Opinion

Israel's Latest Fearsome National Security Threat: Yiddish

There was once a war between Yiddish and Hebrew. For a motley band of pro-Israel Yiddish-haters, that battle is still raging - and a production of Fiddler on the Roof, in Yiddish, has triggered them

Cast members rehearse an English-language Broadway Theatre revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" in 2015
AP

There was once a war between Yiddish and Hebrew.

It was an ideological, cultural, political and even a physical fight. Yes, it even descended into violence: in 1930 there was an anti-Yiddish riot in pre-state Tel Aviv. The self-declared "Army for the Defense of the Hebrew Language" attacked a screening of Mayn Yidishe Mame, one of the first feature-length Yiddish talkies and the first to be shown in the city. 

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 43Haaretz

But didn’t it all end long ago? Aren’t we in a different age, one which celebrates the multiplicity of Jewish culture, and not part of a zero-sum game between two Jewish languages?   

Then you might be surprised that for some, that battle is still raging. A pre-eminent Diaspora Jewish newspaper recently gave its platform to a writer to rustle up the old complaints, accusing Yiddish of being a "relic," downright "ugly" – even a threat to the State of Israel. What triggered him was a celebrated production of Fiddler on the Roof, in Yiddish.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theater’s production opened off-off Broadway in 2018. It has become a legitimate New York theater hit, its run extended multiple times, then moved uptown, where it was just extended again. Its cast album was released this summer to universal acclaim. Well, almost universal.

The UK’s Jewish Chronicle found the only known Yiddler hater, James Inverne. Having listened to a few songs on Spotify, he intoned: "[T]he Yiddish recording falls ugly on my ear."

For Inverne, Yiddish Fiddler isn’t just aesthetically unappealing, it’s downright dangerous to Zionism and the State of Israel. His anti-Fiddler rant appeared on the anniversary of that anti-Yiddish riot in Tel Aviv. Inverne doesn’t have the backing of a motley crowd of rioters, but he has the advantage of the internet to spread his message, as well as a brow standing resolutely at furrowed.

"Yiddish is going through a remarkable resurgence at the moment," Inverne writes, "centered around New York City in particular. In some ways, that’s wonderful."

Reading those words, I know I’m not going to like the non-wonderful ways. I’m one of those New York Yiddishists, you see.

Inverne, a professional appreciator of modern musical theater, has nothing against Fiddler itself, mind you. The problem, the "agenda" causing him so much discomfort, is that Fiddler is being performed in Yiddish - while also having the audacity to play to sold-out houses.

As far as I can make out, Inverne’s argument is as follows: seven decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, and the same period of time separating us from the end of World War II, many of us in the Diaspora have casually or willfully forgotten everything Israel overcame in becoming the prosperous nation it is today.

And we’ve also forgotten the urgent dangers of anti-Semitism, which made the new state so necessary in the first place. We’ve even taken the shocking liberty of choosing not to identify as Zionists.

"So some non-Zionist Jews look elsewhere for their Jewish identity. They find Yiddish, a link back to a thriving, bustling pre-Shoah culture, and they find riches there and they find pride there and they don’t have to engage with Hebrew, with its overtones of religion and Zionism."

Again, Inverne is directly addressing (or trolling?) me, one of those non-Zionist Yiddishists. But I didn’t turn to Yiddish because I somehow "forgot" about Israel. And does he really believe that the only thing Israel has to offer is its survival story, its own vulnerability? Or our own?

Tamar Lehman plays an accordion next to books at a cultural center used by "Yung Yidish," a non-profit organisation aiming to preserve Yiddish culture, at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 25, 2019
CORINNA KERN / REUTERS

Like many of my friends, I first sought out Yiddish as a way of healing the radical discontinuities of the 20th century. What I learned, literally, on the first day of Yiddish class, is that Hebrew (more specifically, loshn-koydesh, ancient Hebrew and Aramaic) is an indivisible part of Yiddish.

Nor is Yiddish a way of avoiding either "religion" or Zionism. It obviously bears repeating, but there is nothing inherently incompatible between Yiddish and Zionism, and nothing inevitable about Hebraism (or religion!) and Zionism.

The barest acquaintance with recent Jewish history reveals that all of these categories - Hebrew, Yiddish, Zionism, religion - were, and are, far more complicated than Inverne allows. Indeed, his entire piece is riddled with basic misrepresentations and precariously situated assumptions.

Most importantly, Yiddish is no more a "makeshift" language than English. Yiddish contains within it a millennia of Jewish life in Europe; yes, some of it recalls bad times, but balanced by long periods of unprecedented stability and creativity.

What’s interesting to me, as the ostensible object of Inverne’s concern, is not what he gets wrong, but why he so doggedly insists on its solitary truth. That takes us on a journey into particular psychological and historical hang-ups that aren’t exclusive to Inverne himself.

"When I was very young," he recalls, "my great-grandmother would unleash a torrent of affectionate Yiddish in my direction and I would later ask my father why we didn’t speak Yiddish, he would reply, solemnly and seriously, 'Yiddish is the language of persecution.'"

