Yiddish in Israel: A History 
by Rachel Rojanski.
Indiana, 319 pp., £32, January 2020, 978 0 253 04515 7
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‘Even the stones speak Hebrew,’ the Yiddish poet Yosef Papyernikov complained in 1949. He first visited the Jewish homeland in 1924, then returned briefly to Poland, where he was born, before settling in Jerusalem. Like other supporters of Yiddish, he condemned the Zionist insistence on Hebrew as the official language of the new Jewish state. ‘The authorities in Israel not only killed Yiddish,’ the journalist Yitzhak Luden wrote, ‘they went on attacking it to ensure that it was really dead.’ The cultural hegemony of Hebrew was established early on as a marker of a strong and stable Israeli identity. Ben-Gurion’s government saw Yiddish as an ‘anti-nationalist’ goles shprakh (‘exile language’) that represented life in the diaspora. Yiddish had been spoken by an urbanising and emigrating people who were moving from small towns and villages in the Russian Pale to Warsaw and New York, Vilnius and Buenos Aires, a people in movement with a hybrid tongue.

It was this malleability that made Yiddish such a threat to the new Israeli-Hebrew orthodoxy. In 1948, almost half the non-Hebrew speakers in Israel spoke Yiddish. It was the language of modernist writers such as Dovid Bergelson and Yisroel Rabon, of the avant-garde (Soviet) Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, of a global press and a flourishing school system across Eastern Europe and the diaspora. Ben-Gurion had responded to a 1945 speech by Rozka Korczack, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from the Vilna ghetto, by criticising her ‘foreign, grating language’. Israel’s founders felt that the continued use of Yiddish contravened what was known as the ‘negation of the diaspora’ – the ideology that demanded immigrants abandon their old culture.

This is the established narrative about the position of Yiddish in the early years of the Israeli state, one that Rachel Rojanski’s book sets out to question. By 1950, even Ben-Gurion admitted that the truth was more complex: ‘We were forced to be fanatical about Hebrew because the revival of the language was almost unnatural … Now I am able and ready to discuss Yiddish with greater openness – and I am glad that my children understand the language.’ Rojanski argues that the project of suppression was only partly successful and that Israel’s political, religious and business leaders came to see Yiddish as necessary to the new state.

Mordechai Tsanin, the founder of the Yiddish press in Israel, is a prominent figure in her account. Born in Poland in 1906, he worked as a Yiddish journalist in Warsaw during the 1930s before fleeing the German invasion in 1939. For Tsanin – unlike Ben-Gurion, who also wrote in Yiddish in the 1930s – it was unthinkable that moving to Israel should mean giving up his language. In July 1948, a month after Israel’s declaration of independence, Tsanin launched a photo-magazine called Ilustrirter Vokhnblat, the new country’s first Yiddish periodical. In October 1949, it was renamed Letste Nayes, after an evening paper in Warsaw, to evoke memories of Eastern Europe in its readers. Rojanski calls it ‘the most important Yiddish newspaper ever published in the country’.

The government tried to suppress Letste Nayes using legislation dating from the British Mandate in Palestine which enabled them to withdraw licences from ‘foreign language’ newspapers. Yiddish newspapers were permitted to publish only three times a week. But Tsanin wasn’t deterred. In August 1953, an advert in Letste Nayes announced that he was founding a new paper, Yidishe Tsaytung (tsaytung means ‘newspaper’). It was published three times a week – on the days Letste Nayes didn’t appear – and expressed ‘the exact same values’.

The editorials that Tsanin wrote in both papers attacked Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party for its policies on housing and education. Letste Nayes also reported on the Holocaust at a time when the Hebrew press gave it little attention. But Mapai wanted to consolidate its support among Eastern European Jews, especially as immigration to Israel from outside its traditional Ashkenazi base was increasing. Yiddish was a means to this end. The party bought Letste Nayes in 1960. The other two large parties – Mapam and the General Zionist Party – were already publishing Yiddish newspapers of their own. As Rojanski writes, Mapai’s turn to Yiddish demonstrates the tension between ‘the struggle to maintain cultural hegemony by encouraging the development and spread of the Hebrew language … and the ambition to maintain and even strengthen political hegemony’.

‘The last stronghold has fallen,’ the Bundist newspaper Lebns-Fragn wrote after Letste Nayes was sold. ‘What is left of the struggle Tsanin has kept up for years to preserve the importance of Yiddish and its rights? He is certainly not naive enough to think that Mapai will continue it. Is everything permissible for the sake of doing “business”?’ But Tsanin thought he had made his point, and shown that the establishment depended on Yiddish culture for its survival.

