Beersheba, Israel – Young Israelis Turn to Yiddish in Search of Their Roots


    Photo illustrationBeersheba, Israel – Nufal Levanon, a 25-year-old student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, rarely heard Yiddish growing up, although her Romanian-born parents both were native speakers of the language.

    Meira Goodman, 24, only became interested in Yiddish after her Czech-born grandmother died three years ago.

    “I didn’t hear much Yiddish from her, but even when she spoke English, it sounded Yiddish because of the intonation,” she says.

    Both women are enrolled in a new Yiddish literature class at Ben-Gurion University, and Goodman is also taking a course in Yiddish language. They are part of a revival of interest in Yiddish among young Israelis.

    For their grandparents who were Israel’s founders, Yiddish bore the emotional baggage of a reminder of the ghettos they had left behind in Europe. But for young Israelis in increasing numbers, Yiddish is a point of connection with their Jewish roots.

    Like many of her generation, Goodman’s mother, the child of a Holocaust survivor, wanted nothing to do with the language of Europe’s destroyed Jewish civilization.

    “She swept it under the rug,” Goodman says. “Now our generation is digging it up. We are unburying these hidden treasures.”

    In recognition of this steadily growing interest, Ben-Gurion University this spring launched a Center for Yiddish Studies housed in the department of Hebrew Literature. The idea is to create an academic fellowship of Yiddish scholars already working in the field and to reach out to larger audiences with conferences, publications, analysis of the Yiddish press from Eastern Europe and perhaps even stagings of classic Yiddish theater pieces.

    Prof. David Roskies, a renowned Yiddish scholar from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, was tapped to head the center.

    Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University already offer programs in Yiddish language and literature.

    Although students of Yiddish have flocked to Israeli universities since the Hebrew University opened Israel’s first Yiddish department in 1951, the language and its culture have never enjoyed popular respect in the country.

    Even before the founding of the state, Hebrew was touted as the language of the new, strong Israeli Jew, while Yiddish represented a defeated world.

    The dichotomy grew stronger after independence.

    Prof. Yechiel Szeintuch, who has taught in the Yiddish department at the Hebrew University for 40 years, remembers the postwar years when “people would throw bricks at gatherings of Yiddish speakers” and the country’s 300,000 Holocaust survivors tried to refrain from speaking Yiddish in public.

    Last December, Szeintuch and three Hebrew University colleagues organized a four-day conference called “A Century of Yiddish,” bringing experts from around the world to discuss the trajectory of the language and its culture over the past 100 years.

    More than 350 people attended, but when Szeintuch was interviewed about the conference on Israeli Radio, the show’s hosts treated it like a joke.

    “They said a conference on Yiddish? What, a bunch of old men peeling apples in the park?” Szeintuch recalls.

    Roskies is upbeat about his mandate to create a safe haven for Yiddish studies in the middle of the Negev. As a 40-year veteran of teaching Yiddish at the university level, Roskies says he was stunned his first week at Ben-Gurion to learn that 90 students had signed up for his elective course on Sholem Aleichem.

    “There’s something amazing going on in this country, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “There is a spiritual awakening in Israel, a return to one’s severed past. Yiddish was pushed aside to make room for Hebrew. This is a third generation not locked into its Oedipal complex.”

    Roskies sees the revival of interest in Yiddish as part of a much greater phenomenon: young secular Israelis looking for spiritual nourishment within Judaism, but outside the controls of the Orthodox establishment. Independent prayer groups are springing up throughout the country, he says, along with workshops devoted to the study of liturgical poems and hasidic melodies.

    Galia Shauli, 33, who studies Yiddish at the Hebrew University, says she was raised “100 percent secular” by her kibbutznik mother and Russian-immigrant father.

    “Two or three years ago I started wondering about my roots, about my Judaism,” she says. “I was raised to believe [Jewish identity] all started in Israel, but it didn’t.”

    Roskies says one of the challenges of developing Ben-Gurion’s new Yiddish studies center is the lack of classic Yiddish literature available in Hebrew. A new Hebrew translation of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories, on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, came out last fall and was on the best-seller list for four months, he says. But that’s a rarity.

    “While Israel was building a state, America was the place of refuge where the severed branches [of Eastern European Jewry] could be collected and preserved,” Roskies says. “Yiddish scholarship existed in Israel, but it was very academic and conducted mostly in Hebrew in order to ‘prove’ they weren’t ‘Yiddishists.’ We didn’t have that problem in America.”

    Roskies has no illusions about reviving Yiddish as a living language. Despite the 2 million to 3 million Yiddish speakers in the world today, very few outside the hasidic world or the very elderly speak it as their first language.

