Jerusalem: City of Gold, and of Yiddish

Looking out from Jerusalem over the highway to Tel Aviv, with the remains of Lifta to the left.

Looking out from Jerusalem over the highway to Tel Aviv, with the remains of Lifta hidden by the trees to the left.

Tucked away under the flyover approaching Jerusalem from Tel Aviv are a handful of dilapidated, abandoned stone houses, clinging to the side of the hill, covered in weeds  and scattered with rotting supermarket trolleys. With the exception of a few snakes and squatters, this area has long been deserted. It’s a village called Lifta, and it tells a story not uncommon in Israel. Once a thriving village with a population of over 2500 in the mid-1940s, the residents all fled during the chaos of the 1947-8 war and left their empty homes behind. Today, Lifta is the only abandoned Palestinian village remaining from that era that has not been either renovated or demolished. It is now just a few minutes walk from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. It was in this very place that my search for Yiddish finally came to an end.


An ultra-Orthodox man on his way to the spring

Itst veln mir shvimen un dernokh veln mir trakhtn vegn dem” someone said to his friend as they passed us on the way down. (“We’ll go swimming now, and we’ll think about all that afterwards.”) At the heart of Lifta lies a fresh water spring, where members of Jerusalem’s (male) ultra-Orthodox community, or Haredim, come to cool off after a long day of walking round the city in their black suits and hats in the ruthless midday sun. The Haredim often find themselves at the centre of a lot of controversy in Israel for their anti-Zionist and anti-feminist beliefs, but they are also known because they are the only community that has continued to speak Yiddish in every day life: in Israel, the United States, Belgium, and wherever they live around the world. The irony hit me like a train: I’d spent weeks searching for the traces of Eastern Europe’s old tongue on the beaches of Tel Aviv, but it was only when I ventured further into the Middle East, to the remains of an abandoned Palestinian village, that I could find what I was looking for.

The bazaars of Jerusalem's Old City

The bazaars of Jerusalem’s Old City

Like the whole of this country Jerusalem is a city of many faces, and many contradictions. It has been fought over for centuries and lies at the centre of the world’s three main Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Nowadays it is home to people of all three faiths, with a population of 500 000 Jews, 280 000 Muslims and 14 000 Christians recorded in a study in 2011. The world of Jerusalem couldn’t be further from that of Tel Aviv, with its old city full of bazaars that have been ripping off tourists for centuries, and the abundance of religious sites like the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Al Aqsa Mosque, all within a few minutes’ walk of each other. In the Western part you can visit all your favourite high street shops and eat rugelach until you burst, while in the East you can spend all afternoon in Palestinian cafés with mint tea and backgammon, and find minibuses that will take you through the checkpoints to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and the other side.

This is also the home of Jerusalem Syndrome: some people are so overwhelmed on their first visit to the city that they believe that they are the Messiah. They begin preaching accordingly to anyone and everyone that they find which can have disastrous consequences for local residents. Roughly 100 people per year seek medical help for  Jerusalem Syndrome, and tour guides are given training to spot the onset of early symptoms.

Making their way back through the Old City from the Western Wall on Shabbat

Making their way back through the Old City from the Western Wall on Shabbat

But the Yiddish that you find in Jerusalem is not what you will learn on a course. The efforts made by the Vilnius-based Yiddish language institute (YIVO) to standardise and promote an academic form of the language have been largely ignored by ultra-Orthodox native speakers. The Yiddish that they speak continues to be influenced by other languages around it, like English in the United States, and Hebrew in Israel. The Yiddish spoken in Hassidic neighbourhoods of Jerusalem such as Mea Shearim also happens to be heavily influenced by Hungarian, due to the large number of ultra-Orthodox immigrants from Hungary. While I can’t say that I’ve come across any words of Hungarian etymology in my studies, newly arrived students at Jerusalem’s Yeshivas (or religious schools) often complain that their peers and teacher use huge amounts of Hungarian words, which can exclude anyone coming from outside these communities.

But I must admit: if my search for Yiddish in Israel really has come to an end, I am disappointed. I already knew that it existed in some form in ultra-Orthodox communities, and that’s why I’ve often been asked if I’m learning it because I’m religious. But Yiddish never was a religious language – it was just how Ashkenazi Jews communicated, day in day out. On the eve of the Holocaust it was spoken by 67% of all Jews across the world, but over the space of just a few years, this language, along with an overwhelming number of its 11 million speakers, was gone.

I would love to find secular, ordinary Israelis who use Yiddish in their daily lives with their friends, their families, without seeing it as anything special. Apart from the Haredim, I have only met Yiddish teachers, musicians, or people who pour their hearts and souls into preserving and promoting the language. I really want to find something not in this academic world, but so far all of my efforts have just been met with devastating apathy. In a country where half of the population are the descendents of Ashkenazi Jews, it is a travesty that I can’t find even one bookshop that sells the works of Sholem Aleichem in the original. My teacher told me that the last few Yiddish bookshops here have now finally bitten the dust. With only ten days remaining of my visit to Israel, I can’t say I’ve been left feeling optimistic.

I’m starting to wonder about what Yiddish’s future really looks like. Leaving a few token gestures here and there and the occasional optimistic newspaper article aside, I can’t find any trace of it in mainstream society. We students of the summer programme may spend our days here listening to the harrowing tales and pouring over the beautiful poetry of the Vilnius ghetto, but with every day that passes the remains of this civilisation edge closer to the grave. Outside the gates of the university, it seems like it was already buried a long time ago.

It remains to be seen whether it can ever come back.

Photo (c) Mark Millan

Photo (c) Mark Millan

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