Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

A touch of Yiddish nowadays

In Tel Aviv, a poster in Yiddish

Tammuz atmosphere? Nostalgy, spleen, longing after… some would say the Yiddishkayt, the “other cultural area” called in Yiddish “Eretz K’naan/ארץ כנען”, the Land of Canaan, i.e. Poland extending to Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic area for the Ashkenazi historical identity. A world that collapsed/עולם שעבר- א פֿאַרפֿאַלענע וועלט? as Isaac Bashevis Singer said. It is written at Yad VaShem. A world of ghosts that disappeared in all possible forms of extermination: exile, secularization, assimilation? It is trendy in Jewishness to be “apikoyros/אַפיקויראָס”, not truly “epicurean” but rather full of twisting ups and downs about who is who and why, where, how… often through a mirror.

I grew up among survivors. When, some forty years ago, I was explaining on the phone that Yiddish is my mother tongue, the Yiddishists and Mume-loshn-speakers used to ask “You must be very old!”. I learned to write in Yiddish, because of my nanny. My parents did speak Yiddish. But Nyanya who had escaped by some incredible miracle from the Warsaw Ghetto read the Yiddish newspapers and hardly could speak proper Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and German, our colloquial “usuals”.

Until now, I write almost everything firstly in Yiddish, my diaries and agendas, and type the words, sentences, poems, and drafts in my motherly tongue on my mobile. I have spent my life looking forward to anticipating the revival of the language as a real and splendid medium. The true Esperanto of the Yiddishkayt is the reality of a dream that will not die. When I was a teen, the Yiddish speakers were dying around, the words often became uncertain for many speakers. I was then told, “Go on, do not forget: we do believe in miracles! Who said we are born to die?”.

Different people share diversified opinions about Yiddish: there are super-fans and Yiddish-addicted. It does not mean they can read, speak or write. There are sounds, consonants and vowels, diphthongs and expressions. It is so weird and funny to see a meshuge, a normal crazy person and we have tons of them. When the meshuge is “a frish gesinder meshigener-אַ פריש געזונטער משוגענער/a fresh healthy and sound crazy one” there is a touch of real Yiddishland flashing back to East-European Jewishness. In Nikolayev/Mykolayiv (Ukraine), we used to say “a kop fun a marozhniker – אַ קאָפּ פֿוּן אַ מאַראָזשניקער/a head of ice-cream salesman”. That crazy could only be real. It is a normal part of what Odesa is in the South of Ukraine, a worldwide spirit of all the nations and a Yiddish capital, today torn by war and estrangement. It made aliyah in TelAviv, on the coast and Bat Yam. All the Yiddish speakers met there, H. Bialik, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, and switched to Modern Hebrew.

Then, the Americanized « shmegege/ שמעגעגע « means about the same, but with some overseas flavor. We just feel how Yiddish is en vogue, trendy, and more than that: we will overcome! It does not mean that Yiddish is North or South American. Indeed, it is spoken in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Mexico, Buenos Aires along with Ladino down to Ushuaia. It is present in Europe and still in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova… but also in Central Asia. Don’t forget Birobidjan where the language was “Sovietized”. Quite a special spelling – the script is Hebrew but the TaNaKH/BibIical words were compulsorily turned spelled phonetically, away from the Jewish tradition.

Yiddish shows how the Far West is continuously connecting with the Far East, down to South Africa and back to the Fertile Crescent. Yiddish would say “Goldene medine/גאָלדענע מדינה « – it seems to refer to America, but any place in the world can be a « Golden State” for a language that encompasses the whole of humanity.

Yiddish is forward. It is the normal “vernacular” of most Chassidic groups. Basically, it depends on what language is considered: is it a dialect, a series of dialects, a pack of ca. 25 languages, and a supplement of soul, all the European tongues, Turkish, Hungarian, Armenian? It sounds German, Bayerish. It came out from the Rhine River and the Alps of the neighboring provinces. “False friends” though…

When I said “Zay mir gezint un shtark: Be in good health and strong” to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, an in-born Bayerish man, and speaker during his visit in Jerusalem, he smiled and answered “Sei gesind!” and we had a short “talk” each in his “jargon” or dialect. We both had the word “Mentsh/מענטש = a very humane person”, apparently adopted from Germanic roots. Still, is it only possible to hear in Yiddish a phrase like: “be ‘to me [mir]’ in good health”, which sounds very Slavic? A personal concern that deals with the highest humane values available, if any.

