While Yiddish is not likely to regain
its former status as one of the most widely spoken languages in Israel,
it is heard in a surprising variety of places today, from university
libraries to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
by Heidi J. Gleit Photography: Tagist Ron
Yiddish or – as many
of its speakers called it – Jewish hasn’t had an easy time in the Jewish
state. In the 1950s, when the horrors of the Holocaust were still too
fresh to be voiced by many, the mother tongue of a significant portion
of the population wasn’t merely unpopular in Israel. It actually was
illegal for Israeli citizens to perform in plays or publish daily
newspapers in Yiddish. Times have changed and though there are no longer
enough Yiddish speakers in Israel to support a daily newspaper in the
mamaloshen, last year the award-winning Yiddishpiel Theater
attracted over 80,000 people to its performances all over the country.
“Yiddish is like the
lamp in the Temple that kept on burning even though there was only a
small amount of oil,” YUNG YiDDiSH Founder and Director Mendy Cahan said
in an interview before Hanukka.
YUNG YiDDiSH organizes
performances and cultural events at its library in Jerusalem. (Laura
Grodetsky, courtesy of YUNG YiDDiSH Archives)
speakers accuse Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, of
continuing Hitler’s work by destroying Yiddish culture in Israel. Dr.
Eyal Gertmann, an expert on German history and the development of
Israeli nationalism who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
and Sapir College, has a more analytical and less emotional take on it.
“Ben-Gurion was a
pragmatic politician who took difficult steps,” Gertmann explains. “He
had to turn refugees into a proud nation. This meant bringing together
Jews from all over the globe with many different cultures in order to
create a new state and a new national identity. He needed to forge the
new Jew, the proud sabra, who was the ideological descendant of
pioneers, not of the shtetl.”
In the 1940s and
1950s, it seemed that the best way to do this was by suppressing the
defining aspects of the many different Jewish communities that had
arrived in Israel over the past few decades and promoting new symbols
that could unify them, from sports teams to the Hebrew language to Bible
stories, Gertmann says.
The result was
legislation to promote the Hebrew language and protect it from
competitors, particularly Yiddish, which was much more widely spoken
than Hebrew at the time. In addition to laws against theater
performances and media in other languages, diplomats, emissaries, and
anyone else who represented the nation abroad had to Hebraize their
speakers weren’t willing to give up their language without a fight. “The
Hebrew intellectuals were threatened by Yiddish, but people loved it and
didn’t want to throw out their culture,” says Cahan, who established
YUNG YiDDiSH in 1991 to promote and preserve Yiddish culture.
Writer and publisher
Mordechai Tsanin found a creative way to evade the law forbidding the
publication of a daily newspaper in Yiddish. He operated two newspapers,
both of which appeared three times a week on alternating days, relates
Rahel Ramirez of Leyvik House, the Yiddish writers’ association in Tel
Aviv. Tsanin is the association’s honorary chairman today.
were equally tenacious, Cahan says. Posters advertising performances in
Yiddish often listed the wrong time for the performance, while the
correct time was spread by word of mouth. As a result, when a government
inspector tried to close down a show, he would find an empty theater.
The law didn’t forbid foreigners from performing in Yiddish and so
theater troupes from abroad frequently appeared in Israel.
Three Turning Points
that three of the key events that shaped modern Israeli culture had a
particularly strong impact on Yiddish culture in Israel: the Kasztner
episode; the Eichmann trial; and the rise of the Black Panthers.
In the state’s early
years, many Eastern European Jews were embarrassed to speak Yiddish in
public due to the lack of public sympathy for Holocaust survivors.
Israelis didn’t yet understand the enormity of what had happened and
mistakenly blamed the refugees for being led like lambs to the slaughter
instead of bravely fighting the Nazis. This lack of awareness and
sympathy reached its height in the mid-1950s when Rudolf Kasztner was
accused of collaborating with the Nazis, he explains.
Kasztner was born in
Transylvania in 1906. A journalist and lawyer, he became a leader in the
Hungarian Zionist movement. Following the German occupation of Hungary,
Kasztner was a key member of the Jewish committee that negotiated with
the Nazis to release Jews in exchange for military supplies. The
committee’s main negotiating partner was notorious Nazi official Adolf
Eichmann. The agreements they reached saved the lives of some 2,000
Jews, and perhaps even more.
