Saving Yiddish

Shmulik Atzmon is a driving force behind keeping the language alive, but he believes the state should do more to help.

unesco (photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
(photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
Some might argue that we are what we eat, but our early cultural and social backdrop tends to have a lasting bearing on our behavior and choices throughout our life, whether we like it or not.
Shmulik Atzmon discovered a long time ago there was no escaping his formative childhood cultural baggage, and now he is one of the driving forces behind keeping Yiddish and its cultural hinterland alive and kicking, here and around the world.
Now a sprightly octogenarian, Atzmon’s efforts recently received a substantial boost at a symposium on the permanence of Yiddish, both as a language and a culture, organized by Bnai Brith and held under the auspices of UNESCO at its Paris headquarters, and which Atzmon attended. The two-day gathering was also graced by UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, who said that Yiddish “stands at the heart of Judaism’s unique social and cultural identity and history in Europe.” Bokova also noted that that the survival of the Yiddish language “was threatened by the Holocaust and Yiddish is listed, today, on UNESCO’s atlas of endangered languages.”
BOKOVA’S OBSERVATION that “the vibrancy of Yiddish can never be in doubt” is certainly a sentiment with which Atzmon wholeheartedly agrees, even though as a young man he did his utmost to abnegate his own links with Yiddish.
“I don’t know whether I would call myself ‘a Yiddish denier,’” he says, “but when I came on aliya [from Poland in 1948] I did my best not to stand out, I wanted to be a Sabra.”
He certainly had the prerequisite educational upbringing for blending in here.
“We lived in a small Polish town called Bilgoraj where, by the way, Isaac Bashevis Singer lived as a youngster. I studied Hebrew until the age of nine. My father was a bank manager and he was the chairman of the local branch of the Zionist movement, and he built the Yavneh School there so that his only son would know Hebrew. My Hebrew was completely fluent even before I came to Palestine.”
In fact, his knowledge of Hebrew, and its roots, was almost too good.
“I was in the Palyam [naval arm of the Palmah], and one day I got to a tent camp and I greeted the others with the words ‘tzafra tava’ [‘good morning’ in Aramaic], they looked at me with a blank expression.
‘What did you say?’ they asked me, and I said: ‘I said shalom.’ ‘So, say shalom,’ they said. And there were all kinds of other expressions I used which, for them, were sort of fancy and antiquated.
I realized that, in order to fit in, I had to downgrade my spoken Hebrew.”
Atzmon maintained his Sabra persona, and consigned his background in Yiddish to his personal boidem (storage space), for another year or so.
“When my parents made it to Israel I spoke to them in Yiddish, but only at home with the windows closed, so the neighbors wouldn’t hear,” Atzmon recalls.
But, Zionist fervor notwithstanding, Atzmon’s father inculcated his son with the importance of maintaining the Yiddish language and culture at an early age.
“We spent part of World War II in Siberia.
We had no electricity and candles were a rare and precious commodity,” Atzmon recalls. “When we couldn’t spare the candlelight my father would tell me stories, and he’d use a candle to teach me Yiddish and Hebrew. One day I told him I didn’t want to learn Hebrew anymore and that I wanted to learn German, because it was the language of the enemy. But he told me I had to know Hebrew because we were going to live in Palestine. Then I asked him what I needed Yiddish for and he said: ‘You have to know Yiddish so that you never forget you are a Jew.’ That has stayed with me.”
AS HIS parents settled into the nascent Jewish state, Atzmon renewed his links with both the language and culture of his earlier years, and he has remained one their staunchest stalwarts for over six decades.
Over the past 20 years or so the culture of Israelis with roots in Arab countries has come increasingly to the fore. This cultural turnaround, many claim, goes some way to amending the discrimination practiced by the Israeli establishment during the first decades of the state in favor of Ashkenazi cultural endeavor. Atzmon doesn’t buy that.
“No one can tell me that Sephardi culture was considered inferior here,” he declares. “My father’s brother married an Iraqi Jew 60 years ago, and my father was delighted about it. He said that was living proof of the cultural ingathering of Jews from all ethnic backgrounds. My daughter married a Moroccan 18 years ago. It is true that are differences [between Ashkenazim and Sephardim] in terms of culture and knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that we [Ashkenazim] repress Sephardim.”
In fact, Atzmon points that it was Yiddish culture that was repressed in the early years of the state.
“Ben-Gurion was against Yiddish. It was prohibited to put on theatrical productions in Yiddish. I have copies of notices of fines we received from the police for performing in Yiddish. I have a copy of a letter from the Interior Ministry, from 1951, telling us it was prohibited to perform Shnei Kuni Lemel [which later became a highly successful movie, with Mike Burstyn in his breakthrough starring role] in Yiddish.”
At the time, there was also a tax on productions in foreign languages, as part of the government’s efforts to consolidate Hebrew as the official language of Israel, and Yiddish was included in that category.
But Atzmon has put all that behind him. In 1988 he founded the Yiddishpiel Theater company, which he has headed ever since. He also teaches Yiddish at Bar- Ilan University.
ATZMON FEELS the powers that be could do a lot more to support his case, although he eventually got some help from official quarters with his trip to Paris.
“No one bothered telling me that the UNESCO symposium was taking place. I found out by chance and I immediately called one of the organizers and told him about Yiddishpiel, which has been going for over 25 years – we put on 250 shows a year and sell over 100,000 tickets a year.”
Atzmon got no joy out of that official so he began to pull strings and, eventually, the Foreign Ministry’s Cultural and Scientific Affairs Division came through for him.
“I wasn’t on the official speakers list at the symposium but, near the end, there was a sort of roundtable session and I got up to speak. I asked the attendees, who included professors and literary people from all over the world, if they had heard of Yiddishpiel and at least 100 people, out of the 400 there, said they’d actually been to the theater to see one of our shows.”
Atzmon says his theater company is helping to keep the Yiddish flag flying high in our cultural skies.
“When we started out there were about 50 or 60 young people studying Yiddish in Israel. Now there are close to 6,000 high school students who take bagrut [matriculation exams] in Yiddish. There are about a million Israelis who know and speak Yiddish, and 200,000 who use it as their everyday form of verbal communication.
And we’re not just talking about religious people. Young people come to Yiddishpiel shows, and there are Hebrew subtitles for those who don’t understand the language.”
There is no reason, Atzmon suggests, why the state should not provide Yiddishpiel with greater financial assistance.
“Today, Hebrew is strong enough to allow Yiddish to be promulgated more widely. The state should provide the necessary funds to keep Yiddish alive and kicking, just as it has to provide Holocaust survivors with life saving medication. I want a law to be passed, to save the soul of the Jewish people – Yiddish.”