Nu. Nu-nu! I could write a blog only in Nu’s, maybe with some German “Na und…” or Danish and pan-Scandinavian “Nå, nå ! ». Not the same touch. Another example: “Pani maje gosci, pani nie ma czasu” sounds and is Polish indeed. If the same words are written as “פאני מאיע גושטשי, פאני ניעמא טשאסו = Mrs. (…) has guests, Mrs. (…) has no time” they are Yiddish even if one should say “Madam’ hot gest, Madam’ hot nit kayn tzayt/מאדאם האט געסטן, מאדאם האט ניט קיין צייט”. Yiddish can include all idoms or seize expressions from all languages without violent actions.

Yiddish sounds German, Slavic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Here is the point that I got to some forty years ago while studying in Scandinavia. Yiddish is not Indo-European, not Greek or Latin. It is Semitic. Ever since some Yiddishists described the matter: Dovid Katz or Michael Wex. I deeply know that Yiddish is not a ghost-bearing medium, it is not a Volapük. It translates Talmudic teaching into the veracity of Jewishness, generation after generation, according to the Ashkenazi tradition and the universality of the Oral Law along with the Torah and the Scripture as a whole. And in the Old City of Jerusalem, next to Chabad St., the Yeshivah  students meet at times with the Aramaic speakers and both share the the so close Ashkenazim Yiddish and the Syriac Turoyo pronunciation, “shlomo = peace, not shlama”!

It may be quite difficult to accept. Yiddish has developed in the wide areas of Christendom. You want to pray: “Lomir bentshn/לאָמיר בענטשן » (Let’s say the graces, blessing) means that a meal can be shared. “Bentshn = benedicere/to bless, oren = orare, to pray and molyen zayn = modliwe są” witness to intertwining “deals beyond all”.

Why hate overcame and seemed to remove the commandments of love? “Aves-achim iz shtendik der yesod fun sines-achim/אהבת-אחים איז שטענדיק דער יסוד פֿוּן שנאת-אחים : Loving the neighbor generates hate of the neighbor ». Israeli society strongly relies upon the fundamentals of the experiences born in non-Jewish contexts. These environments have been profoundly marked by insights shared by Eastern Christianity. Thoughts and spiritual tendencies are still being spread in a way that is common to the realm of Jewish and non-Jewish dispersions. It was quite impossible to discuss this fifty years ago. The present development of a very Yiddishized Modern Hebrew language in the State of the Jews allows scanning new and future updates to understand the roots and prospects of the Mame-loshn (Yiddish mother tongue). The Churb’n (Shoah) survivor and Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever was born 110 years ago and meandered through the Ghetto of Vilna, Moscow, Kyrgyzstan (his first “societal tongue was Kyrgyz, a Turkic language! that he deeply loved while in the peaceful Siberian region), Europe and Israel.

In 1956, Sutzkever wrote his first long poem, called In Midbar Sinai –  אין מדבר סיני and sent it to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who said was a great poem and asked: ”But why did you write it in Yiddish and not in Hebrew?” Sutzkever sent him back a poem named Yiddish, which is about what would have happened if someone would try to take the Yiddish tongue out of his mouth, his skin: “So come and try, if you succeed to do it, I will swallow it and then I will open my mouth, / and like a lion / Garbed in fiery scarlet, / I shall swallow the language as it sets / and wake all the generation with my roar!” (Translated by Yiddish Book Centre, quoted by Hadas Kalderon, A. Sutzkever’s granddaughter in “Black Honey”).

 In the years after World War II, in Tel Aviv, a woman yells in a bus at her son who does not want to answer to her in Yiddish. A man intervened and told her: “Why do you torment him, the boy should speak Hebrew!” The mother answered: “Indeed, but I don’t want my son to forget that he is a Jew”.

It seems intriguing. But Hebrew has a lot of Yiddish and the experts reflect on how Israeli Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew are influenced by Yiddish which is swallowed so many words and grammatical patterns from Europe and the Middle East.

Curiously, Yiddish often appears in the messages written on the posters during the present demonstrations against the political situation in Israel. A way to reconnect with the old tradition of protests, demonstrations, or leaflets – both secular and religious – Bundist or Haredi that call to decency, rights, and justice. It also shows a touch of international openness.

Nota : The picture was taken during the demonstrations at Kaplan (Tel Aviv) and shared on the social networks some time ago: “Democracy for all, from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea”. also written in Arabic.

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.