Where to find Yiddish in Israel

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I returned from Israel a few days ago, and arrived into the midst of one of the longest heat waves that London has ever seen. Temperatures are soaring to over 30 degrees every day, and the city is even starting to take on that laid-back Mediterranean feel that I loved so much about Tel Aviv.

After a month of intensive studies, I now feel pretty confident about my Yiddish. I can read and understand far more than ever before, and when I speak I use far fewer German words and syntax structures (known as Daytshmerisms). I’d wholeheartedly recommend doing a Yiddish summer programme to anyone who wants to learn the language. In fact, I know that was essential for me.

But what of my search for Yiddish? You may remember my brief encounter with it in Jerusalem, and you may be wondering whether that was it. Are the ultra-Orthodox community really the only people still using the language?

Nahlat-rambam

Tel Aviv: The Hebrew City

It wouldn’t be that surprising if they were. Tel Aviv is known as “The Hebrew City”, and Hebrew is the language which unites Israelis from all different backgrounds. In the same way that newly arrived immigrants in the United States learnt English and integrated, the same thing happened with Hebrew in Israel. Learning a country’s language is a mark of assimilation into its society, and nobody likes to feel like a foreigner, least of all where they actually live. It is this attitude, as well as measures taken by the government to promote Hebrew in official contexts, that led to the decline in Yiddish’s use. Especially for the younger generations, Israel offered a chance to form new identities and to rebuild, and at the forefront of that was the revival of Hebrew, the ancient Biblical language that was to be spoken once more.

My trips to Israel also started with Hebrew. I was fascinated by its story: how could a language extinct for thousands of years be ‘revived’ and suddenly become the mother tongue of millions of people? My mind boggled at the thought of non-native parents and teachers bringing up a whole generation in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue, and yet somehow it had all worked.

Nowadays Modern Hebrew is a beautiful and fascinating language. Its mannerisms, its directness and its ‘personality’ actually remind me strongly of Greek, and yet its relatively simple and regular grammar means that it’s not a particularly hard language to learn. Hebrew is about patterns – you work out how to distinguish nouns from verbs by the vowel patterns between a word’s three-letter root. This makes it a very musical language with strong rhythms and rhymes.

You have to derive tenses from infinitives according to the vowel patterns you hear. “Laavod” (to work), “laasot” (to do), and “laazor” (to help) all drop the infinitive marker ‘l’, and change the ‘aa-o’ sounds to ‘o-e’ in the present: “oved“, “oseh” and “ozer“. Once you get used to these patterns you can easily decline any verb, and even derive nouns and adjectives from it as well. When I first started out, it struck me that Hebrew had one of the most logical and satisfying grammar systems I had ever come across. The chance to practise Hebrew and use these melodies and patterns again is one of the biggest things that has drawn me back to Israel so many times.

The entrance to the Arbeter Ring on Kalisher Street. Sign in Yiddish and Hebrew.

The entrance to the Arbeter Ring on Kalisher Street. Sign in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Towards the end of my most recent trip, I discovered that Yiddish was not as non-existent there as I had first thought. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about its future. Yiddish is supported by a number of passionate people who pour their hearts and souls into keeping the language going and increasing awareness about it amongst other Israelis. On Kalisher Street in central Tel Aviv is the Arbeter Ring: a Yiddish cultural centre with an enormous library, run by the daughter of Yiddish author who grew up only speaking Yiddish at home in New York. There are also a number of other organisations, some of which thave started quite recently, such as the Yiddishpiel theatre group that puts on Yiddish plays with Hebrew and Russian surtitles across Israel, and Yung Yiddish which organises regular cultural events in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

There are also a number of fairly young music groups that are using Yiddish, such as Oy Division, who gave the Tel Aviv Yiddish Summer School a private concert one evening. These are young Israelis who also tour the world playing Ashkenazi music in Yiddish and Russian (although I’m not sure how many of them actually speak Yiddish). Check them out singing one of their more popular songs: Oy Gevalt a Ganef!

Attitudes are changing in Israel, and nothing demonstrates that more than the fact that the vast majority of the 100 students taking the Summer Programme this year were Israelis of all ages, while there are also around 300 enrolled for classes at Beit Sholem Aleichem in Tel Aviv. As of Autumn last year, a brand new inter-university graduate programme in Yiddish literature is also being offered across the country. My friend Danny Luzon who was studying on the programme this year even managed to get article published in the country’s most popular daily newspaper, Israel HaYom, with the bold title: “Yiddish is back, and it’s here to stay.”

But by far the most interesting answer I got in response to my search for Yiddish in Israel was also the most surprising. While everybody had told me that I was looking in the wrong place and that I should go to New York instead, what they didn’t tell me, was that I might not actually need to look anywhere near as hard as I thought. Could it be that Yiddish was staring me in the face the whole time, but with a new name, a new role, and a new set of vocab?

Bamba and Coca Cola – a popular Israeli snack.

Bamba and Coca Cola – a popular Israeli snack.

Modern Hebrew is a ‘revived’ version of the language spoken thousands of years ago. But, of course, the original ‘revivers’ who started using Hebrew again in the mid-19th Century were all native Yiddish speakers. Inevitably people tend to use expressions and mannerisms from their native languages in ones that they have learnt, and this couldn’t be more clear than in the modern phenomenon of ‘International English‘. But at such a crucial time as the rebirth of Hebrew, had the influence of Yiddish speakers left such an indellible mark on its whole? Had Yiddish, in some incredible final act, leapt over and planted its seeds in Hebrew, that years later would bloom and shape the modern language in a way that would make some linguists question whether it was even a non-European language?

Ghil’ad Zuckermann certainly thinks so, and increasingly there are a number of linguists that agree with him. He argues that Modern Hebrew’s phonology is directly derived from Yiddish, and that it certainly does not resemble its Arabic counterpart. Students of Yiddish and Hebrew can see whole phrases, expressions and syntax structures lifted entirely from the old European tongue into its Middle Eastern successor. One of my teachers told me that Israelis, who might struggle at first with some more Germanic aspects of grammar, often turn out to speak Yiddish extremely well with by far the most authentic flavour. Another told me that amongst recent generations she had noticed Hebrew had even acquired a very Yiddish intonation pattern, which again was not what she had been taught at the ulpan. So despite everyone talking about Yiddish being dead, could it be that was it in fact very much alive and well, and healthier than it ever had been, just that it had disguised itself as Hebrew?

It’s a fascinating and, of course, highly controversial issue. But if it’s true, then that is a far more satisfying result for my search for Yiddish than I could ever have imagined. I really hope that in the years to come more research will be done into this subject, and we’ll be able to get a proper response.

So now my search really has come to an end. I’ve had a fascinating month in Israel seeing new places, learning new things, and meeting lots of new people. That’s really what I came for, and on the way I wanted to see what I could find of my new language, just as every language learner likes to make a pilgrimage to the target country. I’m not really sure what I did find, but I know that I can’t wait to continue my studies of Yiddish and of Hebrew in the future.

Oh and by the way, a friend of mine from the programme got in a taxi in Nahariya in northern Israel recently and after battling through a few sentences in Hebrew, the driver suddenly switched to absolutely flawless and fluent Yiddish. They sat talking for hours. Dead language? Maybe not.

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