    The importance of the new Ben-Gurion center, he says, is to provide a boost to the study of Yiddish culture as a whole within the Jewish state and to help Israelis recover a discarded part of their identity.

    “I see it as a peoplehood project,” he says. “I can now bring that severed piece of Jewish culture to Israel, where it can flourish.”

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    1. what’s the point in spreading the “yiddish” culture. The people that are part of the “culture” don’t consider it a culture that should be spread to people that aren’t hareidi

    2. yiddish without yiddishkeit is an empty shell. the tzionim is despreately grasping at straws while their enterprise is crumbling before their eyes. the only benefit this may have is that it may foster a common means of communication with the frimer velt.

      • Maskilim and assimilationists not Zionists were first to attack Yiddish. One maskil put it this way: “Yiddish grates on our ears and distorts. This jargon is incapable in fact of expressing sublime thoughts. It is our obligation to cast off these old rags, a heritage of the dark Middle Ages.” (Osip Aronowich Rabinowich [Russia – Our Native Land: Just as We Breathe Its Air We Must Speak Its Language])
        The maskil David Friedlaender considered Yiddish as corrupting the intellect and most likely the manners of the people who spoke it.

    3. Ich farshtay nisht vus zay zugen! Efsher kenste redden Yinglish?

      Inzere uvois hoben geret Yiddish. Moishe Rabbeini hot geret Yiddish. Bist a Yid? Red Yiddish!

      • Du host gegreizt. unzer elteren hoben geredt yiddish un unzer avos und Moshe Rabbenu haben geredt loshon hakodesh/loshon hatorah. to all the others let’s take it as a good sign that they wanna become frum. how nice and special. Hashem is bringing together the 4 corners of the earth in prep for the final geulah bb”a.

      • Moshe Rabeinu spoke Loshon Kodesh. Yiddish started about 1000 years ago in the Rhineland. Is that what they teach in chassidish yeshivos? That Moshe Rabeinu spoke Yiddish? Why isn’t the Torah written in Yiddish?
        Get well soon.

        • Of course Moshe Rabbeinu and the Avos spoke yiddish. They lwore shtreimels, too. At least all of pictures my son brought home from cheder had Moshe Rabbeini in a shtreimel.

        • Just in case you didn’t know, Yiddish even PREDATES Modern German – the german thats spoken in Germany today.. How could Moshe Rabeinu have spoken Yiddish? Vu iz di logik do??

          un yo, ikh hob di gantze Tanakh in geshribene yidishe iberzetzung.

      • Ikh bin a yid, ober nit kin tzionist. Ikh faynt hob an ideologiye vos hot a sine kegn Yidish, un tzionizm is punkt azoy dos.. bin ikh zeyer tzufridn, az yidish haynt hot a glantsndike tsukunft in Yisroel, ober tzionism iz nor a feler vos di Yisre’elim realizirn nit.

    4. If they only connect to the “culture” it will be a passing phase and they will lose interest quickly. Pity the chareidim have become such an object of disgust to them, that they are trying to reconnect to their Jewish roots minus “orthodoxy” (Torah / mitzvos)

    5. Actually Loshon Hakodesh was never a spoken language, It was/is considered holy,and not for mundane use, hence the use of Aramaic etc. .It was only the Zionists who created a similar language called ivrit (to which there was a lot of opposition).
      so languages like Yiddish and ladino definitely had their place in Jewish culture

      • If anything, modern ivrit is like Yiddish in a way.. its a mixture of biblical hebrew with many elements from other languages as well.. Vi men zogt “kontzert” af ivrit? anachnu omrim “konsert” b’ivrit, un dos zelbike af yidish oykh.

    6. I cannot believe the arrogance involved. Here you have yidden who are interested to learn a little more….and who knows what will bring them back to yiddishkeit. You start out small and then you grow. You, who had the zechus of having been born into a home where yiddishkeit was practiced, how dare you malign those who never had that experience. It could have been you. Don’t you see, we need acdus, and embrace our secular brothers!!!! Why would they ever want to return to yiddishkeit if this is the Burich Haba they are receiving from us!!!!! A shame, we can’t feel for every jew the way we are supposed to. With love, understanding and a deep commitment to helping them rise and embrace the religion. Never going to happen if we keep this up. Remember, love your neighbor….especially your brother.

    7. Moishe Rabbeini hot geret Yiddish tzim Yidden. Avrum Ovini hot geret Yiddish tzim Yitzchok. Noyach hot geret Farsi tzim de monkeys un de chazeirim. Noyach hot nisht geret tzim chom de shvartze vall er hut goornisht farshtanen.


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