Language in Rough Diamonds.

Philologos, “the renowned Jewish-language columnist” (as the Mosaic sideline bio calls him), has featured at LH for almost two decades now (back in 2004 his column was at the Forward); his new piece The Wheels of Jewish Language in the New Netflix Show “Rough Diamonds” (archived) makes it sound like a must-see for those of a Hattic bent (though of course you would want to see the original, not the dubbed version):

After Israeli television’s Shtisel [LH] and Netflix’s Unorthodox, we now have, already rising in the rating charts, another Netflix production, Rough Diamonds […], a newly premiered, eight-part Israeli-Belgian co-production set in Antwerp, for centuries a center of diamond trading and polishing in which Jews have always played a major role […].

Rough Diamonds is about decisions, mostly bad ones, and about how, once made, they have irrevocable consequences. Yet one of the pleasures of watching it has to do with decisions that are less consequential and in a way not even decisions, since they are made continually and unconsciously on a daily basis: the choice of which of the four languages spoken by the show’s main characters—Yiddish, Flemish, French, and English—they use with whom. This linguistic interplay, which forms no small part of the show’s intricacy, is unfortunately lost to some American viewers, who, I hear, have to watch Rough Diamonds in a version dubbed in English. (I myself saw it in an Israeli version with the original voices and Hebrew subtitles.) If you are one of these viewers, this column may help you to appreciate what you have missed.

Yiddish is the “official” language of Antwerp’s ḥasidic community to which the Wolfsons belong, a badge of distinctiveness that sets it apart from its surroundings no less than do its religious practices and dress codes. Although the Wolfsons do not identifiably belong to any one of Antwerp’s many ḥasidic groups, such as the Belzer Ḥasidim, the Satmar Ḥasidim, the Klausenberg Ḥasidim, and so on, their Yiddish is of the “Hungarian” or Transcarpathian variety that is predominant in today’s ḥasidic world. Ezra and Sarah Wolfson, the family’s elderly father and mother, speak it exclusively between themselves and with their children, and use Flemish, the Dutch spoken in Antwerp and northern Belgium, only when conversing with outsiders. […]

Ezra and Sarah’s children Eli, Adina, and Noyekh, on the other hand, the first two of whom have remained in the ḥasidic fold, prefer to speak Flemish when alone and with others of their generation, and switch to Yiddish mostly in the presence of their parents and elders. Flemish is the language they appear to feel more their real selves in. […]

The Wolfsons also speak excellent French. They need to because of their commercial dealings with Belgians from Brussels and the country’s south, where French prevails, and even with some of the non-ḥasidic Jewish diamond dealers of Antwerp. Although times have changed, French traditionally enjoyed hegemonic status in Belgium and many Antwerp Jews spoke it as their first language. Indeed, until Antwerp’s post-World War II influx of Ḥasidim, for whom Flemish was an easier language than French to master because it is more like Yiddish, the city’s Jews were largely French-speaking.

Finally, all the Wolfsons speak a good English, the international language of diamond dealers that has become even more so in recent years as the trade has been increasingly dominated by Indian exports and merchants. This development figures prominently in Rough Diamonds’s third episode, a brief synopsis of which conveys how language works in the series to help create a changing kaleidoscope of events by which the characters are whirled too rapidly to have time for rational consideration of what they are about to do […]

And so Rough Diamonds goes: from episode to episode, from Yiddish to Flemish to French to English, wheel within wheel, as it were, with Yiddish the inner wheel of the ḥasidic community of Antwerp, English the outermost wheel of the wide world, and Flemish and French in between. The Wolfsons spin with these wheels, turning and being turned by them. Rough Diamonds demonstrates how language serves equally as identity and as means of communication, and how it is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both. Not, though, when it’s dubbed.

I hope they eventually put out a DVD/Blu-ray with the original dialogue; this is a show I’d like to experience. Thanks, David!


  1. Bart Barry says

    The American version can be played with the original soundtrack and English subtitles. Check out the Audio menu at the bottom of the screen.

  2. Once a streaming service makes a given title available in a given market, it should cost next to nothing extra, in technology or royalties, to bundle in all available audio and subtitle options.

    For language learning I have used browser addon to enhance the Netflix interface by e.g. displaying native and English subtitles in parallel.

  3. John Cowaṇ says

    I think they are afraid that some audience members will get stuck in the “wrong” soundtrack and will not know how to fix it.

    That relentless use of ḥasid(im) in an otherwise purely English-language context makes me feel like my screen is covered with fly-specks.

  4. It would be risky to maintain that French was “predominant” in the Antwerp Jewish community before the war. Being the language of the Flemish bourgeoisie, it was of course a model and the two schools of the Jewish community maintained teaching in French despite the linguistic laws imposing Dutch. The fact remains that 1) There was at the time a large Jewish community of Dutch origin and therefore Dutch-speaking 2) The majority of Jews were recent immigrants and therefore spoke Yiddish (as well as Hungarian, Romanian or Polish) 3 ) Many young people, educated in Dutch-speaking public education, expressed themselves preferably in Dutch. The linguistic situation of the Jewish community was therefore somewhat transitional. It was rather after the war that French clearly imposed itself. The fact that the Flemish national movement had largely collaborated with the occupier and that the police of the city of Antwerp had taken part in rounding up Jews certainly contributed to weakening the relationship with Flemish culture. It should also be noted that the survivors who returned after the war from this particularly decimated community had hidden in the French-speaking part of the country and that the survivors who arrived from Eastern Europe and who are at the origin of the massive presence of Hasidim in this city obviously had no connection with Dutch. Even today, the lingua franca between Jewish, “modern”, “traditionalist” and “Hasidim” circles remains French. There are only very few, generally “modern” families whose home language is Dutch. The majority of “moderns” speak French, a French that is sometimes quite particular, influenced by Yiddish. The Hasidim, old or young, speak Yiddish among themselves. All you have to do is walk around Antwerp to see it. If the young Hasidic characters in the series speak Dutch among themselves, it is mainly because, no doubt for lack of anything better, local Flemish actors were hired and an easy solution was imposed.

  5. Very interesting, thanks for that!

  6. have you heard such lullaby in yiddish:
    axn brokshe lokshn ?
    it is from series about Mea Shearim

    klotz boydem – another term from there

  7. Michelle Wilson says

    I’m watching this in Scotland and thankfully have the original version with English Subtitles. I think it would be horendous dubbed! 🥴😂I’m on episode 4 and really enjoying it.

  8. @Bo:

    i’m pretty sure that’d be “hob ikh a por oksn”, which you can hear from ruth rubin here. i know it from a mark olf record that i grew up listening to.

    it’s a well-known cumulative song built on intense internal rhyme, and the first verse is:

    hob ikh a por oksn, oksn
    vos zey brokn lokshn, lokshn
    ay, vunder iber vunder
    vi di oksn brokn lokshn
    dos iz mir a vunder
    dos iz mir a vunder

    i have a pair of oxen
    who chop noodles
    ah, wonder upon wonder
    how the oxen chop noodles
    to me, it’s a wonder

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