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Kim Chernin

Why Hebrew Can’t Speak Yiddish

I grew up without a Jewish education, apart from what you learn from a family that speaks Yiddish, celebrates Passover and tells stories about the Old World.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I absorbed  Yiddishkeit,  a very different Jewish sensibility than you might acquire in a formal setting, like a synagogue.  There was Yiddish,  a language I was learning by listening to conversations I was not meant to understand. When I was still very young I figured out that Yiddish wears a tempered smile, having learned to laugh at its sorrows, but only so  much.

Yiddish might have become the national language of Israel but Hebrew was chosen instead, drawing a line of continuity from the weak and vulnerable state to the ancient Jewish kingdom.  Did those who revived the language  intend to revive with it the ancient warrior culture rather than establish a  peace-seeking world of neighbors, farmers and scholars?  How different Israel would have been if its citizens spoke Yiddish and had embraced the culture of Jews in Eastern Europe with its greater empathic understanding.  Is it possible that Yiddish speaking Israelis would have returned the land occupied in
the ‘67 war?

Jews of the diaspora kept a division between Yiddish and Hebrew, Yiddish  the spoken language of the everyday, Hebrew suited to readings from the Bible and for sacred discourse.  I have always found it significant that among Jews of the diaspora  women rarely knew Hebrew, although men were familiar with both languages.  Yiddish is called the Mama Loshn, the Mother Tongue, while Hebrew is the Holy Language, sacred and exalted.  Hebrew was not spoken at home, a fact that must have a great influence on this language that had not been employed as a vernacular for two thousand years, since the expulsion of the Jews from Roman Palestine (or since the 2nd Century CE, as some historians think.)

Hebrew does not easily smile; it is austere in its undeviating regularity, as a language would be that did not go about in Jewish daily life but seems rather to have held on, stilted, ancient and dead, waiting for the first secular school (ever) to revive it in 1893, in Jaffa, to instruct its students.  Yiddish talks with its hands. Mother and her cooking, her preparation of the Sabbath meal, the way she sets the table, the holidays celebrated at home at which she officiates, the way she receives a beggar at the door, the conversations she has while hanging out the clothes, the sharing of recipes, the writing of letters to the men who have gone ahead to the New World; and the pogroms, and the long suffering of the diaspora, and the edicts against owning land.  These have been stitched into Yiddish, a language that began  in centers of Jewish life in the 11th Century as a mix of Middle High German with Hebrew expressions, intrinsically a neighborly language.  The Jewish emigration from the Rhineland towards the east lives in the Yiddish vernacular, which absorbs words as if they were mother’s Sabbath stew (cholnt). In the Yiddish that was spoken in the areas now called  Poland and the Ukraine, you also would have found  Russian words among its German and Hebrew vocabulary.  It seems to me that if Israel had chosen Yiddish as its national tongue, this richly lived language, which grew up on the mother’s side of things, would more easily than Hebrew have recognized the Palestinians as fellow-suffering, fellow sharers. Almost everyone I met in Israel from a  European background could tell stories of grandparents who were insulted for speaking Yiddish in public in the new Zionist world.  These new Israelis saw Yiddish  as the language of victimhood and forced expulsions but it was also the bearer of a rich and humanistic tradition.

Hebrew in the diaspora belonged to the men.  We wouldn’t expect from it the tenderness of Yiddish, with its diminutive word for almost everything.  Hebrew is the men’s language, an ancient warrior’s language of conquest, warfare, struggle for land, the language for worship of a War God. “Death in combat is not the end of the fight but its peak; and since combat is a part, and at times the sum total of life, death, which is the peak of combat, is not the destruction of life, but its fullest most powerful expression…”  Speaking here is Israel’s proudest warrior,  Moishe Dayan. Death is life’s fullest most powerful expression…could this even be translated into Yiddish?  The words might find some correspondence but Yiddish  would emphatically reject its meaning. Yiddish, through its long history, has never gone to war. It  would have been impossible to forge a new  nationalistic Yiddish on the battlefields of Palestine where the new Hebrew was stuttering  into life.  I like to wonder if  the choice of Yiddish would have tempered the warrior, soothed the land-hunger of the early settlers, made them more compassionate to the other people living on the land that had been promised to them more than two thousand years before, yes; but who said as an exclusive property? 

Hebrew was also capable of dreaming , as in the prophetic poetry  of Micah, the Morasthite, who some consider the first voice in the Western world to announce the dream of universal peace.  Micah embodies what Biblical scholars consider “a new-found prophetic faith in God as a God of righteousness rather than a God of war…”  I like to think that his peace-vision made its way into the Hebrew tongue, where perhaps it can still be heard,  even in English translation, a cry from the deeps of the modern language, constantly trying to rise to the surface and constantly dying away: “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord/And to the house of the God of Jacob; And he will teach us of his ways. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares/and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall  not lift up a sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more…”

Zionism was not doomed to become a strident, nationalistic, power-seeking movement simply because it had chosen Hebrew; it could have drawn on a voice like Micah’s instead of giving birth to the modern Hebrew of Moishe Dayan.  Fancifully, as If I didn’t know better, I sometimes think that Micah must originally have spoken Yiddish, a language that was not developed until 11 centuries after his time.  But this is a comment that  can only be made in Yiddish.

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Kim Chernin is an award-winning author who writes in many genres. Her books include: In My Mother’s House, Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere At Home.
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©2017 Kim Chernin
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May 2017

Volume 17 Issue 12

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