Searching for Yiddish in Tel Aviv

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I’ve been in Israel for nearly a week now, and I’ve really been taking full advantage of what the country has to offer. I’ve eaten falafel and hummus every day, my afternoons have been taken up with the beach, and I’ve spent tranquil evenings on the mirpesset (balcony) watching the sun set over the Mediterranean sea. In many ways this cosmopolitan city, clinging on to the edge of the Middle East, is how I would imagine paradise: the sun, the palm tree-lined streets, the huge malls with everything you could ever want, and the endless sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see.

But that is not what has keeps bringing me back to this country. What fascinates me about Israel is that although this is my fourth trip here, I still don’t understand it. I’m not really sure that anybody else does either. This is a tiny country inhabited by people from all over the world, united only by a common religion. Despite the attempts of successive governments to foster a cohesive society through promoting the Hebrew language and emphasising the Jewish people’s ancient roots in the region, Israel still remains a very young and divided place.

In particular, the recently arrived Russian communities seem to show that: “Здесь почему-то построили русско-говорящее государство,” (“For some reason they built a Russian-speaking state here,”) a taxi driver from Rostov on the Don told me the other day as he took me back from the beach. “Ну для нас это великолепно: можно жить по-русски и не в России.” (“For us that’s fantastic: we can live a Russian lifestyle without living in Russia.”) And there are plenty of people here who do just that. They arrive, they get citizenship, jobs and pensions schemes, but mentally they never really leave where they have come from: they read their own newspapers, they set up their own shops, they eat their own food, and of course, they keep speaking their own languages. Israel is a country where Ethiopians rub shoulders with Argentinians in supermarkets, and Ukrainians drive buses for people from Iraq; yet all of these people are, by definition, Israelis.

But this does change with the second and third generations, who see their past slightly differently. What is important for them is the present, and that means creating a new, modern country in the Middle East with little trace of the nearly two thousand years that their ancestors spent in somewhere like Eastern Europe. They concentrate on ancient times, when Jews last lived in this region, and they talk about it as though it was just yesterday.  As this recent BBC article suggests, the new Israelis wanted to redefine what it meant to be Jewish, especially following the horror of the Holocaust. In their own country, Jews would be strong, self-sufficient, and Israeli. The president of Tel Aviv University said himself at the opening ceremony of the Yiddish Summer Programme on Sunday: “When I was growing up in the 50s, Israel was a very young country. Like many of my generation I am a descendent of Eastern European Jews, but I did not want to be one. I wanted to be Israeli. I told my parents that I did not want them to speak to me in Yiddish. It is only now that we are beginning to understand what it is that we have lost.”

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Beit Sholem Aleichem in downtown Tel Aviv

My search for Yiddish begins. So far I have not been successful. Hidden amongst the towering skyscrapers of downtown Tel Aviv is a tiny concrete hut called “Beit Sholem Aleichem”, named after the famous author who inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Here there is a collection of wooden carvings from life in the shtetl, and occasional Yiddish cultural events, but it feels out of place in this fast-paced modern metropolis. On the whole, the Israelis do not really care about that period of history. They see it as an interim period between the two eras of Israel, and it is one that they seem happy to simply forget.

“How did you get started with learning Yiddish?” the immigration officer asked me at the airport as he rummaged through my passport for any traces of Arab stamps. “You know we speak Hebrew now, right?” The same question was asked to me at the Ramat Aviv mall when I went to buy my bedsheets. “Yiddish?” the 20-something salesman asked me as he fumbled around with my credit card. “Why? Are you religious?”

In Yiddish it’s common to answer a question with a question, and in this case the usual response would be a shrug and “Far vos nisht yidish?” (“Why not Yiddish?”) Every time I want to turn the question back onto the Israelis: why aren’t they learning Yiddish? Why don’t they care about it? Why is it left to people like me, and the many non-Jews on Yiddish Summer Programmes to try to dig up and preserve this unique and fascinating civilisation? Its descendants are all around me in Tel Aviv. Their ancestors were the Tevyes and Yitzkhiks from Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke stories, who would sit in Zamość and Białystok and talk dreamily about Eretz Yisroel. They were the focus of the folk songs and the Klezmer music that still has the power to move people to this day. Yet in their haste to prove their nation’s ethnic and historic lineage from the 1st Century CE to the modern day, their recent history has been left behind, buried, and forgotten.

But things are changing, gradually. Of the 100 or so students studying on the Summer Programme at Tel Aviv University, at least half are Israeli. Some of them used to speak Yiddish as children, some of them have parents who were huge figures in the Yiddish world, and some have just realised that it is a part of them that they know very little about. There are even some students with no Ashkenazi (Eastern European) heritage at all, who just love the language and the culture. There is also a renewed interest in the language amongst Jews outside of Israel. But after half a century of silence, I wonder whether it might now be too late.

68 years after the end of the Second World War, there are few native Yiddish speakers remaining. There are, however, some left of that generation who make occasional appearances at events like Klezmer concerts, too frail to walk up onto the stage, and speak passionately in Hebrew about what Yiddish meant to them as they were growing up. There is a danger that in the not too distant future, Yiddish will become a language of the past. So little of the wealth of Yiddish literature exists in translation that the entire culture might soon be lost. Will Yiddish become like Old Norse or Old Church Slavonic, studied by academics but not used by anyone else?

The time to learn Yiddish is now, while the native speakers are still alive and teaching. Yiddish is a language with an entire philosophy behind every word. It captivates the essence of life in the shtetl, and is a way to learn more about what it is to be a Jew. Surely that, amongst the falafel stands and shisha pipes and beach bars and nightclubs, is what the State of Israel is all about?

My search continues.

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