In other words, Jewish father teaches Jewish son that smothering, incomprehensible Old Country matriarch, and her language, is a form of persecution that must be endured, if not altogether escaped, by Jewish men. It’s the kind of domestic drama Alexander Portnoy himself would reject as just too on the nose.

But of course, the foundations of modern political Zionism rest on exactly this kind of intimate psychodynamic dysfunction.

The old, Yiddish speaking shtetl Jew was supposedly weak and feminized, like the men of the epic poem, City of Slaughter, who cowered while their wives were violated by rapacious pogromists. (That its author, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, to become posthumously Israel’s national poet, altogether ignored the many instances of Jewish self-defense that happened during the Kishinev pogrom is entirely to the point.) 

Zionism and modern Hebrew promised to transform the Old Jew from a stateless, powerless victim to an equal citizen of the world. That the creation of the New Jew required the total abnegation of the still-living Old Jew was unfortunate, but necessary. Apparently there are still people out there who think, once pushed aside, the repressed never returns.

Poster for the pre-state Second Maccabiah Games in 1935, held in Tel Aviv
Daniel Bar-on

Inverne tells us that after angrily turning off the Yiddish Fiddler soundtrack he switched over to a different version, this one in German, "the language of the Nazis." He presents this as proof of his own good taste and complexity.

German operetta, you see, is the forerunner of modern musical theater. With Fiddler in German, "[o]ne can listen as if to a German-language operetta and enjoy the fascinating classical undertones that reveals, especially with a full symphony orchestra accompanying."

So far, indeed, from the "ugliness" of Yiddish.

It’s curious how Inverne in that one sentence erases the importance of German itself as a Jewish language, not to mention the significant role played by German Jews in the creation of art, the very art he uses to validate himself as an enlightened, non-victim (in his framing therefore, not Jewish), citizen of the world.

Another reading of his account, though, suggests that this is no mistake. Faced with unprocessed historical trauma (as figured in the sad story of Tevye and his family), he rejects Yiddish and strenuously identifies with the aggressor.

Inverne isn’t "enlightened" by his encounter with German high culture; his loud preference for German is a psychological defense mechanism. Despite the patent absurdity of such a gambit, he must make a strict distinction between the categories of "German" and "Jewish." If the two become confused, there is no safe place to flee from trauma, from class anxiety, from the smothering weight of the past, from Jewishness itself.

It’s no surprise, really, that ostentatious exercises in communal policing, including the exclusion of stigmatized languages, often mask both anxiety and resentment. And the UK offers a prime example of it.

When waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms like Kishinev started arriving in England in the 1880s, the extant Anglo-Jewish community used its establishment newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, as the site of an elaborate discourse on the Ostjuden. The Eastern European immigrants were an inescapable reminder of their precarious place in English society, as well their own (feared) unassimilable difference.

How immigrant eastern European Jews were depicted on their arrival in the UK: "The Alien Invasion: Searching the baggage of immigrant Jews in the Transit Shed at Tilbury" (circa 1891)
Wikimedia

Of paramount concern to the paper was putting distance between the two communities, English and Yiddish speaking.

When Yiddish-speaking socialist Jews marched on a Saturday, the Jewish Chronicle questioned whether they even counted as Jews. As anti-Jewish feeling rose in Britain, the leadership of the paper had no doubt that the new immigrants were at least partly responsible. The paper "even called on the [community’s representative organization, the] Board of Guardians to refuse to help anyone who could not speak adequate English." 

And in 1887, when a false fire alarm caused the tragic deaths of 17 Jewish immigrants at a Yiddish theater, the paper took it not as an opportunity to mourn, but to blame the immigrants themselves for attending a performance in  Yiddish, as if unsafe conditions didn’t exist at theaters of every type.

Then, Yiddish theater was implicated in the death of 17 Jews. 132 years later, Yiddish theater is invoked as nothing less than a threat to the Jewish state and its millions of Jews. That’s certainly another heavy burden for a Yiddish-speaking Tevye and family.

Ironically, though James Inverne is an authority on musical theater, he failed to note that this production of Yiddish Fiddler was actually conceived in Israel in 1966, as an accompaniment to the Hebrew language production. At the time, the theater critic for Maariv hailed Yiddish Fiddler as an event of "national importance" and a sign of maturity of the Hebrew stage.

Inverne, and other members of his motley band of pro-Israel Yiddish-haters, prefer to constantly rewind and replay the Tel Aviv riot of 1930, contemporary adherents of what the Jewish Labor newspaper Davar described back then as the "futile fanaticism" of the anti-Yiddish brawlers.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a freelance journalist in New York and a Tablet columnist on contemporary modern Yiddish arts and culture. As a 2019 LABA fellowship recipient, she will be writing a play exploring the culture clash between interwar avant-garde Yiddish theater and modern academia. Twitter: @RokhlK