The co-opting of the Yiddish press awakened Israel’s political leaders to the purposes Yiddish could serve. Its tradition of high culture helped to bolster the image of the Jewish state as what Rojanski calls ‘a home to the Jews’ most important spiritual and cultural assets’. Yiddish profited, in some respects, from this interest in its cultural capital: it fostered the journal Di Goldene Keyt (‘The Golden Chain’), for example, which did much to preserve Yiddish as a language of high literature after the Second World War, and enabled the creation of a chair in Yiddish at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Rojanski makes clear that popular Yiddish culture wasn’t embraced in the same way. In 1951, the actor Nathan Wulfowitz was fined 20,000 Israeli pounds for staging two Yiddish plays without a permit, one of them about Hershele, the Hassidic jester and folk hero, a ‘cornerstone of Yiddish popular culture’. It wasn’t just that mass culture was lacking in prestige: it was associated with the widespread use of Yiddish that Mapai had tried to suppress. While Wulfowitz was prosecuted, the poet Itzik Manger, who visited Israel from New York in 1958, was invited to meet the president; gave a conference at the press club in Tel Aviv; attended a reception given by the editor of Davar, the main Hebrew daily; had a party thrown for him by the Tel Aviv Labour council; and performed at a public gala.

The most exciting use of Yiddish in Israel came in the work of the writers of the Yung Yisroel movement. Most of them had been born in Eastern Europe, and looked to Yiddish to express their new experiences in Israel as well as their memories of home. They did not view the goles period of Jewish history as something to be erased or forgotten, but instead tried to synthesise Eastern European and Israeli versions of Jewishness. Their concern with the effects of the Holocaust on daily life and their awareness of the dispossession of the Palestinians – especially evident in Mendl Mann’s novel In a Farvorloztn Dorf (‘In an Abandoned Village’) – marked their work out from mainstream Hebrew literature and pointed to the limitations of the Zionist master narrative.

It was only after the Eichmann trial, which led to a fervent new engagement with the Holocaust, that many Israelis began to reconsider diaspora culture. A theatrical adaptation of Manger’s collection Di Megile Lider in 1965 was a huge hit. He had taken the Book of Esther (recited every year as part of the Jewish festival of Purim) as inspiration, in a series of poems that were set to music and staged in a former Ottoman bathhouse in Jaffa. The piece showed the way for a fusion of Middle Eastern and Eastern European Jewish culture: ‘The warmth of the shtetl between the walls of the hamam,’ as one (Hebrew) review put it. But no revival followed. ‘The Yiddish-speaking public voted with its feet,’ the journalist Michael Ohad wrote. ‘Our calculations were wrong. Di Megile wasn’t the swallow that heralded Yiddish’s revival. Di Megile was the wreath we laid on its grave.’

The 1967 war was a turning point for Yiddish, or at least Eastern European Ashkenazi culture, in Israel. Another play, There Was a Pious Man, performed in October 1968 and featuring Hasidic tales and songs sung in modern Israeli Hebrew by young actors who were wearing jeans, became wildly popular. A ‘fondness for Yiddish and what it represents’ need no longer detract from ‘your sabra identity’, the journalist Ruth Bondi wrote (sabra indicates a Jew born in Israel). Eastern European Jewish culture could now also be Israeli; or, rather, Eastern European Jewish culture was a form of nostalgia that posed no threat to Israeli-Hebrew supremacy. As Rojanski points out, Yiddish had been downgraded: it was no longer seen as ‘the majority culture of the Jewish people before the Holocaust’, but instead as ‘one of several Jewish cultures that had existed in the diaspora, all similar to each other in size and influence’.

In 1996, the Knesset legislated for the creation of a National Authority for Yiddish Culture. Every mention of Yiddish in the bill was followed by a reference to Ladino, the diasporic language of Sephardic Jewry. A law that dealt only with Ashkenazi culture would not have been palatable to an electorate that not only preferred Hebrew, but was increasingly conscious of the problems of Ashkenazi political and cultural domination in Israel. Only eight of the 120 Knesset members turned up for the first reading and attendance at the second wasn’t much better. Both sittings were late at night. Yiddish had won recognition by stealth. Its diminishment may not be permanent, however. As the vernacular language of much of the orthodox Haredi community, Yiddish still has prominence both among the diaspora and in Israel. As the expression of a pan-European Jewish cultural heritage, existing in multiple forms and dialects and dating back to almost a thousand years before the formation of the state of Israel, its significance defies borders.

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