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The Case for Yiddish in Israel

Dovid Katz, whose newly published “Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish” was reviewed in the Forward recently, is one-of-a-kind in the Jewish world — a roving, long-bearded scholar (born in New York, he now, according to the book’s jacket cover, “divides his time between Lithuania and North Wales”) who, one has the impression, would rather spend his time conversing in Yiddish to the last Jew in a Belarussian shtetl than presiding over a seminar. I met him once, a decade ago, at the Forward. The Forward’s then-editor, Seth Lipsky, had arranged a debate between us, subsequently published in this paper’s pages, the subject of which was Yiddish and Hebrew — or more precisely, Yiddishism and Hebraism. I was the Hebraist, Katz the Yiddishist; we argued vigorously, although not ill-naturedly, about the two languages and their relationship to such things as Israel, the Diaspora, Zionism, anti-Zionism, the Jewish past and the Jewish future. And we never ran into each other again.

I mention this because Katz is still arguing. (So, I guess, am I.) He can’t forgive Israel one thing. This isn’t its policies toward the Palestinians, or its right-wing settlers or the strong presence of religion in its public life — all issues about which, although I have no idea what he thinks, many Yiddishists coming out of the socialist-Bundist tradition have strong opinions. No, what’s unforgivable is the fact that Israel is a Hebrew- rather than a Yiddish-speaking state.

Of course, he’s not the only one. There were many lovers of Yiddish who would have been enthusiastic Zionists if only Zionism had embraced Yiddish and not Hebrew as its linguistic medium. The Hebraist argument that Hebrew alone spanned 3,000 years of Jewish history and was the language of the entire Jewish people, whereas Yiddish was spoken by only a part of that people for the last thousand years, didn’t impress them. Yiddish was the living language of millions of Jews, Hebrew a dead one; why revive a corpse when you already have a warm body?

Katz agrees with this. He takes the anti-Hebrew polemic a step further, however. Basing himself on the controversial conclusions of his own scholarship, he denies the Hebraists even their starting premise. It is not modern Hebrew at all, he claims, that represents 3,000 years of Jewish history but, on the contrary, Yiddish! As he puts it, “Israeli [his denigrating word for modern Hebrew] could not replace Yiddish in a million years because Yiddish is the unique, irreplaceable linguistic heir to the grand Jewish language chain that started when Hebrew arose from Canaanite, was continued when Jewish Aramaic became the main Jewish language, and replicated again when Yiddish appeared.” Elsewhere in “Words on Fire,” he explains this at greater length:

“The Jews who settled in the Germanic lands of Central Europe and became the first Ashkenazim around a thousand years ago were the creators of Yiddish, which took over from Aramaic the mantle of the major Jewish vernacular…. [Jewish] Settlers in medieval Europe did not start to speak the local German language any more than the Judean exiles in Babylonia in the sixth century B.C. ‘started to speak’ the Aramaic of their new Babylonian neighbors….the settlers’ previous language encountered the new neighbors’ vernacular, resulting in a brand-new Jewish language, fused from the (majority) elements of their new neighbors’ language with the (minority) elements brought with them from their previous abode. In the case of the genesis of Yiddish, the minority component was a kind of Jewish Aramaic that comprised a substantial Hebrew component. Yiddish resulted when [this Jewish Aramaic] encountered the medieval German urban dialects the Jews now heard every day.”

To understand the point that Katz is making, one has to realize that it involves a theory of the origins of Yiddish first proposed by him more than 20 years ago, and radically different from any of the other theories held by contemporary scholars. That is, although there is scholarly disagreement as to what area of German-speaking Europe Yiddish first arose in, and where the Jews who settled in this area came from, it is assumed by everyone except Katz that these Jews came from somewhere else in Europe and spoke a Judaized form of the language of that “somewhere,” whether Judeo-French, Judeo-Italian, or Judeo-Slavic. Yiddish began to develop, according to this view, when the speakers of this “Judeo-Something” converted to a dialect of German into which they introduced the distinctively Jewish — i.e., Hebrew and Aramaic — vocabulary of their previous language.

Katz thinks differently. The first Yiddish speakers, he believes, came to German-speaking lands not from elsewhere in Europe, but directly from the Middle East; and the language they brought with them was not some form of Judeo-European, but an Aramaic similar to the language of the Talmud. Yiddish was thus the “first generation” heir of this language, not a more distant descendant.

Katz’s linguistic case for this theory will be discussed next week.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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