Language wars

Language wars

YIVO exhibit looks at Yiddish in Palestine before 1948

YIVO’s exhibit about Yiddish in Palestine admittedly is small, but it’s full of surprises.

To begin with, although we associate Yiddish with Ashkenaz, and it’s true that it’s Ashkenazim (admittedly a broad term) who speak it, it wasn’t limited to Central and Eastern Europe.

Fragments of letters found in the Cairo geniza — the treasure house of documents that span about a millennium and offers glimpses of both official and daily life around the Jewish world — show that at least one family spoke Yiddish in Jerusalem in the 1560s.

A new exhibit at YIVO, “Palestinian Yiddish: A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel before 1948,” starts then, in the mid sixteenth century. (See box.)

“There are fragments of four letters written by Rokhl Zusman in Jerusalem to her son Moishe in Cairo,” the exhibit’s creator, Eddy Portnoy, who also is YIVO’s senior academic adviser and director of exhibitions, said.

What does Rockhl write? “She complains to Moishe that he doesn’t write to her enough,” Dr. Portnoy said.

This 1923 map of Jewish Palestine shows the growth of Jewish agricultural, commercial, and industrial activity there. (All photos courtesy of The Yivo Institute for Jewish Research)

“That’s the oldest document that we have, but we do know that Askhenazim, mainly chasidim, began going to Palestine in the late 18th century, and Litvaks started to go during the 1800s. It was a small community, growing little by little, until the 1880s, with the development of Zionism and the mass immigration from Eastern Europe.”

But although those Yiddish speakers were welcome in Palestine, their language was not.

Many modern Jews knew that Yiddish speakers and Hebrew speakers were not fond of each other, or at least of each other’s languages, but the exhibit details the breadth and depth of that dislike, and it’s shocking. Hebrew speakers actively loathed Yiddish speakers. Not only was their rhetoric violent, at times that violent speech became physical violence.

All of that is in the exhibit.

As it shows, when Jews from eastern Europe first got to Palestine in the ninetenth century they kept on speaking Yiddish — it was, after all, their mamaloshen, their mother tongue — and they had to learn Arabic, the dominant language. Those Askhenazim were one of three distinct Jewish groups then; the others were the Sephardim, who spoke Ladino, and the Mizrahim, for whom Arabic was native.

When the huge influx of Yiddish speakers began to arrive in the late eighteenth century, “there also was the influx of Zionist ideology,” Dr. Portnoy said. Part of that ideology was the concept of shlilat hagalut — the negation of the diaspora. It demanded the vaporization of anything that tied the proud, free Jews of Palestine from their hunched-over, indentured not-peers in Europe. “Everything connected to the diaspora had to be avoided,” Dr. Portnoy said. That included Yiddish.

The “Arabic-Yiddish Teacher,” written by Yiddish journalist Getsl Zelikovitsh in 1918, was the first text for Yiddish-speaking students of Arabic.

The task that the new Palestinian Jews had undertaken was hard. They wanted all new immigrants to the Jewish homeland not only to forget their old language and learn a new one, but to learn a language that was both very old and extremely new. Hebrew was being recreated around them; it was a new language for a people recreating themselves.

Not everyone wanted to be a new person in a new land; some of them wanted to keep their language.

It didn’t go well.

Among other incidents, “In 1907, when the Left Labor Zionists — Poale Tzion Smola — began to publish a magazine in Yiddish, they were roundly attacked by other Zionist groups, who not only mocked them for writing in Yiddish but took them to task for it,” Dr. Portnoy said. “Everyone should be speaking Hebrew, they said.

But according to the Left Labor Zionists — members of a breakaway group from the Hebrew-favoring Labor Zionists, “There were large numbers of immigrants who didn’t speak Hebrew, and the easiest way to educate them was in Yiddish, and they also wanted to maintain good relations with the diaspora.” That was the practical side of the question. On the theoretical side, “some of them felt that Yiddish was the language of the Jewish proletariat.”

The Hebraists, on the other hand, as Zionists, felt that Yiddish was the language of oppression.

In 1928, these bandaged Yiddishists were wounded by an attack by Hebrew language fanatics in Tel Aviv.

“Because Zionism was essentially a revolutionary movement, there were a lot of fanatics,” Dr. Portnoy said. “Some of them were virulently pro-Hebrew and anti-Yiddish.

“The kind of fanaticism that these ideologues developed wound up creating an environment where, for example, when the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch paid a visit to Palestine in 1914 and gave a lecture in Yiddish — the language that he wrote in! — these pro-Hebrew fanatics protested against him.

