No, NY Times, Hebrew isn’t the Enemy of Yiddish

I have no doubt that as Ilan Stavan notes, some regard the entire Hebrew language as a symbol of far-right Israeli militarism. I’m just not sure why such views are worth mentioning unless it was to decry the stupidity of reducing an entire language to stereotypes.

I was disappointed that Stavan didn’t pause to critique the inherent bigotry in that belief. He should know how dangerous that statement is.   Similar prejudice is leveled against Arabic speakers, often with violent results. 

Is my friend trading cheesy love declarations with her boyfriend a sign of radicalism?

Is my aunt calling her family to dinner a symbol of extremism? (Maybe just the portion sizes, they are epic)

Should I be ashamed to greet my friends in their native language because some are ignorant enough to regard me as a radical?

The idea that people should reject an entire language that is filled with beauty and meaning, because of the actions of a small minority is the same reason why the Yiddish language died out.

I hope Jews around the world will choose to speak Hebrew (even badly with a heavy accent) loudly and proudly. I hope they will express their culture and literature and poetry and song, proud of every single beautiful word.

I hope they are proud of a rich language that was resurrected and now is the native language of millions of Jews.

I hope they are proud of the visibility of the language, which makes no apologies for our existence.

I hope they are proud of how Hebrew stretched biblical language to have words for concepts like computers, email, and Botox.

One can do so and still have pride in the Yiddish language.

Also,  Stavan blaming Zionism on the ebb of Yiddish is rather misleading. Yes, the Yiddish was a language of homelessness and many of Israel’s early citizens failed to appreciate it.

However, the primary reason for the sharp reduction in Yiddish speakers was the destruction of half of all European Jews. To paraphrase Robin Williams,  did they ever think they killed all the Yiddish cultural centers?

Stavan also ignores that many Jews from North Africa and the Middle East didn’t speak Yiddish and a common tongue had to be developed that was even playing ground for everyone.

Yes, the in-gathering of Jews from all over the world meant that traditions were blended and culture evolved. The Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish spoken by the first generation faded to create Israeli culture. Such a loss is sad, but also a symbol of a Jewish world where new traditions are springing up.

We can still find ways to honor and cherish our traditions, but also accept that life has changed.

The value of Yiddish is immeasurable. The literature, the language, the music, all of it should be maintained as best we can as a gift for future generations. However,  that doesn’t need to be in competition with Hebrew.  My family speaks to both of them quite proudly.

About the Author
Elke Weiss is currently an Israel Government Fellow, working in Biodiversity. In her spare time, she's the Content Director for Act For Israel, an Iengage Fellow for the Shalom Hartman Center, a Media Fellow for Chinese Media Center, a novelist and a rabble rouser.