An Al-Monitor story by Dudi Goldman focuses on an unexpected phenomenon:

“Yiddish intrigues me with its majesty and its enigmatic, refined musical tone. I have no explanation for the fact that I have always felt a connection to this language.”
Contrary to what you might expect, the speaker of these lines is not a Polish poet or German philosopher. He is Yusuf Alakili, 50, from Kfar Kassem, currently investing much effort in his studies for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan University’s Hebrew. Alakili studies Yiddish on the side for his own enjoyment.
How did this affair start? “In the 1980s, I worked with a Jew of Polish origin who lived in Bnei Brak, and Yiddish was the main language there. I was captivated by its musical tone and decided to study it in earnest. My dream is to read Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman [the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof] in its original language.” […]
Alakili is not alone. About a quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan are Arabs, says Ber Kotlerman, academic director of Bar Ilan’s Center for Yiddish Studies.

I know it’s not going to solve the problems of the Middle East or anything, but it’s encouraging in its small way, and there are some touching quotes in the piece. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Garrigus Carraig says

    Is it just me or are the fourth and fifth quoted sentences somewhat muddled?

  2. There’s a difficult historical relationship between Yiddish and Zionism – to the point that in Mandate days, cinemas showing Yiddish films had to be placed under police protection from pro-Hebrew activists, and “printers who dared set type of a Yiddish-language magazine or newspaper in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv were threatened with firebombing” ( I get the impression that Yiddish attracted particular hostility from the Zionist movement because of its associations with the frum, quietist, traditionalist shtetl past that they were trying to escape.
    It makes a lot of sense for Israeli Palestinians to study the literature of a time when Zionist nationalism was just a gleam in a few activists’ eyes rather than a major theme of Jewish identity. The article already mentions how easily the students empathise with the religious strictness of the world described; I can imagine the experience of being a religious and ethnic minority with unclear prospects must also resonate.

  3. Excellent points.

  4. threatened with firebombing
    The Mendele Forum for Yiddish Language and Literature recently recalled on such event:
    The daily email blast, “Jewdayo,” marking historical events every day (some reflecting pride in Jewish history, others shameful in various ways), recorded the following for yesterday, Sept. 26:
    A mob of several thousand Jews protested outside the Mograbi Theater in Tel Aviv on this date in 1930 against the screening of one of the first feature-length Yiddish-language talkie movies, Mayn Yidishe Mame (“My Jewish Mother”), starring Seymour Rexite. The rioters included several members of the so-called “Army for the defense of the Hebrew Language” who broke into the theater, threw ink at the screen and smoke bombs at the crowd. The police eventually broke through the mob and made arrests, but the protestors returned a second time and forced the screening to end, although many of the viewers refused to leave the theater until the lights were shut off. This was just one of numerous violent attacks on Yiddish culture in pre-statehood Palestine, where Hebraists were intent on repressing the language that they held in contempt.
    “Yiddish was a force to be reckoned with in this period. It provided the name for and was an integral part of the Yiddishist movement that posed an alternative to Zionism. . . . The language issue became a convenient tool of political conflict within contemporary Jewish culture.” –Yael Chaver, What Must Be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine.
    The Zionist movement took with it to Palestine many socialist ideals (e.g., the kibbutz). As Lameen notes, the early Zionists were hostile to the “frum, quietist, traditionalist shtetl past”.
    Yet many of the same socialist ideals were paralleled by the somewhat anti-Zionist, Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-promoting Bundist movement.
    The two movements were essentially competing with one another. A wag might point out that America, the undeclared competitor, won the contest by drawing to its free-enterprise shores millions of Jews: Wiki says there were some five million Jews in the U.S. in 1942 vs. little more than a tenth that number on the eve of the British departure from Palestine in 1948.

  5. There’s a second irony in just where in Israel these Arab students are studying Yiddish.
    Bar-Ilan University, mentioned in the article, differs from other Israeli universities in that it was founded by religious Zionists. They were not the black-suited ultra-orthodox but rather a stream that accepted its return to Zion as a religious redemption. Men in this group wear ‘civvies’ and a skullcap; women, skirted all, dress on the modest side and to greater or lesser degree cover their hair. And to greater or lesser degree a distance is kept between the sexes. It is this group that is most closely identified with West Bank settlers. It was at this university that Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer was a law student.
    This group, less than ten percent of Israel’s population, is disproportionately represented at Bar-Ilan.
    So why do Arab Israelis, and especially Arab Israeli women, study there? Because the dress-modesty-behavior code for religious-Zionist women, similar to their own, lets them not stick out in the crowd. They are also at lower risk of being caught up in the sexual, uh, diversions that are the daily stuff of most university campuses.
    OK, so why study Yiddish? I don’t know, but here’s a thought: These students carry on their lives in three alphabets: Arabic, Hebrew and Latin in its English edition. To study, say, French or German, requires learning substantially different pronunciations/renderings of the same set of letters. Yiddish, of course, uses the same Hebrew alphabet they’ve encountered all their lives, its grammar is simpler than German (closer to English) and to boot, about a tenth of its vocabulary is Hebrew. For at least some, I suspect, Yiddish is an easy choice among the optional courses.

