Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unifying Power Of Yiddish In Israel

Language Matters

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists — rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Nobel lecture, December 8, 1978

While Jews and Arabs in Israel each have their own distinct culture and language, a small number are learning Yiddish as a way to communicate with each other, not only words but more important, universal values that forms a great part of the history and meaning of the Yiddish language.

An article, by in the Jerusalem Post says:
How does the language of Old World Jewry connect Arabs and Jews in modern day Israel? Perhaps the more important question is: Why? The plight of Yiddish and its speakers is immediately intelligible to members of any group that has been oppressed or discriminated against throughout its history. The language is not just a means of communication. It is a preservation device that carries the stories of a people’s struggles to maintain its cultural identity in the face of great prejudice.
Relating to Yiddish doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the language itself. The story and values that are associated with it may be enough to entice people. Yiddish carries those qualities central to traditional Jewish identity formation, qualities that perhaps aren't inherent to the Hebrew language or that it intentionally refutes; most prominently the Jew as the other.
The story of Yiddish is a universally relatable one- a David and Goliath-esque historical, cultural struggle. Perhaps for Arabs, particularly Arab Israelis, learning Yiddish is a way to find common ground with their Jewish Israeli counterparts.
At Bar Ilan University 25% of students enrolled in courses at the The Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies are Arab. This is unique to Bar Ilan, but this phenomenon, non-Jews taking a serious interest in Yiddish language and/or culture, is also seen in Poland, where Polish students taking Yiddish courses often outnumber the Jews. Arabs in Israel are perhaps able to connect with Yiddish in a way that Hebrew doesn't allow them.
If Hebrew is the language of power and self-reliance in Israel, Yiddish is the language of accommodation and tolerance, of humility, as I.B. Singer noted in his Nobel lecture. I have argued elsewhere that it might have been better if Israel had adopted Yiddish as its national language instead of inventing modern Hebrew, which has too much connection to ancient Hebrew and the Torah. After all, forgotten by most people in Israel is that Israel was founded as  a secular state, and not a religious one, and Yiddish fits such requirements more than Hebrew does.

Yiddish is a language of the people, and its humour in particular is filled with the ideas of struggle and individual identity. This might explain much, the article says: “Arabs in Israel are perhaps able to connect with Yiddish in a way that Hebrew doesn't allow them.” Long live the Yiddish language.

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You can read the rest of the article at [JPost]