Yiddish is alive and well in the Hebrew city

Reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated: For half a century dubbed a ‘dying language,’ the ‘mameloshen’ has become a symbol of multicultural cool in Tel Aviv.

Yiddish 311 (photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
Yiddish 311
(photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
Tel Aviv’s Central Station is hardly the place you’d expect to find a Yiddish revival. Possibly the largest bus station in the world, it is also a multistory, multicultural bazaar teeming with all the languages of humanity. Here you’re just as likely to hear Mandarin, Russian or Tagalog as Hebrew. But surely not Yiddish – right? Well, wrong actually. It is precisely here, in Tel Aviv’s bus station of Babel, where you can find – excuse the mixed metaphor – an oasis of Yiddishkeit.
Tucked away on the fifth floor, past the “Only Love” Filipino dating agency and a dingy employment office promising factory jobs in Ukraine, is the Living Yiddish Museum and Library.
Walk through its door and the din and chaos of the bus station fade away. Strident shouts of shwarma sellers and the tinny beats of bubblegum pop are replaced by the melodic tones of klezmer. Before you is a vast hall filled from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts, journals, festschrifts, periodicals – everything from weighty philosophical tomes debating the meaning of life to titillating pulp fiction tales about buxom Jewish beauties.
“There’s a life-force in these books,” says Mendy Cahan, a Belgian immigrant and Tel Aviv resident who constructed the museum and library volume by volume.
Energetic and smiling with piercing blue eyes, Cahan – who grew up speaking Yiddish on the streets of Antwerp – is passionate about the mameloshen (mother tongue): so much so that in 1993 he founded YUNG YiDiSH, a nonprofit that preserves and spreads Yiddish culture in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem.
“I decided to make a simple gesture to rescue Yiddish in Israel,” recalls Cahan. “I asked people, if you have Yiddish books that you don’t want, please give them to me. I’ll take them.”
Cahan’s “simple gesture” turned into a wide-scale rescue operation spanning the length and breadth of Israel. So far, he has collected over 40,000 Yiddish books from private homes, institutions, and libraries. He has even rescued them from trash cans and garbage dumps. Cahan points out a set of 30 handwritten manuscripts of Yiddish jokes, dating between 1968 and 1972 – author unknown.
“I’m so glad I rescued these,” he says.
IS THIS just an amusing anomaly – a “living museum” for a dying language in the most multicultural spot in Tel Aviv? Not at all: After following the trail of Yiddish in Israel, Metro discovered that the formerly reviled and banned language is alive and well and living in Tel Aviv – just perhaps not where you’d expect.
It seems an odd concept, searching for Yiddish in the Jewish state. After all, Jews have spoken Yiddish for 1,000 years, starting in the 10th century, when they settled in Germany’s Rhineland. As they migrated East, Yiddish traveled with them and – like a snowball picking up debris from its path – collected words and syntax from wherever its speakers settled.
In fact, the history of this incredible language – its ancient roots, its cosmopolitan vocabulary, its cultural richness, its near-extinction and yet refusal to give up – is in many ways the story of the Jewish people themselves.
“On the eve of the Holocaust, around 67 percent of world Jewry spoke Yiddish,” says Dr. Rachel Rojanski, an associate professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University. In the five years that followed, the thriving lingua franca of around 11 million Jews was almost wiped out.
There is no official agreement about the worldwide number of Yiddish speakers today, but recent estimates of around two million stand in stark contrast to the prewar figures, a chilling testimony to the almost total annihilation of Europe’s Jews in the Shoah.
The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 secured Hebrew as the new Jewish lingua franca. In contrast to Yiddish, the vernacular of the Eastern European shtetl, Hebrew was the language of the tough new Jewish man and woman, the brave soldiers of the IDF, the glorious pioneers who built a new Hebrew city on the sands outside Jaffa.
Fearing that Yiddish would damage the fledgling status of Hebrew, overnight the mameloshen became an outlaw. Theater performances and newspapers in the language were banned. “Yehudi, Daber Ivrit!” (Jew, speak Hebrew!) exhorted placards carried by special “language defense” patrols.
“It was a deliberate program to belittle Yiddish,” says Mendy Cahan.
In the ensuing linguistic battle, Hebrew emerged triumphant. Yiddish was marginalized and all but disappeared from the Israeli cultural scene. Today, just three percent of Israel’s Jews – about 215,000 people, most of them haredim – speak Yiddish.
For decades, Yiddish was decidedly uncool. Few Israelis bothered with it. After all, why bother studying a “dying” language? “The attitude used to be that there was simply no point in learning Yiddish,” says Rojanski. “After all, what would you do with it?” In today’s Tel Aviv, it seems as if this hard-line attitude is changing fast, but why? “It’s becoming hip to learn Yiddish,” Prof.
