Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Language of the Jews

If you've ever studied the stories of the Jews you'll know a source of Jewish cohesiveness was their cross-border language: a Jew from Baghdad and a Jew from Marakesh both prayed in Hebrew and spoke Aramaic, and this facilitated commerce. Later, the Jew from Trier and the Jew from Krakow and the Jew from Tiberius, they all prayed in Hebrew, knew enough Aramaic to navigate the Talmud, and spoke Yiddish, and this, too, facilitated commerce. Still later, much later, Soviet officers liberating Nazi camps identified themselves to emaciated survivors with code words in Yiddish, though the Aramiac and Hebrew had mostly been lost in the turmoil of emancipation then Bolshevism. (The main problem the early Zionists had with the non-European Jews was that they didn't speak Yiddish).

One morning in the summer of 1981 I saw the end of this world. I was studying in Vienna at the time, and three young students from Belgium suddenly appeared at our shul for the morning service. The rabbi, an elderly man from Israel, greeted the new comers in the time-honored tradition, asking them in Yiddish where they were from and if they needed anything. They looked discomfited, and responded in Hebrew.

That was thirty years ago. The elderly rabbi has long-since passed on, as has his generation and the remnants of his world; the students of that morning are middle-aged men. Earlier today I called the Chabad (Lubavitch) house in an Italian town where I'll be spending next weekend, to ask about some arrangements. The fellow who picked up the phone spoke perfect Hebrew, the obvious language for Jews of different lands to communicate in.


Joe in Australia said...

Many Haredim had an ideological objection to using Ivrit - it profaned Loshon haKodesh, it was too associated with Zionism and so forth. Over the past couple of decades this seems to have been quietly forgotten: Hebrew is the new lingua franca, as it were.

Anonymous said...

Here in New York City, there is a lot of Yiddish. In Chabad circles, you hear a lot of Hebrew. But other Hasidic groups, such as Satmer, Bobov, Ger, Munkatch, you hear lots of Yiddish. It is a very Americanized Yiddish. Children are being raised with Yiddish as their first language. Even in the non-Hasidic, but right wing Jewish frum world (the non-modern Orthodox), "Yiddish Teich" is a big deal.

There is also a secular Yiddish revival, as well. This Yiddish is much more literate than the one you hear spoken by the Hasidim. But it is a 2nd or 3rd language for people, who study it and use it for social gatherings. I don't think they would dream of raising children in it.


annie said...

Interestingly, CiFWatch has an article about Tony Lerman's disgusting piece on CiF, accusing the Zionists of deliberately suppressing or killing Yiddish for their own nefarious aims.

I'll link to CiFWatch rather than to the cesspit:

Anonymous said...

now here finally is the nefarious truth revealed and W&M vindicated ;)
- Jews have not just one but two linguae? franca of their own for worldwide communication - verrrry verrrry suspicious and by now they have become so powerful that they don't even have to do it in secret any longer... ts ts ts

after all other groups which are said to have a language of their own are said to do with just one - Catholic priests with Latin - Greek shop owners with Greek

so glad to hear that Yiddish is kept alive - I read a book on it ages ago making the point that it was a language and not a dialect or a Rotwelsch which was public opinion at the time (1967) in Germany - tell your Yiddish speaking friends to look out for Kafka on the Yiddish theatre in Prague - it's great stuff for anybody studying a "foreign" language


Anonymous said...


And I didn't know there was Yiddish theatre in Prague!


AKUS said...

Annie - you beat me to it with the reference to CiFwatch.

Yakov's comment about Russians liberating the concentration camps and Yiddish-speaking officers making themselves known to the survivors as Jews themselves is interesting in the context of that and the farshtinkender Lerman's article since he and his sub-editor blamed Zionism for the demise of Yiddish, overlooking two important facts - that by slaughtering millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews, the Nazis were the real destroyers of Yiddish, and, of course, the Sephardi community never spoke Yiddish (I suppose Lerman's next article will be how Zionism killed off Ladino etc.) and Hebrew became the common language for all.

But why not blame Zionsim instead of pausing to thing about the real causes for something or anything if you hate Israel with the virulence of Lerman and the Guardian's staff.

Anonymous said...

the Guardian is also generally beyond the pale if you believe the lament of this commentator
The Guardian: loathsome and loathful

there is also a delightful series of novels about life in Edinburgh where the horror-parents are guardian readers (none of the other is ...)
and now my question:
if that is common opinion then what is the egg and what the chicken - does the anti-semitism fuel the other nastiness or is it the other way around.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember it was a kind of Wanderb├╝hne (wandering stage) but performing for quite extended times in Prague - I found it in a Kafka "best of" book and he describes how he managed to understand them not knowing Yiddish himself and goes on quite a bit about their stuff - seems like he went there evening after evening as long as they were in town - it opened a whole new world to him, his father wanting to distance himself from rural Jewishness
(this is what my memory tells me)

Anonymous said...

Considering that they appeared at your shul, it is rather unlikely, but maybe the young Belgians were Sephardim? They have not died out yet :)

BitterRenter said...

Not only Yiddish is disappearing. There are other Jewish languages that are disappearing: Tat, Juhuro, Yevanic, Qivruli, Judaeo-Italian and Ladino are just a few examples.

Moreover, non-Ashkenazi Jews in Europe (Sepharadim, Greek Jews) never spoke Yiddish, and neither did the Jews of Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, etc.