Meet the Israelis who are reconnecting modern Hebrew to Yiddish

Yiddish is doing a lot better than Hopi or Gaelic.

Yiddish land revisited Yiddish actor and singer Yoni Eilat depicted here reading a Yiddish newspaper (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yiddish land revisited Yiddish actor and singer Yoni Eilat depicted here reading a Yiddish newspaper
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When Yoni Eilat finished acting school, he went to New York.
“The seeds to the kind of work I do in Yiddish,” he told the Jerusalem Post Magazine, “were sowed there.”
Living in the East Village, Eilat came across reminders of the rich Yiddish-speaking Jewish heritage of the city on the Hudson.
“Roughly 30 Jewish theaters once operated on Second Avenue,” he said. “At the time, many of the shows were lighthearted and meant to entertain. The buildings survived to this day and now operate as movie theaters. I went there and, on the walls of the theater, you can see Yiddish letters, a clear indication that this was once a Jewish theater.”
The vibrant cultural legacy of Yiddish theater in New York got a nod in the award-winning 1991 play Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, where a rabbi quotes King Lear in Yiddish to one of the Jewish-American characters. “Sharfer vi di tson fun a shlang is an umdankver kind,” says the rabbi, played by Meryl Streep in the 2003 television adaptation. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
The reference to Shakespeare, the iconic figure of high theater, is not an accident.
While Jewish theater had its share of popular shows meant to delight the masses of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who labored in the sweatshops of the Garment District, Yiddish theater also saw the production of the 1892 play The Jewish King Lear. Written by Jacob Gordin, the play marked a watershed moment in the development of Yiddish culture in the US. No longer would it be looked down upon by German-speaking Jews or assimilated English-speaking American-born Jews. Yiddish deserved respect.
As Joel Berkowitz showed in his 2010 book Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, Gordin paved the way to Yiddish productions of Hamlet, Othello and even The Merchant of Venice, the first Shakespearean play printed in Yiddish.
EILAT GREW up hearing spoken Yiddish from his grandmother and mother, an experience shared by many Ashkenazi Jewish children born in the early years of the State of Israel, but it was in New York that his love of music and theater found the passion that would guide him.
Having collected Yiddish recordings by the Barry Sisters, named Minnie and Clara Bagelman at birth, he decided to do that very un-New York-like thing and get out of Manhattan. He had a good reason: Chava Alberstein was performing in Boston.
“So I took the four-hour bus ride,” Eilat recalls, “and had the joy of seeing Alberstein perform live. This was during the few years she didn’t perform in Israel at all. So bear in mind that she is widely seen as ‘The Voice of Israel,’ but in that concert, she also performed songs in Yiddish! This did not please a woman in the audience and she began to shout at Alberstein for singing in Yiddish and not in Hebrew! This was shocking to me and I decided to deepen my interest in that culture.”
Eilat decided to “follow his bliss.” Upon his return to Israel, he took up the study of Yiddish in Bar-Ilan University. There, he met Yaniv Goldberg and began to take on theater roles in the Yiddishpiel Theater in Tel Aviv. He gained three distinguished performance awards for his work there.
Eilat went on to record Yiddish versions to Romani music, which were released in 2010 as Gypsy Soul (Tzigayner Neshome) and went on to co-create and perform in Yiddish theatrical works that explore Jewish food and the mythical figure of the Jewish mother.
His bliss led him to many different places: back to New York to a Yiddish culture festival created in France and now also frequented by North-African French Jews; to Warsaw and Amsterdam; as well as back to the original Yiddish lands of Poland and Ukraine.
Working with his old school friend who is now a doctor of Yiddish, Eilat and Goldberg take Israeli tourists to the sites connected to the great figures of Yiddish literature. The monument erected to honor Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinovich) in Kiev, the burial place of Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovich) in Odessa, as well as the birthplace of his favorite Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger, in Chernivtsi.
While Goldberg delights the groups with his scholarship, Eilat moves their hearts with artistic performances of works by these great writers.
“It is especially moving to perform their works in these locations,” he smiles. “These are places that not many people visit, and in one glimpse you can suddenly get a whole new insight into such classics as Tevye der Milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman). With my very own two eyes, I have seen a goose shepherd leading dozens of geese.”
Known today largely thanks to the popular 1964 Broadway adaptation Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein, and the iconic role of Tevye as performed by Chaim Topol, the actual Tevye stories are very different from the lighthearted musical numbers most readers know.
As Dan Miron wrote in his 2009 afterword to his Hebrew translation of the works, Tevye is a tragic figure who loses everything – his daughters, his home, even his wife – due to his refusal to function by the laws of the society he inhabits.