“Nothing really untoward happened then.

“But three or four months later, Chaim Zhitlowsky, the architect of Yiddish socialism” — to be clear, he was very famous in the Jewish community, and very influential, and very left — “visited, lectured, and was protested even more fervently. It culminated just before he was to supposed to give a lecture in Tel Aviv. Students were brought from the Gymnasia Herzliya, the seat of the new Hebrew culture, to protest him.

“Before he could give his lecture, they trapped him in the house where he’d been staying, and they held him hostage. They refused to let him out.

“He couldn’t give his lecture.”

There were more confrontations. “In the mid 1920s, a group developed, called the Battalion of Hebrew Language Defenders. It was created initially because classes were being given in German at the Technion in Haifa — because that was the professors’ language — but then their animus turned toward Yiddish speakers.

“In 1927, the two-year-old Hebrew University in Jerusalem wanted to create a chair in Yiddish studies — Yiddish was the most widely spoken language in the Jewish world; 75 percent of the world’s Jews spoke it — so it made sense to have that chair. There was a significant and burgeoning Yiddish literature.

“But the group began to protest against the creation of that chair. We have a poster in the exhibit that says that a chair in Yiddish would be a disaster.

“They succeeded in stopping it. And this organization became the center of anti-Yiddish activity. They’d do things like if a newsstand was selling Yiddish-language newspapers, they’d burn it down.

“They were known to have broken into meetings of Yiddishists and beaten them up.” The exhibit includes a photograph of beaten-up, bandaged Yiddishists, staring into the camera in black-and-white despair. “It was like a pogrom of Hebraists against Yiddishists,” although of course without anyone dying, Dr. Portnoy said.

The rage was unidirectional, he added. “It wasn’t at all the same on the other side. All of the Yiddishists active in Palestine spoke Hebrew. It’s just that they liked Yiddish. It was their mother language.”

Dr. Eddy Portnoy stands by the boxes in YIVO’s archives.

The rage against Yiddish had to do not only with old versus new, but also perceived differences in class. “The anti-Yiddish attitude developed as part of the Haskalah” — the Enlightenment, the Jewish movement in the late 18th and 19th centuries that changed the intellectual relationship between the Jewish and outside worlds — “which held that Jews should speak the language of the country where they lived,” Dr. Portnoy said. It started in Germany, and its early adherents switched from Yiddish to German.

“Because language is the carrier of culture, when you take on a new language, you take on the attitudes of the speakers of that language. The German attitude was that Yiddish wasn’t a real language. It was jargon.” It was the creole of the unwashed.

“Some eastern European Jews thought that Jews should speak Russian or Polish, but when some of them understood that neither the Russians nor the Poles ever would accept them, they turned to Hebrew.”

When the Haskalah hit eastern Europe, “the editor of the first Yiddish newspaper, in the 1860s, wrote a note saying that before people make fun of us for writing in Yiddish, we want to say that Yiddish isn’t a real language and you can’t say intelligent things in it.

“They wrote that in Yiddish. It was insane. And this newspaper became the birthplace of Yiddish literature.”

“There are fanatics in any kind of revolutionary movement,” Dr. Portnoy repeated.

in 1900, men and women pray together
at the Kotel.

“It was clear all along that Hebrew would be the official language of the Jewish community, first in Palestine, then in Israel,” he said. “I think that Hebrew would have succeeded regardless,” even if the Hebraists hadn’t waged war against the Yiddishists. “The reality was that most Jews coming from Europe were multilingual. Learning another language wasn’t really a problem for them. And since Yiddish and Hebrew are deeply related anyway, learning Hebrew wouldn’t have been much of an issue.

“But the virulence was an outgrowth of the idea that all the problems of the Jews were a result of the diaspora. Yiddish became an avatar of that belief.”

The rest of the exhibit shows some of the work that the Yiddishists produced in Israel, despite the persecution they faced. “Yiddish literature in Palestine was different from Yiddish literature elsewhere,” Dr. Portnoy said. “It addressed different topics than in Warsaw or New York. It was about life on kibbutzim, and farming, and Bedouins. It produced unique literary works.”

Dr. Portnoy, who earned a master’s degree in Yiddish from Columbia and a doctorate in history from the Jewish Theological Center, basically created the exhibit because he could. It’s a subject that’s fascinated him for some time, “so when I started finding the creative works of Yiddishists in YIVO’s archives, I realized that it could be an exhibit.

