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Both confessional and non-religious Jewish worlds were shattered by the confrontation of Yiddish and Hebrew as the 20th century began, and the problem is still pressing, to-date. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and upon the foundation of the modern Jewish State, it is largely due to the Zionist project success that Hebrew was adopted by Israeli Jewry, as opposed to Yiddish. The Bund made Yiddish a focus of their propagation, regarding it as the language of the people; Hebrew was mocked as a visionary lingo, a rabbi lingo. The secular Zionists, on the other hand, made it their goal to produce – or reproduce – the homeland, rejecting the language of ghetto dwellers and prisoners, as they regarded Yiddish.1 True, the contest was not entirely about “the Yiddishists” and “the Hebraists,” which presented a great social diversity. That is to say, the stigma that Zionism put on Yiddish was not solely prerequisite by its linguistic qualities but, rather, by what it represented.
Yiddish from the Zionist perspective
Up to the end of the 19th century, Jews all over the globe have been speaking a multitude of languages they had adopted and adjusted for their daily activities, e.g., Arabic, Russian, German, French, Yiddish, etc.2 The latter in particular served as a vernacular in wherever the Jewry resided. With the emergence of Zionism, a new way of thinking emerged. This new thinking set it as a goal to recreate a homeland for Jews, emphasizing that the very concept of “homeland” did not solely involve territory. Rather, it encompassed the ideas of historic – or mythic – Zion with its memory and culture, and was, therefore, aimed at creating a new Jew.
Such an approach would mean the suppression of the Exile in favor of the new Jews, which were imaged as valorous and manly, an archetypal embodiment of the notions of “citizenship” and “belonging.”3 The ideas that Yiddish represented as a vernacular, thus, disgusted Zionists primarily because it was a language of the Exile and was regarded as a major obstacle on the way to the formation of a renewed identity. In this respect, Zionism was practically modernist. It required a serious paradigm shift in the way Jewry thinks of themselves; the ethnicity’s self-perception as a victim had to be done away with. Reviving Hebrew fitted this paradigm beatifically.
Yiddish in the Jewish State
After World War II, and once the Jewish State was founded, the Jewish community proved itself extremely resistant to cultural and linguistic influences. First, business within the State facilitated the resurrection and maintenance of the civic religion which takes its root from Israel.4 Apart from the practical side of it, the symbolic meaning that Israel has is exceptional, reflecting Jewish native solidarity and pride. Hebrew as a language of the sacred texts strengthens the ties between the diaspora and the sensation of belonging as associated with religious commonality. Yiddish, thus, was viewed as a lingo that had to be eradicated from culture whatsoever. As a result, the more or less contemporary Israeli culture – literature, poetry, etc. – emerges largely in Hebrew.5
Anti-Zionism, diaspora, and nativity
The Zionist perspective was opposed by anti-Zionists groups that can, in some cases, be regarded as ultra-orthodox, mainly the Haredi Jews.6 The Haredi and other anti-Zionist groups were unified by their search for an alternative to the formation of the Jewish State and attempt to demarginalize themselves in cultures where Zionism dominated. From the ultra-orthodox point of view, it is worth considering that the formation of the Jewish State before the Second Advent was regarded as a blatant breach of the Scripture. On the secular side of the argument, it can be assumed that the anti-Zionist quest consisted in the search of identity nonconforming to the Zionist perspective.
Such intentions explain both the re-adoption of Yiddish culture by some Jews residing in Eastern Europe and the revival of Sephardi Jews legacy. The latter were victims of marginalization on the Ashkenazi Jews’ part; their protests came in the form of founding several societies in Israel and the US – and revitalizing and rejuvenating Ladino culture, literature, and theater. As a last resort, the anti-Zionist Jewry referred to celebrating diaspora, valorizing the rootless lifestyle just as Zionism valorized citizenship.7
Thus, nativity, as perceived by Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews, comes in the form of two diametrically opposite concepts. On the one side, there is the idea of common abode, repopulation of the Holy Land, and cultivating Biblical traditions; on the other, there is the nomadic diversity of cultures and individual identity, the attachment to a multitude of places without taking dominance over them, and the value of language for both positions is undebatable.
To conclude, the attitude towards Yiddish represents the rejection of the historically constructed conception of Jewry and diaspora in favor of the new Jew and the new State. Upon its foundation, Hebrew is regarded as the symbol of self-determination, unification, and Jewish empowerment, so to say, arise from the ashes. At that, the contest between the languages becomes clear if they are observed from the cultural perspective.
Laqueur, Walter. The History of Zionism. New York, NY: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2003.
Pinsker, Shachar. “‘That Yiddish Has Spoken to Me’: Yiddish in Israeli Literature.” Poetics Today 35, no. 3 (2014): 325-356.
Shapira, Anita. Israel: A History. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012.
Shneer, David, and Caryn S. Aviv. New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2005.
- Walter Laqueur, The History of Zionism (New York, NY: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2003), 273-274.
- Anita Shapira, Israel: A History (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 60.
- David Shneer and Caryn S. Aviv, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2005), 10.
- Ibid., 12.
- Shachar Pinsker, “‘That Yiddish Has Spoken to Me’: Yiddish in Israeli Literature,” Poetics Today 35, no. 3 (2014): 328.
- David Shneer and Caryn S. Aviv, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2005), 16.
- Ibid., 16-17.