Avraham Novershtern, director of Yiddish cultural center Beit Shalom Aleichem on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Berkowitz, tells me. “People are curious enough about it to take courses.”
In fact, Beit Shalom Aleichem has seen a big growth in the number of students taking part in its Yiddish courses, from 80 a decade ago to 300 today.
“Partly it’s because of a different approach to the idea of what is Israeli or modern Jewish culture,” says Novershtern, but he adds that there are other reasons too, including a worldwide trend towards multiculturalism.
“Israelis feel more comfortable about Yiddish today because they feel comfortable about multiculturalism,” he adds.
NOWHERE IN Israel is more multicultural than Tel Aviv, the Jewish state’s multiracial melting pot. This cosmopolitan atmosphere, says Novershtern, is the reason why Beit Shalom Aleichem and Tel Aviv University chose Tel Aviv to host the annual Yiddish Summer Program, a month-long intensive course that attracts a diverse range of students from all over the world.
“Tel Aviv is the perfect place for Yiddish. It’s multicultural, it has a cosmopolitan touch, an acceptance of diversity,” Novershtern explains.
Over a hundred students, mostly Israelis, took part in this year’s International Yiddish Summer Program. What motivated them to spend the sweltering Tel Aviv summer in a classroom learning a supposedly dying language? Actress Hadas Kalderon says she has personal reasons for signing up for a summer of Yiddish. The granddaughter of the late acclaimed Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever, she wanted to know more about her roots and culture.
“My grandfather wrote only in Yiddish,” says Kalderon. “I wanted to understand his poems, so I signed up to learn the language.”
Does Kalderon believe it’s important for young Israelis to learn Yiddish? “Yes. It’s the history of the Jewish people,” she replies. “It’s all there, everything about our culture, our roots, our literature, but we can’t read it. We are the third and fourth generation of survivors and now we have the possibility to learn, to return to our roots.”
A return to our roots it may be, but the revived interest in Yiddish cannot be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a lost past.
According to young novelist Lilach Nethanel – one of Kalderon’s fellow students on the Summer Program – Israeli writers, poets and translators have started seeking out Yiddish as a new, meaningful form of Hebrew self-expression.
“Yiddish is part of Hebrew culture,” Nethanel says. “The great works of Hebrew literature were written by people – like Agnon, Y.L. Peretz, Bialik, Brenner – who knew Yiddish as well as Hebrew. So now we are returning to a multilingual past.”
In the past, Israelis feared that speaking Yiddish meant that Hebrew culture was weak.
Today, it’s a sign that it has actually matured and become stronger, sure of itself.
“Now we can turn the page of the Hebrew book and see that the other side is written in Yiddish,” adds Nethanel.
So is Yiddish a part of Hebrew culture? Yes, says composer and pianist Daniel Galay. As chairman of Leyvik House – the Israeli Center for Yiddish Culture and the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists – Galay has been promoting Yiddish and Ashkenazi identity since his aliya from Argentina in 1965. He is passionate proponent of the idea that Yiddish is a contemporary force in Hebrew culture born of a sea change in Israeli attitudes to their identity.
“The younger generation has undergone a change in outlook about Yiddish,” he says.
“Today it’s possible to be both Ashkenazi and Israeli. Before, you couldn’t do that.”
Does Galay think it surprising that the Hebrew city is the scene of a Yiddish revival? Hardly. “Tel Aviv is the avant-garde of Yiddish,” he says with some pride.
If more proof is needed of Yiddish’s multicultural nature, look no further than Leyvik House’s Kindervelt (Children’s World) project.
Run by Daniel Galay’s son Asaf and his daughter- in-law, Hannah Pollin Galay, Kindervelt offers a rich program of Yiddish language and culture to third-graders at Tel Nordau elementary school.
Three years ago, in an attempt to open up Yiddish to the wider community, Pollin Galay decided to approach Tel Nordau, “an incredibly diverse local community school.”
Kindervelt began as an after-school class, but gained momentum fast.
“It was so popular that the principal said ‘Why not teach the whole grade?’” recalls Pollin Galay, who learned Yiddish at college in the US and on a Fulbright Scholarship to Lithuania.
WHAT’S ASTONISHING about Kindervelt is its wide appeal: Tel Aviv children from vastly different family backgrounds and cultures have signed up to learn Yiddish, perform Yiddish theater and make Yiddish movies.
“Filipino kids, Arab kids, Russian kids from mixed backgrounds choose Yiddish,” says Pollin Galay. “Yiddish is for everyone.”
If it’s multiculturalism you’re after, then why Yiddish and not teach, say, Esperanto? “Israeli kids like Yiddish because it uses ‘their’ Hebrew alphabet. It’s both new and familiar, so kids can grasp it easily,” explains Pollin Galay. “Also, Yiddish was the elephant in the room of Israeli society for so long, that big part of our culture that nobody talked about. It’s passed on as an enthralling secret – and kids love that.”
