Northern Exposure: Mameloshn’s Unexpected Fate – in Sweden

Culture

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the weeks leading up to Sweden’s national election this month, the government put out public service announcements in the press, encouraging its citizens to vote. But one feature was hardly standard issue: The bulletins informed the readers how to get voting instructions in Yiddish.

The bulletins served as a reminder of — or, more likely for most, an introduction to — a very unlikely aspect of this Northern European society: Yiddish enjoys official minority-language status in Sweden. (The only other two countries where Yiddish has official status are the Netherlands and Moldova.)

Out of a population of 9 million, Sweden has 18,000 Jews. And if one takes into account both those who speak it fluently and those who have a passive understanding of it, Yiddish speakers likely number fewer than 4,000. Besides the instructions on how to vote, the government has issued a translation of the policies regarding national minority languages, and this past March it translated Sweden’s national action plan for human rights.

Some Jewish residents of Sweden find it ironic that one of the only countries in the world to confer official status on Yiddish is known for pursuing one of the most anti-Israel policies in Europe. Last June, for example, Sweden’s state-owned alcohol retail monopoly, Systembolaget, in consultation with the Swedish foreign ministry, labeled Israeli Golan and Yarden wines as “made in Israel-occupied Syrian territories,” according to a report in The Jerusalem Post. Two months earlier, the Post added, Sweden pulled out of a European military exercise because of Israeli participation. “It’s great that the government has decided to help Yiddish, but it’s too little, too late,” said Dr. Salomon Schulman, a pediatrician and writer in Lund. “Those who speak Yiddish today are mostly in their 80s, living in nursing homes or alone at home, and don’t take advantage of the Yiddish cultural institutions.”

Schulman, who authored a Swedish history of Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe called “Jiddischland” (Bokforlaget Nya Doxa, 1996) along with other books about Yiddish culture, remembers well the negative attitude toward Yiddish as recently as the 1990s, when the government started researching which minority languages to choose for official status. “The Swedes didn’t want to recognize Yiddish, because they were against Israel and considered the Jews bourgeois. And the Jews didn’t stand up for Yiddish, because they thought that Yiddish wasn’t a language at all,” he said. “The Yiddish speakers who immigrated to Sweden after the Holocaust could have spoken up, but they were simple tailors and shoemakers, and had no position or power here; while the Swedish Jews, who did have the prestige, were ashamed of the East European Jews and of their language.”

Susanne Sznajderman-Rytz, linguist and instructor of business Swedish in Boras, was the driving force behind the government’s decision to recognize Yiddish in 2000 as one of five minority languages. The others selected were Finnish, Meankieli, Sami and Romani (the language of the Gypsies). In order to earn recognition, a minority language had to meet three criteria: The language had to be spoken by a group that considers itself separate from the general population; the group that speaks the language had to share a unique cultural heritage, and the language had to have originated in Europe and been used in Sweden for at least 100 years. For this reason, Arabic and Persian — languages heard much more in Sweden today than Yiddish — were not included.

Each of the five languages is entitled to government funding. But in order to get it, its advocates must submit an annual proposal, subject to government approval. Until now, the Yiddish sector has received $100,000 annually.

Sznajderman-Rytz had been told that the funding would be even higher this coming year, although the exact amount is still unclear.

Part of the funding goes to maintain Jewish libraries in Malmo, Gothenburg and Stockholm, as well as the Judaica library in Gothenburg University, all of which include a Yiddish section; part of it goes to the three Jewish publishing houses in Sweden, and part to an annual Yiddish seminar.

One such seminar took place two weeks ago at Bommersvik College. The two-day event, which was conducted entirely in Yiddish, attracted 60 participants, most of them children of Holocaust survivors. Joseph Sherman, an Oxford University professor, gave a series of lectures comparing the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dovid Bergelson, I. J. Singer and Isaac Meir Dick; and Dutch Jewish singer Shura Lipovski, the most well-known Yiddish singer in Europe, conducted workshops on how to sing Yiddish songs.

“I never dreamed that all of this would ever happen,” Sznajderman-Rytz said. “Now when people suggest establishing full-time radio stations and newspapers for Yiddish, I figure: If we’ve come this far, then this, too, is possible.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a writer and editor with the Forverts, from which this article was adapted.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.