  6. This just in: The Forward’s Philologos discusses why The New Testament Sounds Odd in Yiddish.
    Note his reference to New / חדשה / Khadoshe (Khadasha in Hebrew). Cf dearieme’s link above in which Carthage is mentioned. Carthage, rendered in both Biblical and Modern Hebrew, would be Qirya Khadasha קריה חדשה / New Town.
    Judas Iscariot in Hebrew is יהודה איש־קריות / Yehuda Ish-Qrayot, possibly “Judas, man of Qrayot” (Qrayot is the plural of Qirya). Wiki has a pretty good summary of other possible etymologies of the name.

  7. The discussion by Nessim Nicholas Taleb (student?) and his commentors linked to by dearieme rings various sonorous bells with me.
    I have been reading recently in Wikipedia and elsewhere on the net that Maltese is descended from Arabic that developed in Sicily in the Middle Ages. This disagrees with what I learned decades ago: that it is descended from Phoenician.
    David Abulafia in th The Great Sea; A Human History of the Mediterranean seems to believe that the Sefardim are descended from exiles from the Jewish Wars against Rome, yet decades ago I learned that they were in Iberia since the first millenium BC.
    I also learned Lo! those decades ago that the Phoenicians were Canaanites from the Red Sea, and it would have been their ancestors that Pharaoh Necho dispatched to circumnavigate Africa.
    Coonsidering what Taleb says about the ‘stickiness’ of Semitic languages I detect a reverberation down many millenia. Unfortunately I never studied those languages.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I enjoyed the Yiddish-NT link Paul Ogden posted, although I wonder if the particular version suffers from the risks of “dialect translations” identified in a prior thread by Trond and/or if the piece from uncritically accepting the rather parochial subjective reaction of one guy and his dad. (I don’t find the notion of the Gospel in Yiddish any weirder than e.g. the Psalms chanted in Arabic, which I’ve heard myself.) What would happen if one took, e.g., a passage from Luther’s German version of the NT as your starting point, systematically changed the pronunciation (and spelling, if you like) to Yiddishify it, and made the most minimal set of syntactic and lexical changes necessary for it to qualify as acceptable and not-unidiomatic Yiddish?

  9. J. W. Brewer: If you think this reaction to the New Testament is a bit parochial, have a look at his previous article too: The Yiddish Quran. It’s the most condescending description of a translation that I can recall ever reading offhand, and one of his main points is actually a misconception: in al-Nisa 136, “the book which He revealed before” refers, according to orthodox commentators, to all the previous revelations considered together – not just the Torah, but the Gospel as well. The choice of “Allah” vs. the language-specific name for God, however, is a genuine, recurrent difficulty.
    iakon: While Maltese nationalists have sometimes liked to imagine the language as descended from Phoenician, it’s been known for a good century now that it’s not; in fact, I can’t even think of any clear-cut example of Phoenician influence in Maltese, or for that matter in other North African Arabic dialects. (In Berber, on the other hand, you can find a fair number of Phoenician loanwords.) A more promising place to look for relicts of Phoenician might be Libya

  10. “ancestors that Pharaoh Necho dispatched to circumnavigate Africa”: one of the more beguiling tall tales of history.

  11. I don’t find the notion of the Gospel in Yiddish any weirder than e.g. the Psalms chanted in Arabic, which I’ve heard myself.
    Well, you find weird what you find weird, I guess, but those two things are not in any way comparable, given that there are ancient and widespread Arab-speaking Christian communities (as Wikipedia says, Arab Christians are “one of the oldest Christian communities”), whereas Yiddish-speaking Christians are very few (and probably don’t actually need a translation of the Gospel).