After the war,
Kasztner made aliya and became an influential member of Ben-Gurion’s
party, holding a series of important positions. In 1953, Malkiel
Gruenwald published a pamphlet that denounced Kasztner as a Nazi
collaborator. Since Kasztner was a public official, the state sued
Gruenwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf. In June 1955, not only did the
state lose the libel suit, but Judge Benjamin Halevi castigated Kasztner
in his decision, writing that he had made a deal with the devil. The
government’s decision to appeal led to a coalition crisis, but it
persevered. In January 1958, the Supreme Court cleared Kasztner’s name.
It was a pyrrhic victory since Kasztner had been assassinated on March
3, 1957, by Ze’ev Eckstein.
publicized episode scared Eastern European Jews who had arrived after
the Holocaust, leading them to seal their lips even more tightly. Even
today, some older Israelis are convinced that most of the survivors were
kapos or collaborators during the Holocaust. In the wake of the Kasztner
trial, it wasn’t acceptable to discuss the Holocaust, not only because
the survivors wanted to forget the horror they had experienced, but also
because Israeli society didn’t want to hear about it, Gertmann says.
The situation began
to change with the Eichmann trial, he continues.
Eichmann, who had been hiding in Argentina, in a bold, headline-grabbing
operation and brought him to Israel for trial in 1960. The trial and his
subsequent execution, on the night of May 31, 1962, was followed avidly
around the globe. In Israel, the trial was broadcast daily on the radio
and the Israeli public listened as survivors testified about their
experiences. Poetically, the panel of three judges that found Eichmann
guilty included Halevi.
This was the first
time people really spoke openly about the Holocaust in Israel, Gertmann
notes, adding that after the Eichmann trial, survivors began to tell
their stories and Israeli society became receptive and sympathetic. The
stigma of speaking Yiddish slowly began to fade.
Meanwhile, over the
years, the public began to realize that mistakes were made in the 1950s.
This growing sentiment turned into action in the 1970s, when Mizrahim
(Jews from Middle Eastern countries) began to demand respect for their
unique heritages and to form organizations – the best known of which is
the Black Panthers – that fought for this. The Black Panthers cracked
the collective image that Ben-Gurion had created, opening the door for
Israel to replace the “melting pot” with the multicultural “tossed
salad,” he explains. After that, it was only a matter of time until
other communities reclaimed their heritage, which included Yiddish for
In the 1990s, the
Knesset passed the Yiddish and Ladino heritage law, which recognized the
languages’ importance in Jewish culture and the need to preserve them.
The law led to the creation of the National Authority for Yiddish
Almost a Renaissance
While Yiddish is not
likely to regain its former status in Israel, it is heard in a
surprising variety of places today, from university libraries to the Tel
Aviv Central Bus Station, and not just in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Greer Fay Cashman, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, said she was
pleasantly surprised to find that many of the people over the age of 50
who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in recent years
Despite the efforts
to thwart it, Yiddish has become prevalent throughout Israeli culture,
notes Shmuel Atzmon-Wirtzer, the founder and artistic director of
Yiddishpiel Theater. He points out that a study by Dr. Nissan Netzer, of
the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University,
found that 630 of the approximately 2,600 slang terms in contemporary
Hebrew were inspired by Yiddish.
Today Tel Aviv is
home to a number of Yiddish cultural centers, such as Leyvik House and
Shalom Aleichem House. Named after Yiddish poet and playwright H. Leyvik,
whose works include the play The Golem, Leyvik House is the headquarters
of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel. It
hosts numerous activities designed to cater to a broad population and
publishes books in Yiddish, Ramirez says. “Leyvik House is a cultural
center and aims to increase knowledge of and appreciation for Yiddish in
Tel Aviv. At the same time, as a cultural center, we want to serve our
community so we host a variety of activities that aren’t always
connected to Yiddish,” she says, noting recently this included lectures
with the Hebrew writers’ association and a cultural event in Russian
with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Tel Aviv municipality.
