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Old Call for Old Things

Junk, Then and Now: Ukrainian Jewish peddlars collect used household items in 1925. Image by Menachem Kipnis/Forward Association

Each Friday, a beat-up truck comes trundling down our Jerusalem block to collect used household items.

Alte zakhn! Alte zakhn!” the loudspeaker rings out. Then comes a list of items of interest: couches, chairs, tables, beds. All these are announced in Hebrew. Only that initial call, “Alte zakhn!” — literally, “old things” — is in Yiddish.

The old Palestinian man who drives the truck repeats the phrase once more before he drives off, returning the street to its Friday-morning quiet.

The first time I heard the call, I did not understand the words. I may be the only one on the block who actually speaks Yiddish, but I am not accustomed to hearing it with a heavy Arabic accent. Also, my command of Hebrew is not yet perfect.

On that first Friday, I ran to the balcony, remembering a similarly garbled announcement heralding street cleaning days in Cambridge, Mass. Was there something I needed to know? Was I about to get a ticket for some unanticipated infraction?

Eventually I managed to pick out some individual words. Once it became clear that the message was not relevant to me, I lost interest. It would be several weeks before it slowly dawned on me not only that the opening words were in Yiddish, but also that they were the very words that had her alded the arrival of every Jewish junk collector across Eastern Europe a century ago.

Back then, Jews often served in intermediary roles in the economy. They would take unwanted items from private individuals and sell them for pennies for use as raw materials to craftsmen or factories; an early form of recycling, if you will. In a world where most of the population survived at the margins, being a junk peddler, even if time-consuming and not terribly lucrative, was an honest way to make a living.

Early immigrants to the Yishuv, or Jewish settlement in Palestine, were also in difficult financial straits. The religious devoted themselves to sacred study and survived on philanthropy from abroad. Even at the best of times, this was a tenuous existence, as wars or other disruptions in communication and transportation could quickly reduce these communities to penury.

The Zionist pioneers who followed hoped to break the pattern of dependence by working the land, but in the short term, they lacked agricultural tools and knowledge and also had to rely on outsiders to get them started. One can imagine that some of the local Jews might have returned to traditional patterns of work to feed themselves and their families. And thus the call of “alte zakhn” reached the New Yishuv from the Old Country.

At that time, in the late 19th century, the refrain of “alte zakhn” would have been familiar to the new immigrants. Even those who strived to speak only Hebrew knew Yiddish and recognized the ring of the junk collector.

Over time, however, the majority of Yiddish terms used in the Yishuv were replaced by modern Hebrew. This was largely due to a concerted effort to create Hebrew words for every occasion and to discourage the use of Yiddish and other competing languages. But somehow, “alte zakhn” slipped through the cracks.

Each week, the call commands my attention. I set aside whatever project I am engaged in and take in the complicated and contradictory symbolism of this recycled refrain.

To be honest, I am not sure what to make of the fact that, in my neighborhood at least, Palestinians have replaced Jews as junk collectors but continue to announce themselves in Yiddish. Is it a sign of exploitation? Or one of integration? Perhaps it is a sign of intimacy that Israeli Jews and Arabs now live in such close proximity that they share antiquated slang words and professions? Or maybe one old man is simply repeating what he heard another old man say?

Whatever it is, the call never fails to move me.

Since arriving in Israel in this sabbatical year, I have witnessed so many changes since my student days. There are more cars on the streets, less laundry hanging from windows, and new fences, trains and highways. But amid all that is new and orderly, all the strivings of the people and the government, “alte zakhn” still remain.

Eliyana Adler is a professor of Jewish studies in the United States currently conducting research in Israel.

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