Yiddish and Hebrew -- End of a Feud?

The dispute between Yiddish and Hebrew wracked the Jewish secular world during the early part of this century, and remains a contentious issue to this day.  At first blush the persistence of this feud seems absurd.  The Bund, which has historically been the main champion of Yiddish as the language of the vast majority of Jews in Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia, is virtually no more.  And the millions of Jews whom it had so valiantly represented and defended are largely gone, too.

It made sense for the Bund and some smaller groups such as the "Folkists," the "Territorialists," and until the late l930s the Left Poale Zion, to insist that Jews in Eastern Europe be granted rights as a national minority.  (I leave out the Communists, whose loyalty to Yiddish never exceeded their unconditional fealty to the Third Rome.)  These rights, they maintained, should include "cultural autonomy" in the form of state-subsidized schools and other educational and administrative institutions, and also, in those areas where Jew constituted a compact presence, the use of Yiddish in courts and other state institutions.

Though the latter were soon dropped by the Bund as impractical, the issue of national cultural autonomy (borrowed, incidentally, from the Austrian Social Democrats) was central to the ideology of "doikayt" (hereness), which maintained that the Jewish masses must struggle for their rights wherever they reside, and not place their hopes on the chimera of the "in-gathering" of Jews in a distant and inhospitable part of the world.  As long as millions of Jews were bound to stay in Eastern Europe and as long as the overwhelming majority of them could not and did not wish to be uprooted, Yiddish was an essential component of the Bund's ideology, a realistic political option.

Similarly, it was reasonable for the Zionists of the first three aliyas (from the turn of the century into the early thirties)  to insist that a nascent Jewish homeland--or state--inhabited by people speaking a variety of tongues must have one unifying language, and that this must be Hebrew, the historic language of all Jews, albeit one that was spoken for the past few centuries by only a tiny minority of Jews.  The revival and establishment of a modern Hebrew language was thus for the Zionists of crucially symbolic as well as of pragmatic significance--certainly during the first few years of building the "Yishuv."

"Yiddishists" and "Hebraists"--however imprecise the terms-- came in different shapes and forms.  For many proponents of Yiddish, the language and culture represented an end in itself.  For others, it was a means to an end.  The history of the Bund's championship of Yiddish provides an instructive example of the relation between these two concepts, or perhaps the transmutation of one concept into another.  At first, the Bund defended Yiddish as the language of the overwhelming majority of Jews in Eastern Europe.  The struggle for Yiddish was seen as part of the struggle for the rights of people humiliated, disenfranchised, and exploited, a struggle for their dignity a human being and as Jews.  It was not until l904-5 that the Bund embraced Yiddish as a discrete goal, and became involved in creating cultural institutions in Yiddish, supporting the growth of Yiddish journalism and literature and enlisting many Yiddish writers into its rank both as members and as "sympathizers."  Indeed, in interwar Poland the Bund cannot possibly be understood apart from its role in fostering a Yiddish secular culture.

The Bund's struggle against Hebrew was not dictated by hostility or ill will towards the language as such, however much Hebrew was largely identified with the religious side of the Jewish historical experience.  Rather, it was part of the Bund's rejection of Zionism (the principal secular champion of Hebrew) as an ideology that diverted the masses from struggling for their genuine rights.  What was the point of educating Jewish children in Hebrew if the vast majority of them was bound to--and indeed should--remain in Poland?  The insistence on Hebrew, then, was seen by the Bund as almost as deleterious as assimilation, an option which the Bund strenuously denounced. As for the tiny minority of Bundists who found themselves in Palestine in the 1920s and became more numerous in the aftermath of the Second World War, they campaigned not against Hebrew (which would have been rather pointless), but against the suppression of Yiddish.  (Some of them insisted that Yiddish and not Hebrew be declared the state language, but they were in a distinct minority.)

The Hebraists, apart from the purely religious elements whose attitudes towards Yiddish--pro and con--are shaped by religious considerations, were almost exclusively Zionists of various hues and persuasions.  Despite what was for many of them a profound attachment to the Yiddish language and literature, they fought against the use Yiddish in Palestine and created legislation that made it impossible--that is to say, illegal--to establish a Yiddish theater, publish a daily in the Yiddish language, establish Yiddish schools, and other Yiddish-language institutions Political and ideological considerations superceded all others.  Yiddish had to be combated more vigorously than any other language, for the simple reason that it threatened the hegemony of Hebrew.

Recently it has become fashionable for some Zionist spokesmen to deny that Yiddish had at one time been virtually proscribed by the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine, then in Israel.  In December of l997, for instance, at a scholarly conference about the Bund held in Warsaw, several Israeli scholars vehemently denied that this was ever the case.  (Their major opponent at the conference was the Polish sociologist Alina Cala.)  But this is absurd: the bitter struggle against Yiddish and anti-Yiddish legislation are part of recorded history.

But those who opposed Yiddish on "rational" grounds (however valid or invalid) constituted a minority.  For most, the struggle against Yiddish was rooted in a hatred of anything that was connected with the "Diaspora," considered to be marked by self-deprecation and cringing submission to non-Jews, a culture that was thoroughly second-rate, lacking in any estimable qualities, counterfeit and meretricious.

