Children in a Yiddish-speaking Talmud Torah school run by Kretshnif Hasidim in Rehovot, September 18, 2017. Gil Cohen-Magen
War on Hebrew

For Some ultra-Orthodox, There Can Be Only One Language

As members of insular Hasidic communities integrate into Israeli society, spiritual leaders are waging a campaign to preserve Yiddish



Attendees of this year’s Purim party hosted by Nadvorna Hasidim in Bnei Brak got an unexpected welcome at the door: They were told to take off their costumes. The organizers were referring to the holiday accessories, purchased with hard-earned money or produced with much labor. The costume in question to could not be seen; only heard. The forbidden costume was the Hebrew language.

“The rabbi has asked that all the yeshiva boys around this table speak only Yiddish at home, since that is the pure language,” said the rabbi’s gram'er, who repeats his messages, sometimes in rhyme. “These days, families who used to speak Yiddish have switched to Hebrew, which has brought great turmoil to their homes.”

This was perhaps an unexpected message on a holiday – and on Purim at that – but it was not an exception, and the message was not restricted to this branch of Hasidism. On the backdrop of the ultra-Orthodox community's increasing integration into Israeli society, many Hasidic communities have been waging a rearguard campaign for the preservation of Yiddish. They view any means to accomplish the task as legitimate. This includes sermons, special prayers, student drives and the establishment of designated Yiddish schools for girls.

The main reason behind this is the desire to preserve the Jewish language of the European shtetl, but it's not the only one. “Hebrew is perceived by many Hasidic branches as a language invented by infidel Jews, viewed as a street language,” says a member of the Sanz Hasidim. “Thus, there is an attempt to use Yiddish as a means of segregating the ‘Hebrew’ street from the Hasidic incubator. The late admor [the sect’s spiritual leader] wrote in his will that he asks and demands that people speak Yiddish at home and at our institutions. It’s rare for such a request to be made in a will, illustrating how sensitive this issue is.”

Gil Cohen-Magen

Lax attitude

In the eyes of many Hasidic sects, the problem arose when “previous admorim were lax in their attitude,” says the Sanz Hasid. “You’d go talk to them and they would use Hebrew as well as Yiddish, and the message percolated down the ranks – you don’t have to be strict about using Yiddish. The new generation of admorim takes the opposite stance: One should only speak Yiddish, even with those who don’t understand it.”

Nowadays, attempts to preserve and reinforce the language are everywhere. In Bnei Brak, for example, one network of kindergartens serving all Hasidic communities uses Yiddish exclusively. “This was unheard of until a decade ago,” says the Sanz Hasid, adding that “schools in Bnei Brak have also been switching to Yiddish. Parents are demanding that principals do this in adherence to instructions given by the admorim.”

Whereas the campaign for Yiddish takes center stage in most Hasidic communities, this is not uniformly the case among all parts of the Ashkenazi Haredi world. “The Lithuanians no longer speak Yiddish and no one there is bothered by this,” says Prof. Benjamin Brown of Hebrew University’s Judaic studies department, who is also a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “It’s not an issue for them. They don’t feel they’re losing anything. Hasidic Jews speak more Yiddish since they are more conservative.”

Not all Hasidic groups are the same, although most follow the trend. The Gur community is the outlier, since its spiritual leader is not meticulous about using Yiddish. Some of his sermons are given in Hebrew, since many Hasidim no longer understand Yiddish. “Even some of the admor’s children no longer speak it,” says a Belz Hasid sadly. “Our rabbi is very strict about it. His wife talks to the women, asking them to speak Yiddish with their children at home.” Despite this, he says, “The girls speak mainly Hebrew among themselves.”

Gil Cohen-Magen

The “problem” is not unique to this Belz Hasid, nor to the entire Belz community. “The girls spend much less time at school compared to boys and they study more secular subjects, which are more connected to Hebrew,” says another Belz Hasid. “Moreover, the girls speak Hebrew among themselves outside school and this is something we haven’t yet overcome.”

Brown explains that “girls study subjects such as math and computer engineering, for which, obviously, Hebrew is the language of study. The fact that they get jobs and take places once held by men makes them less connected to Yiddish.”

The problem for the defenders of Yiddish doesn’t end there. Many of the Hasidic men who spoke with Haaretz said that their children's upbringing is affected by the fact that their wives do not speak Yiddish. “My wife talks to them in Hebrew and I talk Yiddish,” says one Sanz Hasid. “The boys acquire the language at school, where there is an attempt to strengthen Yiddish, leaving out the language of the street.”

Avrum Leib Burstein, a 45-year-old Breslav Hasid who also manages the Jerusalem Klezmer Association, sadly admits that his children speak Hebrew because of his wife. She knows Yiddish but prefers not to speak it at home. “I never dreamed that my children’s language would be Hebrew,” he says.

However, Burstein draws some optimism from developments taking place in Israel and overseas. His daughter lives in London and he says that circumstances are better in her community. “Synagogue posters there are only in Yiddish, whereas here they’re a mixture of Yiddish and Hebrew, the holy language and Aramaic,” he says. “I like to joke that once parents used to speak in Yiddish so that the children wouldn’t understand, and now children speak Yiddish so their parents won’t. This new revival greatly gladdens me.”

Nevertheless, says Burstein, the disappearance of Yiddish is not restricted to Israel. “The same problem is cropping up with English" in the United States "and they are trying to bolster Yiddish overseas as well,” he says. “There, the Satmar admorim have been talking about this a lot in recent years. The whole cohort of leaders has changed over the last 15 years so they didn’t attend to this, but the new generation of admorim is taking this issue very seriously.”

Gil Cohen-Magen

Despite all these efforts, it seems the impact of Hebrew on Yiddish is the strongest force at play. “The language has greatly changed in comparison to what it was in Eastern Europe,” says Dr. Dalit Assouline, a language researcher at Haifa University. “The effect of Hebrew is so strong that in some cases Israelis and Americans can’t communicate with each other. There was a young man who married a young woman from Europe and they had communication problems due to these differences.”

Why is it so urgent to turn back the wheel of history? “Hebrew is perceived as one more marker of becoming Israeli,” says Brown. “From what I understand this is a kind of nostalgia and a romanticization of the European diaspora period. It’s part of their world. It’s a sign of conservatism, of distancing themselves from ‘Israeliness’ and from the Sephardic community. Their zealousness is part of this, but I believe the main thing is nostalgia and a pining for the past.”

Assouline adds, “The conception among many Hasidic sects is that Yiddish is a language of home, that it’s ‘ours,’ part of our protected space. Hebrew is the language of the street, the lawless and value-depleted sphere. The contrast is very clear.”

Meeting points

Every Saturday night, dozens gather at an event organized by Burstein, where they experience the Yiddish world through music, food and shows. Burstein says that “90 percent of the participants are not even Jewish. They are mainly German, American, French and Swiss.”

Perhaps this is a sign that there are some meeting points between the Hasidic world and other parts of society. Burstein doesn’t necessarily dismiss this, seeing music as a reflection of the reciprocal influence of different sectors on one another. “Fifteen years ago our events started to include organ players who brought new rhythms with them which were unknown until then, such as trance,” he remembers. “We also started having star singers with a fanbase, something we never had before. Before that the audience would sing with the band, helping out, but new elements slowly crept in.”

Other changes have taken place in recent years, he adds: “Many clarinet, accordion and violin players practiced here, bringing klezmer music to our events. This revolution is not over yet, but we’re on the right path.”

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