By Adam Possener
A New Face for Yiddish
April 2021 and Jewish Twitter explodes. Duolingo has released its long-awaited Yiddish course. Downloading the app to check it out, I cringe at an entire module dedicated to complaining. Yet people are genuinely excited: corporate America has come along and given Yiddish, once a dead language, the kiss of life.
That, however, is not the whole story. Yiddish has been spoken without interruption since the 11th century. Although Yiddish speakers make up a small number following the Holocaust (500,000 down from around 12 million), Yiddish was never a dead language. It is one of several diasporic Jewish languages, alongside Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Karaim, and Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, all which continue to be spoken in small but strong micro-communities. Duolingo will not be Yiddish’s saviour, because Yiddish doesn’t need one. Active and growing — albeit unacknowledged — communities of marginalised people, queer people, anti-Zionists, and anarchists, among others, use the language as a mode of expression. Duolingo will give people a way in, but we should acknowledge there’s more to Yiddish than the art of ‘how to complain’.
The making of Duolingo’s Yiddish course was a long process. For one, finding a balance between Academic Yiddish (a more Northern European dialect) and Hasidic Yiddish (more central European) raised tensions. The question of a flag raised another problem. Duolingo uses a flag as a symbol for each language course, typically of the country where the language is spoken. Yet Yiddish has no flag. It is an inherently diasporic language without roots in a particular place. People, after all, are still unsure of its origins. While some believe it resulted from the migration of Ashkenazi Jews to the Rhineland, others think Yiddish was an originally Slavic language relexified by German. A more recent theory by Paul Wexler used genetics to trace Ashkenazi Yiddish speakers back to three villages in Northeast Turkey (Iskenaz, Eskenaz, and Ashanaz). Despite the language’s Hebrew script, Israel is far from the ancestral home of Yiddish and was a particularly hostile environment in which to speak Yiddish in the 20th century. To use a flag with any association to Israel would be controversial and inaccurate. Eventually, Duolingo settled on the symbol of the seemingly inoffensive Komets Aleph ‘אָ’—the first letter of the Yiddish alphabet. Although a slightly banal choice for a flag, it leaves open to interpretation the question of what speaking Yiddish represents.
Most contemporary Yiddish speakers are Hasidic (strictly orthodox) Jews, who speak the language as a form of resistance against assimilation and acculturation. Yiddish in Hasidism has two main purposes. Firstly, it is an everyday vernacular language, as opposed to loshn-koydesh, the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) and language of prayer. The use of Hebrew as a vernacular language in Israel is often seen as a pollution of the loshn-koydesh, symbolically avoided in many Hasidic communities. Second, Yiddish resists the acculturation associated with speaking a national language. Hasidic families often raise large numbers of children who speak Yiddish, guaranteeing the preservation of the language for generations to come.
But not all Yiddish speakers are Hasidic, nor is Hasidism all that Yiddish represents and reflects. Rich and complex discourses about gender, comedy, sexuality, and politics arise from the language. Jeffrey Shandler, Professor of Yiddish at Rutgers University in New Jersey, conveyed the way in which it continues to evolve alongside an ever-changing sociopolitical landscape. Yiddish, Shandler said to me, is a ‘postvernacular’ language. The term describes the meaning encoded in the act of speaking Yiddish, which is distinct from the meaning of the spoken words themselves. Shandler recounted an occasion at a conference where two eminent Yiddishists conducted an incredibly loud conversation in the language. The conversation did not need to occur at a high volume, but the speakers wanted people to hear them. Regardless of the content of their conversation, its very performance demarcates the act of speaking Yiddish as a signifier in and of itself.
To perform Yiddish, if language is fundamentally inseparable from culture, is also to perform Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). Several motivations might drive this performance, perhaps most obviously cultural restoration: to preserve and revive the cultural activities of Jews in pre-Holocaust Europe. To me, this mission is flawed in the way it conceives of pre-Holocaust Yiddishkeit through rose-tinted glasses. Culture is contingent on place, time, and people. Jewishness can never be the same as what it was before the Holocaust. Those who cultivate a nostalgia for that time do so in a roseate way, for shtetl life was hardly cottagecore. Rather than a deliberate marker of difference, Yiddish was an imposition of otherness, a symbol that true integration would never be possible.
Besides, the idea that Yiddish requires revival is simply incorrect. Hebrew, much to the likely surprise of many, is the revived language, part of a Zionist project that reinvented Hebrew from a liturgical language into a vernacular one. Although a form of pidgin Hebrew emerged in the markets of Jerusalem as a means of communication between Arabic/Ladino speaking Jews and Yiddish ones, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was the first person to formalise Modern Hebrew, inventing new words to bring Classical Hebrew up to speed with modernity in the late 19th century. He raised his son Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda exclusively in Modern Hebrew to become the first native speaker of the language. Rather than incorrectly conceptualising performances of Yiddishkeit as a revival, we must look at it as a transformation — something that signifies an important expression of the diversity of Jewishness in the 21st century.
Unresolved questions as to Judaism’s relationship to Zionism become more urgent with each passing day. After the eviction of six Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021 and the outbreak of violence that followed, more pressure and global attention is focused on ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu, the new coalition between Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, and the upcoming UN Human Rights Commission report on systematic discrimination and repression in Israel and Palestine due to be released in June 2022 have the potential to mark a significant shift in political relationships between Israel and the rest of the world.