volunteer chairman, Daniel Galay, is a pianist and composer and one of
the most successful activities is the monthly Klezmer concert in its
lovely, old-fashioned hall. In February, it added three new monthly
series – jazz, classical music, and world music – and now hosts a
concert every Saturday night. The friendly, informal atmosphere and the
high quality of the music are attracting increasing numbers of music
lovers of all ages and backgrounds. The lectures on Yiddish and other
literature also attract a diverse crowd. At a recent lecture on Yiddish
poetry, well-known Yiddish intellectuals and entertainers and a handful
of young Israeli and American scholars gathered around a table in a
meeting room filled with books and photographs of their authors. The
discussion was mainly in Yiddish, though participants occasionally threw
in a Hebrew phrase.
Zwi Kanar, a Holocaust survivor who fought in the War of Independence,
explained that since Yiddish is his mother tongue it is only natural
that he participate in the Leyvik House activities.
Not far from Leyvik
House is a large Yiddish library, which also offers cultural activities.
Though both places appear similar at first glance and seem to offer
similar activities, they have completely different roots. The library is
operated by Brith Haavoda-Arbeter Ring, the Israeli branch of the Bund,
the Jewish socialist organization founded in Eastern Europe at the turn
of the previous century, Brith Haavoda-Arbeter Ring Secretary Josef
“The Bund stands for
the same thing today as it did in the 1920s – human rights for all in
the place you live,” Fraind says. He explains that the Bund was labeled
anti-Zionist because it believed in fighting for human rights in the
place in which you were born or resided and rejected the seemingly
fantastical utopian solution offered by Zionism. However, the flood of
Jewish refugees that came to the Land of Israel after the Holocaust
included supporters of the Bund. Like Fraind, who immigrated to Israel
from Warsaw in 1952, for most this move was due more to circumstances
beyond their control than to Zionism. He recalls that in the early
years, the animosity against the Bund was so great that many of its
supporters were scared to publicly voice their thoughts or even vote for
the Bund when it fielded a list for the Knesset.
Many of the people
who frequent the library are unaware of or unconcerned with the Bund’s
ideology, notes Anna Viener, who is responsible for the library. “I’m
here for the language, not the ideology,” she adds. The library contains
some religious books, fiction, and books on Zionism, but is dominated by
books on socialism. Ironically, the library operated by a movement known
for being ardently secular attracts more than a few religious readers
since Yiddish is mainly spoken in religious circles in Israel today.
people today associate Yiddish with religious people, but they forget
how cosmopolitan and avant-garde Yiddish could be,” Cahan says, adding
that the almost 50,000 Yiddish books YUNG YiDDiSH has spent the past 15
years collecting reveal a rich, varied world.
He notes that the
books give him a glimpse of the readers’ minds and demonstrate that
Yiddish was read by a very diverse audience. In addition to writing
about Judaism, Yiddish authors addressed futurism, Dadaism, anarchism,
and all of the other ideas floating around Europe in the early
nineteenth century, he says, adding that many of the philosophy books he
has collected seem very contemporary. Writing and reading in Yiddish is
not a thing of the past – he estimates that 30 to 40 secular books and
several hundred religious books are published in Yiddish in Israel each
year for a worldwide audience of about a million Yiddish readers.
Cahan has found that
while early Hebrew literature was very restrained and focused mainly on
one topic – the Land of Israel – Yiddish literature written in Israel’s
early years was varied. “As the minority language, the outsiders’
language, Yiddish had more sympathy for the types that there wasn’t room
for in Hebrew literature – the luckless, clumsy characters. There’s more
sympathy for the newcomers to the Land of Israel and the problems they
face in Yiddish literature,” he suggests.