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Depends what you mean by “Arab-speaking Christian communities.” Christians who at present use Arabic in their liturgical services and/or in their daily lives tend to descend from ancient non-Arabic-speaking Christian communities, none (rather, none which have survived) located in Araby proper, that eventually were linguistically assimilated by their conquerors and oppressors (although the shift to Arabic as opposed to Syriac/Coptic/Greek/whatever in services I don’t believe happened much earlier than the 15th or 16th century and later than that in some places). Some of them self-identify as “Arabs” (arguably in a Stockholm-syndrome kind of way, although ethnic self-identification is such a non-rational phenomenon to start with perhaps one shouldn’t be judgmental); others don’t. Some of the Maronites (perhaps with a better claim than the Maltese) have a complicated self-serving nationalistic mythology about being the heirs of the Phoenicians, as a way of bolstering a we-are-not-Arabs-even-if-we-speak-Arabic self-identity. By way of parallel, Irish nationalists can be more or less monolingual Anglophones and still try to punch you out if you imply they are in any sense “English.”
    But since one of the points of Bible translation is to facilitate the goal of preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the notion that it is weird to translate the NT into the language of an overwhelmingly-not-yet-Christian ethnic group is not one that resonates with me. Hebrew translations of the NT have been around for centuries, even if most Hebrew speakers in practice have failed to be evangelized, and probably the very first non-Greek language to receive its own NT translation was Aramaic (although I don’t know what the Jew/Gentile ratio was among the universe of Aramaic-speaking Christians was at the relevant time).
    I agree with Lameen that the discussion of the Koran translation was peculiar, although I’m not sure if I’d go with condescending – it’s more that there were a lot of implicit minor premises about what sorts of topics were fit for discussion in Yiddish that ought to have been brought out into the open. There is also the irony noted above that Yiddish has evolved from a language often associated with the more worldly/secular/Bundist side of Jewry to one retained primarily by the Haredim, but who knows if that relatively recent transition will be permanent. (I was recently at a rest stop off I-87 in upstate New York somewhere near Saratoga Springs, and the only non-English language used for signage was Yiddish. Go figure.)

  13. There was a sizable Arab Christian community in southern Syria in the Byzantine era. Some Arabic-speaking Christians even now claim descent from them, not from Aramaeans/Phoenicians/Copts/etc – as I learned, somewhat to my surprise, by reading Anthony Shadid’s memoir the other day. Apparently it’s a Greek Orthodox thing.

  14. Apparently it’s a Greek Orthodox thing
    If asked their religion, many of these people will say Rum (pronounced sort of like ‘room’), a reference to the name of the Byzantine Empire, aka the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, as they know it: Rome.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    The great Saint John of Damascus lived in Syria after it had been lost to the Empire and come under Ummayad rule (which was convenient when the Empire was temporarily ruled by Iconoclast heretics) and is traditionally said to have at one point had a day job working for the caliph in a fairly senior administrative position. He was certainly entirely fluent in Arabic, but afaik wrote all of his (surviving?) theological works and hymns in entirely fluent Greek (and remains popular enough among non-Arabs that e.g. one of the key leaders in helping Greece endure the Nazi occupation was Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, who may not have known a word of Arabic). There seems to be some dispute as to whether St. John was by family background ethnically an Arab in the pre-modern sense or instead an Aramean or whatever-you-want-to-call-the-dominant-gentile-ethnic-group-of-pre-Islamic-Damascus.

  16. Some of them self-identify as “Arabs” (arguably in a Stockholm-syndrome kind of way
    Why “in a Stockholm-syndrome kind of way”? Is it any stranger than modern Frenchmen calling themselves that even though many of them are descended from people who were not meaningfully “French” until the nineteenth century (see Eugen Weber)? If you’re going to get puristic about it, the only true Arabs are Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula. Why on earth shouldn’t Arab-speaking Christians or Arab-speaking Jews have as much right to call themselves Arabs as anyone else?

  17. Why on earth shouldn’t Arab-speaking Christians or Arab-speaking Jews have as much right to call themselves Arabs as anyone else?
    They do, but few Jews so self-identify. There are a a number of reasons for this.
    First is that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish prayer invariably refer to Jews as a nation, not as people following a particular religion. (The Talmud and later writings may have introduced the notion of a Jewish religion; the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony binds the couple per “the faith of Moses”. Or the notion may have arisen in Europe, when Jews noticed that the different ethnic groups, aka nations, all practiced a single religion, Christianity.)
    Second, while Jews in Arabic-speaking lands may have spoken Arabic, even as a mother tongue, they used the Hebrew alphabet when writing, and of course Hebrew as a liturgical language. In contrast, Christians in Arabic-speaking lands for the most part have for at least several centuries spoken Arabic as a mother tongue, used the Arabic alphabet for writing and prayed in Arabic. Copts are the big exception here, for they use a modified Greek alphabet in their Coptic-language liturgy — and at least some Copts reject characterization as Arabs. (Some Christians in Arabic-speaking lands use Aramaic in their liturgy, but I believe this use is dwindling.)
    Another important factor: The Arabs of southwest Asia have roots in a clan/tribe, a major element in their identity. See here and here. Jews have no such roots and have never formed clans/tribes. If anything, Jews in these places would have traditionally seen themselves as members of a single large tribe.
    (The situation in the states of North Africa is different because of the underlying Berber influence. Perhaps Lameen can elaborate.)
    A Wiki entry on “Arab Jews” discusses the subject in some depth.
    Eugen Weber
    Yes, but he was writing about people who were all Catholic, who all used the Latin alphabet and who all spoke closely related Romance languages. Big difference.