Far from seeing Tevye as a mythical figure of Jewish endurance despite poverty and hate, and absolutely refusing to see his salvation in America as the Broadway play suggests, Miron claims that Tevye is a man divorced from any value that might give him status.
He sells the milk and cheeses his wife and daughters produce, hence the correct name is not milkman as he does not milk the cows but dairyman, and he is unable to protect his family from the evils of a modern age that does not look kindly at Jews.
The endurance he shows when deported from his village by the Russian authorities alongside all other Jews, Miron says, is the result not of faith, but of relief. The calamity is universal, and for once, Tevye is not punished for missing the cues society had given him – smart Jews and foolish Jews, poor Jews and wealthy Jews; all, for once, share the same fate.
FAR FROM neglecting Hebrew, the tours also allow visitors to view and appreciate, for example, the works of 1966 Noble Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who wrote extensively on his home-town of Buchach. Eilat, an unabashed lover of Yiddish, sees no conflict between his Israeli identity and his love of Ashkenazi Jewish food and language. “Why should anyone mind if I speak Yiddish?” he asks.
When quizzed about the ways in which Yiddish is often misunderstood, he confesses that the tension is there. In our days, Yiddish is a minority language spoken primarily by ultra-Orthodox Jews around the world from New Square, New York, to Bnei Brak.
 In that sense, Yiddish is doing a lot better than say, Hopi or Gaelic, because the living populations that speak it and use it daily are growing. However, these same communities do not produce novels, films or radio shows – or at least, so far they haven’t – meaning that many Jewish people mistakenly think Yiddish is dead.
The attempt to make Yiddish interesting for those who don’t understand it – to sexy it up, so to speak – can lead some Yiddish lovers to experiment with radical options, such as Yiddish heavy metal (the band Gevolt), productions that focus on Jews and sex-trafficking (revivals of the 1907 play Got fun Nekomeh by Sholem Asch), and revivals of Yiddish revolutionary songs such as “In Ale Gasn.” The song, originally about Czarist Russia, begins by stating, “Everywhere you go, the streets are full of strikes,” and has cheers of “Down with the police!’ Yet when push comes to shove, such adaptations, wonderful as they might be, are doing an injustice to the majority of the Jewish people, who were not in organized crime nor extremely revolutionary.
When “In Ale Gasn” makes fun of someone who “only yesterday was pushing a garbage cart and today is a capitalist,” it also pokes fun at what most Jews flocking to America actually wanted: a way out of pushing carts for a living, seeing nothing wrong with making money.
The other path is to make Yiddish funny and cute. Perhaps due to the fame once enjoyed by the comedy duo of Shimen (Szymon) Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher in Israel until the 1960s, many Israelis associate Yiddish with Jewish jokes that, with respect, made their parents or grandparents laugh.
This reduction of an entire civilization into a punchline – or worse yet, a sad punchline, as the bulk of Yiddish-speaking Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust – forces those who are passionate about the language to make difficult choices.
Eilat says he is looking to “walk the middle path, not to kiss up to the audience with another version of [the 1940 Yiddish song] “Tumbalalaika” and not to run off to places that might scare the audience, [but] to give [them] things close my own soul.”
“My songs, including a [2017] Yiddish version of [the 1982 song by Ehud Banai] “Yiddisher Rastaman” were played on national radio and the sky did not fall down,” he said. “I understand it won’t take the nation by storm, but I do want to communicate and be understood. My intention is to bring Yiddish back to people, and in that task I think I am successful.”
TRANSLATOR BILHA Rubinstein grew up speaking Yiddish in a Jerusalem haredi family before her father, the late writer Yehoshua Bar-Yosef, decided to be a part of the Hebrew-speaking nation-building process that was going on.
“I did not speak a word of Hebrew until I was three years old,” she told the Magazine, “and because during those years the haredi community was not so quick to excommunicate families, I kept speaking Yiddish with my extended family even after we moved to Tel Aviv. But nobody among my friends in Hashomer Hatzair knew I spoke Yiddish.”
She clearly remembers how, during the mid-1950s, it was forbidden to perform in Yiddish unless a portion of the act was also in Hebrew. The general attitude in Israel at the time was to reject Yiddish as a language of the Diaspora and that was, she says, “a great mistake that I currently attempt to correct to the best of my ability.”
Comparing her role as translator to that of “a fisherman who casts his line with the hope to bring to the surface something hidden in the depths,” Rubinstein says that “Yiddish is like an ocean, and just as the mighty ocean contains a multitude of beings, both big and small, so does Yiddish. Some people call it a treasure trove, but it is not a language one can put a definite label on.”
