Language Wars - Round Two

"A pamphlet has more influence than an article in a newspaper. Especially since the newspapers in the anti-Zionist world are not really of a standard. So we did it in such a way that it would not seem extremist or fanatical but rather more moderate, with a name that is catchy, without difficult phraseology. It appeals to all sectors."

These words - including "not really of a standard" and "catchy" - were uttered by an ultra-Orthodox man who took part in editing Tohar Halashon ("The Sanctity of the Language"), a pamphlet that preaches the return of Yiddish to the ultra-Orthodox street and the shaking off of Hebrew . How many modern Hebrew words there were in these few sentences of his!

And in the pamphlet itself? Are there, in its 80 pages, words in modern Hebrew rather than "the holy language" which comes from the Bible, the Talmud and the literature of Jewish law?

"It's true that among ourselves we speak the holy language in a 'Hebraized' form," the yeshiva student says, "but in the pamphlet itself, you will not find even one Hebrew word - that's been checked.

"Everything there is the from the holy tongue. When we were proofreading it, we checked time and again and we made sure that not one word of Hebrew got in there by mistake."

From time immemorial, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) extremists have been waging their holy wars in newspapers and posters they paste on the walls. This propaganda is first and foremost aimed at their home audience, which is extremist, but many times it is addressed to the silent Haredi majority from the rabbinic courts and the central streams of Orthodoxy who take part in Knesset elections and who conduct complex relations with the Israeli culture.

The pamphlets are a relatively new tool in this propaganda, and they are written in a way that any Haredi can understand, and they bring to their attention in short form the extremist beliefs on various issues. A pamphlet of this kind, for children, was published two years ago and it explained why no one should participate in the "impure elections."

In the past few weeks, another was added to the list - the pamphlet on "the sanctity of the language" which tries to revive "the language war." It immediately became one of the hottest hits in the book stores of Jerusalem's Geula and Mea Shearim neighborhoods.

While Israeli state schools are busy marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the modern Hebrew language, he is presented in the ultra-Orthodox pamphlet as "a wicked man who spent his life fighting with hatred against religion and wanted to uproot it totally."

The pamphlet states: "If today the Sabbath is openly desecrated in Jerusalem, the holy city, and if the Torah is trampled on, for our sins, all over the holy land, this is to a large extent thanks to that very scoundrel who revived the Hebrew language." The pamphlet devotes a great deal of space to the struggles of Ben-Yehuda with the ultra-Orthodox in the old Yishuv.

The pamphlet's authors not only distance themselves from the words that were renewed by Ben-Eliezer and the Academy of the Hebrew Language, but also raise their voices in protest against the "thousands of words that were distorted from the holy tongue" in modern Hebrew, such as "a mark of Cain," which originally had the significance of being a sign for protection but turned into a mark of shame, or the Hebrew word liftan, which originally meant "the main course" but in modern Hebrew has come to mean a "compote."

The pamphlet also stresses the distinction made by the ultra-Orthodox between the written language - in books, newspapers and wall-posters - which is always Hebrew (or "the holy tongue"), and the language of speech, Yiddish.

"The holy tongue is not a language like other languages which are meant to be spoken in the world; because of its great sanctity, it is not fitting to use it for everyday needs," the pamphlet states.

This publication has landed on the Haredi street at a time when even some of the community's important rabbis have difficulty delivering a sermon in Yiddish, to say nothing of the average man in the street.

"The publication of the pamphlet at this particular time reflects a reality in which Hebrew is growing stronger at the expense of Yiddish," says Dr. Dalit Asulin, a researcher into the Yiddish of the ultra-Orthodox and a research fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

"There are no Haredim in Israel who do not know Hebrew, and preserving Yiddish requires a constant effort on the part of the rabbis and the educational personnel, particularly with regard to children."

As part of this effort, in the past few years, dozens of children's books have been published in Yiddish, some of them portraying an educational children's story and others devoted to a model personality from among "the great men of Israel". Book stores in Mea Shearim report that there is great demand for these books.

Dr Asulin says that the attempt to strengthen the status of Yiddish falls on welcome ears in many Hasidic courts, where there is "a great effort to translate children's books into Yiddish and to add Yiddish studies in the school curriculum. In Hasidic schools for girls, like Beit Malka which belongs to the Belz Hasidim, the girls write poems and produce plays that glorify Yiddish, the teachers distribute prizes to girls who speak Yiddish in class, and those who speak Yiddish at break time get an even bigger prize."

Currently, Safa Brura, the publishing house that produced the pamphlet promoting Yiddish, is working on publishing another pamphlet that will tell of the "disaster" of the establishment of the state 60 years ago.

Like the previous pamphlet, it will be funded by members of the Satmar Hasidic court from the United States "who very much like this anti-Zionist propaganda," as the yeshiva student phrased it, incidentally revealing a peep into an important branch of the Haredi economy.

The owners of the publishing house, like entrepreneurs of much larger literary enterprises who republish hundreds of books of Jewish law every year, hire yeshiva students who do the research work, the writing and the editing for them. "Those who provide the money are really keen about the extremist system," the yeshiva student says. "They pay really well. I didn't look into or check where the money comes from."