“Loosening a Tongue” by Shoshana London Sapir, in the current issue of Hadassah magazine, has good news for lovers of Yiddish.
The early Zionists wanted to create a new world, free from the “taint” of the old one, and when hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Jews flooded into Israel after the war, their tongues were tied. Even Yiddish newspapers were forbidden to them – and actually outlawed.
Once despised in Israel as, in the words of Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky, “tuberculosis gnawing at the nation’s lungs,” it is being resuscitated, if not exactly revived, there. And not just the language but the culture it helped to create and in which it thrived.
As someone whose grandfather, a Zionist through to his bones, insisted she learn Yiddish because he loved it, and because Hebrew would not lack for speakers, I was glad to learn that Yiddish is no longer a “language non grata” in an avowedly “Jewish state.”
Language expresses thought, but it also alters it. If Israel had welcomed Yiddish, would it have developed differently? I am not the first one to ask that question.
It was wrong to try to kill a language. It was, in effect, a denial of hundreds of years of Jewish life and an affront to those who spoke it. It has never lost its charm; may it regain its strength.