A bisl Yiddish: Mamme-loshn in Israel

New JPost column explores the role of Yiddish in Israel, bringing you a weekly dose of Yiddishkayt.

partisans memorial (photo credit: wikicommons)
partisans memorial
(photo credit: wikicommons)
A trip to Israel seems to carry an implicit guarantee: an experience in the Holy Land of our forefathers will bring any Jew closer to Judaism—or at least, make them feel a little more connected to their fellow Jews.
In reality, this experience is much harder to come by without conforming to certain Israeli societal norms, which can stifle creative or different expressions of Judaism.
A great and perhaps lamentable irony of the Jewish homeland is its initial suppression of the inherent ethnic and cultural diversity of its population. A particularly noteworthy example of this can be seen in the treatment of Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture.
Yiddish language and culture flourished in the Pale of Settlement. A culture that portrayed the quintessential characteristics of Ashkenazic identity across mediums that were as varied as the personalities that participated. After the majority of these native speakers were murdered, Israel opened its arms to Europe’s surviving Ashkenazim- with one proviso: Leave the mamme-loshn behind. By abandoning Yiddish along with their difficult past in the Old Country, they could start fresh-- not as a Zhid or a Yid but as an Israeli Jew.
This new kind of Jew spoke Hebrew, naturally. Yiddish had no place in the new state of Israel. This is reflected in laws of the time that forbid Yiddish schools to be built, theater performances to be put on in Yiddish, and despite being legal, speaking Yiddish in general was frowned upon.
Fast-forward sixty years. To a certain extent, Yiddish is treated exactly as it had been sixty years prior. The reception that many young Israelis’ grandparents received in the country clearly resonated in that Yiddish has not been passed down. It is rare to encounter an Israeli in their 20s interested in Yiddish, aside from to share that their grandmother spoke the language.
It is those same young Israelis who proudly share that their grandmother spoke Yiddish who seem to disregard it the most. Gal Leshem, 24, whose bobie speaks Yiddish, says: "to me Yiddish is the language of the ultra-orthodox Jews. The ones who are so fanatic that they refuse to speak Hebrew in their day to day lives because it is heretical." He continues, "and I don't think that Yiddish is relevant to Israeli society. No one speaks it anymore." It is obvious that there is a separation between heritage and contemporary culture as his comment reflects the attitude towards Yiddish that most of his peers tend toward.
It is this disconnect between contemporary Israeli identity and heritage that is increasingly troubling. How can so many sit at a Shabes table with their Yiddish speaking grandparents and have no desire to know what they're saying-- to hear their stories in their native tongue. These young Israelis could be learning about their grandparents’ experience during the Holocaust. They could be hearing stories of their arrival in Israel in the language that they spoke at Shabes tables in Minsk or Krakow.
Israel has raised a generation of Jews more connected to the land of Israel than to where they came from. It has become the new unintentional suppressor of what was once the mother tongue of those who brought their lineage here, what was once the mother tongue of the majority of Jews in Israel. The fear of Yiddish taking the place of Hebrew resulted in extreme measures being taken to ensure this was not the case. Hebrew being overthrown by the mamme-loshn is no longer a concern. So why are people still so harsh towards Yiddish?
A Yiddish identity challenges the very foundation of an Israeli identity. Yiddish is funny-sounding, full of complaints and with the only words that can truly describe the Shoah. Hebrew is confident and allows to a certain extent to forget the past and speak objectively about who the Jews used to be. Hebrew defines contemporary Israeli identity and separates the Ashkenaz from their former selves. To disregard Yiddish as something of the past does a disservice to those that hold it as part of their heritage. Understanding heritage is the key to understanding the future of identity formation.
Last month a symposium was held at UNESCO in Paris in order to discuss the permanence of Yiddish. Next week I will focus on the most pertinent discussions presented during the symposium.
Try it at home: shmues in YiddishVi heystu, what's your name? Ikh heys Chavi, my name is Chavi Fun vanen kumstu, where are you from? Ikh bin fun New York, I am from New York Vu voynstu, where do you live? Ikh voyn in Tel Aviv, I live in Tel Aviv Vos (zhe) hert sikh, what's new, what's happening?           Responses: vos zol zikh hern, what should be happening?                               es is nito kin nayes, there is nothing new Nota bene: In Yiddish there are many ways to answer vos hert sikh, but you can always simply throw the question back!