Cahan immigrated to
Israel from Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. In addition to
being an entertainer who has released a CD with his band the Yiddish
Express, Cahan established YUNG YiDDiSH.
many initiatives include collecting, restoring, and cataloging books
that would otherwise be discarded when Yiddish-speakers pass away and
institutions with small libraries close. YUNG YiDDiSH operates a library
in Jerusalem and is in the process of establishing a library in Tel
Aviv. The facility in Jerusalem is much more than a library, Cahan
notes, since it hosts cultural events, from concerts to literary
discussions. He has similar hopes for the Tel Aviv branch. YUNG
YiDDiSH’s new home in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station consists of three
large, connected halls that will make an ideal setting for such events,
as well as for screening films and hosting art exhibits.
In Jerusalem, YUNG
YiDDiSH activities attract both the young and old, the religious and the
secular. Cahan sees Yiddish as a bridge that can help overcome some of
the gaps in Israeli society. He notes that the Yiddish summer program
that Tel Aviv University offers in cooperation with YUNG YiDDiSH and
Shalom Aleichem House attracted 100 bright, young students from Israel
and abroad last summer.
The Yiddish Stage
Theater is attracting a similar audience – along with their parents,
grandparents, and friends, according to Atzmon, who established
Yiddishpiel in Tel Aviv almost 20 years ago. It has become one of
Israel’s leading theaters and often performs in festivals abroad.
“It is important to
remember that Yiddish theater is not a fringe element, but the parent of
Hebrew theater,” Atzmon declares. “The main place where Yiddish can
shine in its full glory and touch audiences with its clever, funny, and
heartbreaking texts, wonderful songs that melt the heart, and characters
that are thoroughly human, for good or for bad, is on the stage.”
In Israel, about a
third of Yiddishpiel’s audience is young Israelis who heard Yiddish in
their grandparents’ or parents’ homes and new immigrants who want to
explore their Jewish roots. Though the plays are in Yiddish,
simultaneous translation into Hebrew and Russian is available to make
them more accessible to the younger audience members. The audience has
been growing consistently over the years – in 2005, 84,923 people
attended 329 performances. In addition, Yiddishpiel staged 135 special
performances at old age homes around Israel, with the support of the
Claims Conference. It also teamed up with the Education Ministry to
produce a play for high-school pupils traveling to Poland. Nearly 10,000
pupils have seen the play.
theater includes artists of varying ages and launched an internship
program two years ago to encourage young actors to work in Yiddish.
Participants are selected based on their acting skills; most are
graduates of acting schools and already work in the field. While some
are Ashkenazim interested in learning about their heritage, several come
from completely different backgrounds and are enchanted by the beauty
and richness of Yiddish culture. The program involves studying Yiddish
at Bar-Ilan University or Shalom Aleichem House and putting what they
learn into practice on the stage. The interns benefit from interaction
with Yiddishpiel’s veteran members and tutorials from Atzmon’s wife
Henya on how to express themselves in Yiddish.
One of the most
famous examples of Israelis’ growing openness to Yiddish is the Atzmons’
daughter Anat. After playing the quintessential sabra in countless
movies and television programs in Hebrew, she has returned to her roots
and now performs frequently with Yiddishpiel.
The Next Generation
They may be few in
number, but some young Israelis are taking the study of Yiddish language
and culture seriously.
teaches Yiddish at the Ironi Aleph public high school in Tel Aviv.
“About 80 pupils are studying Yiddish and preparing to take a
matriculation exam in it. They know their grandparents spoke it and want
to learn it,” she says. The program includes staging plays and writing
songs in Yiddish. The school also operates a website in Hebrew and
Yiddish with information for students of Yiddish, such as a
“It is the only high
school in Israel with such an extensive Yiddish program,” Dominsky says,
adding that she doesn’t think that pupils select the school to study
Yiddish, but they get excited about it once they are there.
Galay’s son Assaf
heads Ashkenazim, a national group of people in their twenties, most of
whom are students, interested in preserving the cultural heritage of
European Jews. It’s a very rich culture that wasn’t appreciated for a
long time in Israel and they want to change that.
“We are concerned
about the future of the country and feel that a better knowledge of our
own Ashkenazi heritage, which played a major role in creating the State
of Israel and shaping it in its early years, could help us contribute to
the state,” he says. “There are many different cultures in Israel that
together created the country. If each one is strengthened and continues
to grow, then the state will grow.”
article appeared in
ERETZ Magazine 106. To read it,
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