This image of the Diaspora was for a long time central to Zionism.  As the American historian Howard Sachar notes in his A History of Zionism (vol.  I, l986, p. 718), the dominant Zionist image of the overseas Jewish community was one of "half men, or at least an inferior breed of half Jews."  The original Israeli reaction to the Holocaust was also shaped by this image.  The millions of victims were considered cowardly, as one Israeli scholar put it, "inferior human beings that went like lambs to the slaughter."  (Dina Porat, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David, Cambridge, Mass, l990, p. 239)

Yiddish, the language of most of those miserable "half Jews"  earned equal contempt, if not outright hatred.  As Benjamin Harshav points out in his brilliant Language and Revolution (Berkeley, l993, p. 157), the conventional wisdom, "first formulated most harshly by Moses Mendelssohn, [held] that Yiddish was a perverted language, reflecting the perversion of the soul of the Diaspora Jew.  The revulsion from it," Harshav continues," is a recoil from Diaspora existence, from the Yiddish language--the mother tongue, intimate and hated at the same time, from the parental home of the shtetl, corroded by idleness and Jewish trading, and from the irrational and primitive behavior of the Hasidim."

An exaggeration?  Hardly.  For several decades Yiddish was not only hounded by "legal means," but Yiddish speakers were often insulted on the streets, Yiddish concerts and lectures were harassed by youths wielding stones or rotten tomatoes.  Only a few years ago a Jewish woman born in Germany confided in me that she "simply could not suffer the sound of the Yiddish language, so vulgar, so unbearably ugly."  And it was Ben Gurion himself who, in the company of several hundred kibbutzniks, listened in 1945 for several hours to the harrowing tale of Rozka Korczak, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair, the first resistance fighter to reach to Palestine after the war.  He then opined that "it was all very moving, and would have been even more so if Rozka had not been speaking in that grating language"  (Tom Segev , The Seventh Million, New York, l993, p. l80).  (Forty years earlier Ben Gurion, a young khalutz just arrived in the Holy Land, edited a Yiddish daily for fellow-kibbutzniks who spoke no Hebrew, as indeed he himself had not for the first few years of his life.)

Times, naturally, have changed.  There are Yiddish theaters and a Yiddish daily in Israel, Yiddish courses are offered in Israeli universities, an excellent literary journal under the editorship of the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutskever appeared for several decades in Tel Aviv until about a year ago, and many of those who had damned the language and assaulted its speakers now tend to approach it with something akin to piety.  The Holocaust is studied and memorialized, the victims of the Nazis are now portrayed as heroes, the traditions of the galut are no longer approached in a spirit of derision but respect.  Zionism and Hebrew have prospered and Yiddish is no longer either a competitor or an enemy.

Outside Israel Yiddish is taught at universities.  Groups here and there cultivate an interest in Yiddish, Yiddish linguistics and Yiddish culture, with several active internet web sites.  Yiddish poetry and prose (such as the books of the Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer)has been translated into several languages, Yiddish courses have been offered, under the sponsorship of the New York based YIVO (Jewish Scientific Institute) in Warsaw and Vilnius (though in the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," the one-time capital of Yiddish, all but a handful of Yiddish-speaking Jews still survive).

Of the one-time four Yiddish dailies in New York, only one, the venerable Forverts, still comes out--once a week.  Yiddish day and afternoon schools in the United States are no more.  But Yiddish music (via the klezmer tradition) is the rage in Western Europe, Poland, Russia and the United States, and learned conferences about Yiddish and Yiddish literature, old and new, take place--even, mirabile dictum, in Germany.  An amateur Yiddish theater performs in New York City several times a year.  The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has amassed a splendid library of Yiddish books, and whenever its budget allows (which unfortunately is not too often these days...) the Center sponsors Yiddish lectures, even though none of its officers nor the editor of its journal speaks Yiddish with any degree of fluency.

By and large, then, Yiddish, for all the sedulous, praiseworthy, and heroic efforts to keep Yiddish alive, it would be absurd to deny its gradual decline.  The ranks of Yiddish speakers are shrinking (except among the ultra-orthodox), its tattered role vis-a-vis Hebrew a sad but established fact.

And yet: old passions do not swiftly fade away, nor does the force of ideological commitments.  In Russia a few weeks ago, I heard stories of the Jewish Agency, which subsidizes cultural and educational activities in that part of the world, refusing to provide funds for Yiddish (as distinguished from Hebrew) schools, this despite the interest still shown in it by Russian Jews, and of a youth organization that was deprived of funds by the Jewish Agency and thus forced to disband, because of its lack of a proper "aliya spirit."  Although the Knesset has passed a law recognizing several "Jewish languages" to be worthy of government support, Ladino, with virtually no surviving speakers and hardly any literary credentials, is regularly propped up while Yiddish receives virtually no funds.  The feud, then, still seems to go on --even if one of the contestants has virtually laid down its arms.  It is a pathetic and shameful story.

Abraham Brumberg
Abraham Brumberg has written widely on Russia, Eastern Europe, and contemporary Jewish affairs.  He has also authored articles in Yiddish and is the performer of an album called "Of Lovers, Dreamers, and Thieves--Yiddish Folk Songs from Eastern Europe."

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