“It’s the most amazing thing in the world, to go through the archives,” he continued. “It’s the best part of my day, to go through the stacks and to open random boxes. You find incredible treasures that don’t exist anywhere else.

“As a historian, to be able to touch the materials that these people produced — it’s unequalled. It’s amazing. Some of these materials were touched by the writers themselves. They’ve inscribed some of it. In today’s digital world, to be able to touch something analog — it’s so gratifying. You’re not in front of a screen. You’re holding something. You’re flipping through real pages.”

The Herzliya Gymnasia, founded in 1905, was the first Hebrew language high school in Tel Aviv. It was run by Hebraists who championed the language wars.

David Braun of Leonia is YIVO’s academic adviser. He explained why there was so much free-floating rage among the Hebraists.

“If you are devoted to a particular view, and you have other people who also are devoted to it, and there is mass rage, and you begin with picketing, then maybe it gets out of hand. Maybe you’ve yelled too loudly. Maybe someone has a cudgel. So then maybe you’ll use it.

“My grandfather went to Palestine and settled there in 1939. He remembered hearing people say ‘Jews speak Hebrew.’ It’s not clear to me if he actually heard it or saw it on billboards, but that was the spirit of the time.”

“My grandfather, who was born in 1913 as Tibor Braun and became Zev Yitzhak Braun in Palestine, spoke Hungarian at home. My father, Matitiahu” — he’s better known as the violinist and violist Mati Braun — who was born in Palestine in 1940, spoke Hungarian at home, and became bilingual at school. When he went to Hungary for the first time, he was astonished to have the whole world around him speaking only Hungarian.

“When a Hungarian policeman told him not to jaywalk, he pretended not to understand — but the did.” But he didn’t speak Yiddish.

“The Israeli-born Jews of that generation did say that often they were embarrassed by their Yiddish-speaking parents.” That could have been because they were speaking Yiddish — but it also could have been because parents embarrass their children, often just because they exist. Parents are inherently embarrassing.

Sample exercises from “Lern arabish: a laykhte sistem tsu erlernen di arabishe shprakh (Learn Arabic: an Easy System to learn the Arabic Language), published in 1935.

Mr. Braun pointed to the two parts of the exhibit that are getting the most attention. “One is the Yiddish/Hebrew conflict, because it is Jew-on-Jew violence and hatred,” he said. “It’s disconcerting, but I don’t think that’s what most of this exhibit is about. Look at how interesting and rich Yiddish history in Palestine is.

“The second thing that seems to surprise people is how strong the Arabic influence on Yiddish was,” he continued, but that surprise is naïve. “Whenever a langague is in close contact with another language, of course it’s affected by it. It’s not a surprise.” And it’s not confined to language.

“Look at ultra-frum weddings. We, the apostates, have traditional-sounding weddings, while charedi communities have synthesizer music based on new world and techno influences. They have lost the traditional influences.

“That’s what it means to have neighbors.”

There are people who live locally now, but were born in Palestine. Their childhood experiences as Hebrew speakers whose parents certainly knew Yiddish but were determined that their children not speak it bear out the thesis of YIVO’s exhibit.

Margalit Edelman of Caldwell, who recently published her memoir, “I am a Palestinian Jew,” grew up in Palestine before it became Israel.

These three men — Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi — photographed in Jerusalem around 1900, represent the three Jewish communities.

She spoke Hebrew and English as she grew up. Not Yiddish.

Her parents both were born in eastern Europe; both were native Yiddish speakers.

Her father’s parents were able to flee to safety in Palestine, and she knew them. Her mother’s parents were not able to escape, and they were murdered in the Holocaust.

“My parents told me that when they got married, my grandfather’s only request was that they speak Hebrew, not Yiddish,” she said. “Yiddish was the language of the diaspora, and we were here to build our own state.

“I had cousins in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and we’d all get together on Passover at my grandfather’s house every year,” she said. The language that we all spoke was Hebrew. It’s entirely possible that my grandparents spoke Yiddish to each other when they were alone, but never in front of the children, or anybody else.”

As a result, “I know very little Yiddish, just a word here or there.”

Esther Fox of Boonton was born in Palestine in 1940. Her parents were born in eastern Europe, but “we never spoke Yiddish at home,” she said. “My parents spoke Hebrew.

“We knew Yiddish, but we never spoke it.”

Both Ms. Edelman and Ms. Fox speak entirely fluent, unaccented English.

What: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s new exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish: A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948.”

Where: At YIVO’s offices and gallery spaces at the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan

When: It’s open Sundays through Fridays; check the hours on its website,

How: To learn more go to

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