  18. While the other two points seem relevant, the tribe issue is a bit of a red herring, and not just because in pre-exilic days the Jews were divided into twelve of what is usually translated into English as “tribes”. In the course of dismissing most sedentary peoples’ claims to tribal membership as mere self-delusion, Ibn Khaldun comments that “[Jews] can be found saying: ‘He is an Aaronite’; ‘He is a descendant of Joshua’; ‘He is one of Caleb’s progeny’; ‘He is from the tribe of Judah.’ This in spite of the fact that their group feeling has disappeared…” Conversely, tribal membership was vital to Bedouins, but ranged from irrelevant to nonexistent for a lot of sedentary Arabs – and there weren’t many nomadic Jews in the area. For Egypt, anthropologists have often commented on the way that neighbours increase in importance relative to extended family when a person settles away from the latter, and this seems to be a general pattern. On top of this, Arab nationalism has had a strong tendency to be anti-tribal, as part of its abiding suspicion of divisive factors.
    I haven’t read Weber, but I would imagine he was also talking about Bretons, Basque, and Alsatians…

  19. …not to mention French Jews!

  20. the tribe issue is a bit of a red herring . . . Ibn Khaldun comments that “[Jews] can be found saying: ‘He is an Aaronite’ . . .
    Ibn Khaldun also writes: “Only in the rarest cases do non-Arabs have a common descent which they guard carefully and of which they are proud when it is pure and close.”
    Jews today have no sense of descent from a tribal patriarch. They certainly did in earlier Biblical times, and Ibn Khaldun suggests that a remnant of this memory survived into early modern times, at least in the Arabic-speaking world. But Jewish tradition says the ten tribes of the northern Kingdom of Israel were lost after the Assyrian conquests of c. 700 BC, leaving only the tribes of Benjamin, Simon and Judah in the Kingdom of Judah.
    . . .tribal membership was vital to Bedouins, but ranged from irrelevant to nonexistent for a lot of sedentary Arabs
    Town-Arabs in Israel often live in groups of extended families, i.e., one building with several self-contained apartments, where all the building’s residents are members of the same extended family. (Jews in Israel live in nuclear family units, with only occasionally an elderly parent also living in the same house/apartment.) The influence of the khamoula / חמולה / clan remains high: It appears that Arabs in Israel vote largely by clan. (This has a detrimental effect on municipal governance, because the job of the mayor in an Arab village is to protect members of his clan by providing them with jobs and turning a blind eye to their non-payment of municipal taxes. Members of other clans, of course, don’t get jobs at city hall but are under pressure to pay their municipal taxes.) Israeli Jews from Arabic-speaking lands don’t seem to have had such a tradition.

  21. From the little literature I’ve managed to find on residence patterns of Jews in the Arab world, they seem to have lived pretty much on the usual Arab pattern, with married sons ideally staying at home and having kids there – not so much nuclear family units. As the book says for Zakho (Iraq): “Many times, 30 people or more lived in one house, even if it was not large”; the same goes for Algeria, French names notwithstanding. The fact that Jews tended to be concentrated in particular quarters would have reinforced the similarity, since a lot of smaller Arab towns had quarters theoretically reflecting tribe/clan/etc divisions.

  22. Yemeni Jews too (as one might particularly expect) organised themselves in terms of “an ideal patrilineal three-generation extended family”.

  23. It would seem then that Jews in Arabic-speaking lands lived much like their neighbors. I suppose the change came about when they moved to Israel — at first because nuclear-family housing was the only type on offer, and later, even when their economic position improved, that was the prestige norm.

  24. Individual Samaritans, however, are still very conscious of their tribal affiliation as Ephraimites, Manassehites, or Levites (all of whom are now priests). There used to be Benjaminite Samaritans as well, but the line died out fifty years ago.

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