If Yiddish is an enthralling secret, it’s certainly one that more and more ordinary Tel Avivians want to talk about. No longer the preserve of a tiny group of highbrow “Yiddishists,” the mameloshen is being coopted by regular people and woven into the fabric of regular Hebrew culture.
Take Tel Aviv’s Yiddishspiel Theater, for example, which exhorts audiences to “Listen in Yiddish, laugh in Hebrew!” as they enjoy performances of plays like Paul Fox’s sidesplitting comedy How to be a Jewish Mother in 10 Lessons and The Megillah, a musical based on the poems of Itzhak Manger.
It’s only fitting that Yiddishspiel is located on Rehov Bialik, a street at the heart of the White City named for Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s beloved pioneer of Hebrew language poetry.
Actor Yonatan Rozen is part of the Yiddishspiel troupe. Although he regularly performs plays in Yiddish – and has won awards for his performances – he admits that when he first auditioned for the theater, he did not know the language.
“My parents spoke Hebrew,” he explains.
“My grandparents came from Poland, so I knew a few words from them. But that was basically it.”
Yiddishspiel is not about nostalgia or retro chic. Rozen is adamant that he and his fellow actors are bringing something new, modern and Israeli to Yiddish.
“We’re not talking about the past, but about sucthe present,” he says. “When I speak Yiddish at the theater, when I sing Yiddish songs, I add my own interpretation. I want to give them new expression.”
How times have changed. Things were not always so easy for Yiddish theater. In 1950, the officious-sounding Council for the Control of Films and Plays decreed an outright ban on performances in the language, except “by overseas troupes and in immigrant camps.” Going to a Yiddish play in Tel Aviv was less an evening of old-world culture, more an antiestablishment protest.
Tel Aviv’s theatergoers are not the only ones discovering that Yiddish has a cool factor.
With classic hutzpa, the mameloshen is also elbowing its way into Tel Aviv’s nightclub scene. Heavy metal band Gevolt, for example, is gaining a following for its reinventions of traditional Yiddish songs.
By adding heavy metal rhythms, acid electronic beats and a topping of klezmer to traditional Yiddish ballads, drummer Vadim Weinstein, bassist Mark Lekhovitser, guitarist Michael Gimmervert, keyboardist Dmitry Lifshitz, violinist Eva Iframov and singer Anatoly Bondar have jolted the “dying language” back to life for Tel Aviv’s metalistim.
“In the beginning, it was sort of an absurd joke,” Bondar explains when I ask him why the band chose to sing in Yiddish. “Then we started to see that Yiddish is a bridge between the different generations. Grandmothers could listen to our music as well as their kids.”
Bondar, who adds that his family did not speak Yiddish at home, learned the language mostly from the Internet. “And, baruch hashem, there are still people alive who can speak it.”
Gevolt’s repertoire includes “Zog Nit Keynmol, Az Du Geyst Dem Letstn Veg” (Never Say You’re On the Last Road), the anthem of the Jewish partisans in the Vilna Ghetto.
Composed by Hirsch Glick, a young Yiddish poet, Zog Nit Keynmol became a powerful symbol of Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany.
“We chose these old songs because we want to give them a new flavor,” explains Bondar.
“And to make today’s youth aware of them.”
In 1944, Glick escaped the Vilna Ghetto, but was never heard from again. It is presumed he was brutally murdered by Nazi soldiers.
That a new generation of Tel Aviv club kids is singing his song is a powerful tribute to the memory of this brave young poet.
Bondar says it’s for reasons like this that it is important for young Israelis to know Yiddish.
“Not so much the language,” he adds. “But the culture, yes. It’s part of Jewish culture, and we’re forgetting it. It’s important for the future that we remember.”
It is impossible to predict what the future holds for Yiddish. Hannah Pollin Galay believes Yiddish is here to stay, not as a vernacular but as a cultural medium.
“We are not going to use it in our daily lives, to communicate, but there is so much that is valuable in the language, so much that is part of Jewish and Israeli identity,” she says.
“Yiddish is everywhere in Tel Aviv. If your ear is attuned to it, you will find it.”
After all, it’s only fitting that the Hebrew city continues to be the avant-garde of Israel’s Yiddish revival. Just as the mameloshen itself became rich by absorbing the idioms of many languages, so Tel Aviv is a place where cultures converge, fuse and are transmuted into something new and modern, but undeniably Jewish.
For more information about: YUNG YiDiSH: www.yiddish.co.il Leyvik House Center for Yiddish Culture: www.leyvik.org.il Yiddishspiel Theater: www.yiddishpiel.co.il/ Tel Aviv Yiddish Summer Program: http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/yiddish/summer- index.eng.html