term basis.

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 European Jewry.

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 alike.

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 entity.

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.

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