For many Americans, especially gentiles, Jewish culture is synonymous with bagels, lox, Seinfeld, and preserving the memory of the Holocaust. This culture, not only lacking in depth, is as overwhelmingly Ashkenazi as is the demographic make up of American Jews. In Israel the story is completely different. The majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi, meaning their families lived for hundreds if not thousands of years in North Africa and the Middle East. And in the last several decades, as Israeli society has moved further and further from the melting pot policies of the state’s early years, there has been a cultural renaissance of traditional Mizrahi customs, culture and folklore.
Mizrahi singers have brought the instruments and inflection of their communities to the forefront in Israeli music; to many, Mizrahi cuisine (falafel and shawarma, for instance) is Israeli cuisine; and even customs like Henna ceremonies and holidays like Mimouna, a Moroccan celebration at the end of Passover, have made their way into the mainstream in Israel.
This phenomenon has been a huge blessing and has reacquainted Israelis with our people’s diversity. However, the focus has primarily been on Mizrahi culture for two main reasons. First, because despite their overwhelming numbers, the Mizrahi population in Israel has been (and to some degree still is) marginalized. Upon their mass Aliyah to the nascent state in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Mizrahi immigrants faced societal pressure to shed what were seen as their “Arab identities.” Often they were discriminated against by the “Ashkenazi elite,” those men and women who had arrived in Israel decades before its founding and held the keys to social acceptance by virtue of their powerful positions in government. Eventually, resistance against this external coercion brought about the cultural renaissance among Mizrahi communities that is celebrated today.
Second, because the “Ashkenazi elite,” the Zionist immigrants who laid the foundations for the creation of the state, the very people who by virtue of their survival had the responsibility to carry their culture into the next century, threw out their heritage of their own volition.
European Zionists who came to this land over a century ago were simultaneously struggling to revive the Hebrew language and to rid themselves of what they saw as their exilic Ashkenazi heritage. For years Zionism, which championed Hebrew as the true language of the Jewish people, competed with Bundism, a secular Jewish socialist movement in Eastern Europe, which instead saw Yiddish as the authentic Jewish language. In this often bitter struggle for the support of the masses, Zionists repudiated Yiddish as representing all the worst parts of exile: weakness, inauthenticity, and life in the ghettos. Therefore, in the process of creating what would become the society of the State of Israel, Ashkenazi Zionists all but rejected Yiddish.
As a result, today in Israel real Ashkenazi culture, like Klezmer music and Yiddish literature, is practically non-existent.
Whether a more nuanced Zionism, one that included more diversity of Jewish experiences, could have so tangibly triumphed in the way that it did- because it did win the wars and absorb the immigrants and create a unified Israeli identity- we will never know.
What is clear now is that Zionism and the Hebrew language won. The Yiddishists and the world they created went up in flames under the black Polish sky. At this point, years after the argument was settled, our Zionism needs to be strong enough to incorporate the whole of our heritage, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi alike.
Hebrew, the ancient language of our people that has sustained us over millennia, must remain the language of the modern State of Israel. Its revival is one of Zionism’s crowning achievements and for so many reasons it must remain the native and primary tongue of every generation of Jewish Israelis to come. Nevertheless, I call for a revival of Yiddish folklore, of Mendele Mocher Seforim and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem. Yiddish playwrights and Ashkenazi cuisine (there’s more than just gefilte fish) deserve a place here. In the institutions of high culture in Israel, our theaters and symphony halls, Yiddish as well as Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and others must be appreciated for the Jewish languages, albeit exilic, that they are.
I am blessed to live my life in Hebrew and to know that my children will express themselves in the language that reflects our values, the very the character of our nation. But for the Ashkenazim among us, in Israel and America, Yiddish must always hold a special place in our hearts. For the roughly five hundred years that my family resided in Eastern Europe, they loved and laughed and argued and cried and dreamed in Yiddish.
By connecting to them through their language and culture, we can draw upon our ancestors’ strength as we face existential threats on a daily basis. May we be blessed with their fortitude and courage.