Referring to the letters on the monument that Eilat mentioned honoring Sholem Aleichem, she points out that the spelling of the author’s name is different than the one we are used to. She explains that the reason is ideological. The Bund movement sought to integrate the Jews within the Socialist revolution. To do so, they Russified, or perhaps Slavicized, Yiddish.
“For the Bund, the desire was to be a part of the Soviet homeland.”
The Yiddish journal in the USSR was, after all, called Sovetish Heymland.
To understand this, it is vital to correct a common misunderstanding. Yiddish is not “broken” or “dumbed-down” German mixed in with a handful of Hebrew words for good measure. Rather, Yiddish is a diverse and flexible language that integrates Hebrew, German and Slavic elements in surprising ways.
The German it employs is not the modern one used today and the ways in which it sees the world are Jewish ways, not Slavic. For example, the names of months and days are spelled in Yiddish exactly as they are in Hebrew, and it is the Jewish calendar and holidays that are evoked.
Shaped by the experience of a persecuted people, the Yiddish words for a Christian priest or a Jewish convert are not neutral or politically correct. Translated literarally, the Yiddish word for priest is Galah (Baldy) and the name for a Jew who converted is Meshomedes (The Ruined). Rubinstein herself wrote the footnotes explaining this in her 2015 translation to the 1948 work Di meshumedesse by Zalman Shneur and her 2012 translation of the massive 1929 work by Alter Kacyzne Shtarke un shvakhe.
“In Yiddish, one does not say ‘devil’ as in the expression, ‘To the devil with you.’ What the people say is the ‘not good,’ as in, may the ‘not good’ take you.”
She is currently translating the 1957 work by Kadia Molodowsky A Shtub mit Zibn Fentster and the 1929 book by Sholem Asch Farn Mabul.
“Molodowsky,” she points out, “is an example of a writer who is greatly mis-remembered by us Israelis, as most people are only aware of her poetic works for children.”
HAVING TAUGHT comparative literature and hailing from a literary family (her two brothers are also established writers), she is able to clearly explain just how vastly different Polish Yiddish is from American Yiddish.
“After centuries of living in Poland, Yiddish borrowed only a handful of Polish words. This is because of the restrictions placed on Jews in that society as well as the Jewish fear of assimilating. In the United States, the story is entirely different. American Yiddish borrows heavily from English and so, in A Shtub mit Zibn Fentster, one can actually read on paper how the Americanization of Jews is happening.”
Indeed, in his 2005 book Adventures in Yiddishland, Jeffery Shandler suggests the interesting concept that Yiddish in America today is a performative language – a language used by Jewish-American people to demonstrate to other Jews and non-Jews that they are, in fact, Jewish.
When a Jewish-American person says, “Harry, don’t shlep,” what he saying is not only, “Don’t carry too much weight, Harry” but also, “I am a Jewish person and I am proud of it.”
When asked to discuss the process Yiddish underwent in Israel, she suggests that “after the Holocaust, there was a desire to forget the dark parts that in fact existed in Jewish society. Why was this so? Because when we are discussing a victim there is a natural tendency to see him or her as good.”
Prime minister David Ben-Gurion chose to describe the Yiddish testimony of Vilna Ghetto uprising hero Rozka Korczak as given in a “harsh and foreign language.” His words caused an uproar when those present protested that the “foreign” language (meaning, not Hebrew) was spoken by two-thirds of the Jewish people.
“Yet,” she asserts, “without darkness, how can there be light? Things must exist together, this is what Isaac Bashevis Singer answered when he was asked why he published a book dealing with a sex-worker and her criminal lover.” She herself translated the work into Hebrew as ‘Yarma veKayla’ the first time it was made available to the Hebrew reader.
Bringing Yiddish to America, King Lear or no King Lear, was no picnic either.
 In her 1969 work Envy, or Yiddish in America, Cynthia Ozick tells the fascinating story of how Yiddish adapted, or was changed, to be accepted as high literature in English garb.
Singer, who made a point of not eating meat and wrote a great deal about mythical Jewish Poland, to some extent played the part desired by his readers. It was Saul Bellow who made him an overnight sensation when he translated Simple Gimpl from Yiddish and had it published in the Paris Review in 1953.
“I have nothing against people who translate from Yiddish to English,” she says. “My issue is when people translate Yiddish works from English into other languages. My point is that translations into Hebrew must be made from Yiddish, because the modern Hebrew reader, even if unaware of it, has a relationship with this culture through the hidden tunnels of the soul.
“If you offer the reader a translation of a Yiddish work from English, you have committed a grave sin. This hunger, this need, will not be met.”