Shtisel’s Ghosts.

Shayna Weiss’s “Shtisel’s Ghosts: The Politics of Yiddish in Israeli Popular Culture” (from the Mar. 6 In Geveb) is a fascinating look at the Israeli television drama Shtisel and its groundbreaking use of Yiddish, and at the place of Yiddish in Israel more generally:

Tamar Ben Baruch, an assistant director and producer for the show, spoke with me about how Yiddish made its way onto Shtisel. The show’s creators wanted to include Yiddish on the show in order to reflect the realities of Haredi life in Israel. However, the question of how much Yiddish to use was a constant point of discussion during the writing and editing process. One of the most consistent questions was when characters should speak Yiddish. In other multilingual Israeli television series, it was obvious that characters would speak their minority language (i.e. Russian or Arabic, or even Moroccan-Judeo Arabic slang) amongst their families and in their homes, while speaking Hebrew when interacting with the larger Israeli public. But the uses of Hebrew and Yiddish in the Haredi community are not as clearly delineated. WIth the exception of a very small minority of Haredim who reject modern Hebrew, Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews freely mix Yiddish and Hebrew in their everyday conversations for both work and pleasure. The show’s writers also debated whether age or gender should dictate language choice. For example, both Shulem and his brother Nochem are fluent in Hebrew, but they tend to speak Yiddish to one another, which the writers use to emphasizes both Nochem’s lack of Israeliness now that he has chosen to live abroad, as well as the brothers’ connection to Bubbe Shtisel, who is far less fluent in Hebrew than in her native Yiddish.

The show’s setting in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem indicates that while the characters are fully Haredi, they are more open to secular society than their neighbors in Mea Shearim, which is known for religious extremism. Geula’s moderation is reflected by the characters’ frequent use of Hebrew in daily life. As a general rule, the older the character, the more they speak Yiddish in their daily life. Yet the younger characters clearly understand Yiddish, even if they speak it less frequently, reflecting the increasing integration of Haredim into wider Jewish Israeli society.

[…] Yiddish made periodic appearances on Israeli sketch comedy skits in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently a handful of shows, most notably Merḥak negiah [A Touch Away], featured small amounts of Yiddish dialogue, but nowhere close to the level seen in Shtisel. While exact numbers are not available, Tamar estimates that up to 20 percent of some episodes take place entirely in Yiddish. Furthermore, the show incorporates a significant amount of loshn koydesh, using Hebrew and Aramaic phrases that emerge from the canon of Jewish religious texts such as the Torah or Talmud. Loshn koydesh phrases are pronounced with a Yiddish accent instead of the modified Sephardic accent of Modern Hebrew, to indicate their distinct and elevated status. Several of the characters have their own loshn koydesh catchphrases, including Shulem’s “khosdey hashem” [God’s kindness], a similar analog to borukh hashem [Thank God]. The show’s success gives hope to artists working to promote Yiddish in their own work, and offers visions of how to incorporate the language into works meant to reach beyond the Yiddish-speaking world.

There’s lots more, including the phrase “He went to sell beygelekh” [“He went to sell pretzels,” meaning the person in question has passed away]. My thanks to whoever provided me with the link!


  1. When I first heard young Haredis speaking Yiddish with a strong Israeli accent I found it quite surreal.

    I never heard “He went to sell beygelekh”, but I like it. Oddly, when I was growing up, what’s called “bagels” in the U.S. was completely unknown in Israel, despite their supposedly centuries-old origin in Prague. When they started showing up there in the late 1980s, they were popularly called “American beygalakh”. Otherwise Beygalakh are what New Yorkers know as pretzels.

  2. Cf. American Yiddish Er ligt in drerd un bakt beygl (lit. ‘He lies in the ground and bakes bagels’) ‘He’s not doing too well.’

  3. Guy Tabachnick says

    Y: The only bagels in Prague these days are American imports, and pretzels are preclíky.

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