Some Jews in the diaspora have a complex relationship with Israel, with a growing Jewish anti-Zionist movement. Groups such as Na’amod in the UK, Jewish Voice for Peace in the USA, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network are gaining traction, particularly among younger demographics. Yiddish has the potential to play a part. The UK-based community interest group ‘Babel’s Blessing’ is a language school committed to the promotion of diasporic languages. It runs a Yiddish course and is about to launch the Queer Yeshiva (religious seminary). Organisations like ‘Babel’s Blessing’ draw on facets of anti-Zionism embedded in Yiddish by invoking the language’s revolutionary past. Established at the same time as the World Zionist Organisation, the General Jewish Labour Bund was an ardent anti-Zionist movement who, among other things, advocated for Jews in Europe to speak Yiddish and not the Hebrew associated with Zionism. Their famous poster ‘Yidden, redt Yiddish’ (‘Jews speak Yiddish’) is an important emblem from this time. The revolutionary organisation was founded in the 1890s in an attempt to overthrow the Tsarist system in Russia and represented uniquely Jewish proletariat issues: pogroms and social and economic deprivation in the shtetls in the pale of settlement. The party grew and expanded across Europe and its central committee was re-established in Poland. The Bund was a fundamentally anti-Zionist movement and coined the Yiddish phrase doikayt, meaning ‘hereness’ as opposed to the 'thereness' that Zionism promoted.
The Bund’s assertion of doikayt promoted the Ashkenazi Jewish identity as a transnational cultural one, grounded in the diaspora. Yiddish was central to their autonomist political doctrine as a Jewish vernacular language that maintains, preserves, and distinguishes Jewish identity. The leading members of the Bund were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (which they helped lead), but the legacy of doikayt lives on for anti-Zionist activists in the diaspora today. Whereas Modern Hebrew is emblematic of Zionism and the Israeli government, Yiddish and doikayt can resist the Zionist project. Isabel Frey is one of many artists who uses revolutionary Yiddish songs as an expression of Jewish activism against the Israeli government. Her 2020 album ‘Millennial Bundist’ is the perfect example of postvernacular Yiddish as a signifier of anti-Zionism. The song ‘Daloy Politsey’ (‘Down with the Police’), a Yiddish anarchist song from Russia in the early 20th century, is a calling card of revolutionary Yiddishkeit. The lyrics are mostly understandable to a German speaker, yet semantic immediacy is overridden by the importance of the fact it is sung in Yiddish. Performing this song in Yiddish asserts a Jewish anti-Zionist identity. Yiddish is not an exclusively anti-Zionist language, with troves of Zionist Yiddish literature if one looks for it, but it remains more often used as a postvernacular weapon of resistance against the Israeli state.
The binary opposition between Yiddish and Hebrew extends beyond the political realm. During the revival of the Hebrew language in Palestine, Yiddish was frowned upon as the mame-loshen (mother tongue) with its weak inflections and feminine association. Hebrew, on the other hand, was the language of masculinity and the pioneers. A 1934 showing of the Yiddish film Di yiddishe mame (The Yiddish Mother) in a cinema in Tel Aviv caused riots due to its use of Yiddish within Israel as something that would weaken general society and the Zionist vision. We can also extend the idea of Yiddish as the feminine ‘other’ to the queer ‘other’. Yiddishkeit is fundamentally queer: it is diasporic, transgressive, and defiantly different. The rich history of Yiddish drag serves as a testament, with Pepi Litman as a particularly interesting example of Yiddish-signifying queerness. Litman was born in modern-day Ukraine in the late 19th century and was a drag king in the troupe Der Broderzingers who toured around Europe. Litman would often perform in Hasidic Jewish clothing, wearing tzitzit and with artificial payos (curled sidelocks), and using religious books as props. Performing as a Hasidic man allowed Litman to subvert the strict gender rules of Hasidic and wider Jewish society; Litman’s drag exploit’s the language’s self-reflexive nature to both defy and construct social norms.
The post-war phenomenon of queer Yiddishkeit only took off in the 1980s, willed into existence by those who wished it in the face of stark homophobia in the Yiddish world at the time. The queer community, interestingly enough, found their place within Yiddish rather than outside it. I asked Shandler if he thought Yiddish and Modern Hebrew’s gendered binary—the former as feminine, the latter as masculine—could be extended to include Yiddish as Hebrew’s queer other. He cautioned against an equation of queerness with the historically ‘weak’ femininity associated with Yiddish within that binary. Yet the relationship between femininity and weakness is part of a complex performance of gender that a postmodern society continues to redress. Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ alludes to the marriage of Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism as the foundation of modern sensibility. The Jewishness to which Sontag refers is based in Yiddishkeit and the mass immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to the US in the 20th century. By amending the Hebrew-Yiddish binary from strong and weak to one of muscularity and sensibility, the sensitivity of Yiddish and its freedom from the strict ideology inherent in Modern Hebrew produce a mode of queerness.
Modern Hebrew, as we know it, is an invention of Zionism. Its introduction was inherently practical, taught in basic and structured ways through the Ulpan system; it formed part of the concept of Muskeljudentum (the muscular Jew), someone with physical strength and discipline. While Yiddish lacks an authoritative body with the power to enforce its rules, Hebrew has the Academy of the Hebrew Language; French famously has the ‘Académie Française’; and many languages have an official body that can oversee development and maintain traditional linguistic rules. Yiddish, with no affixed, inherent ideology, is free to exist in whichever way people want to use it. These academies function as ideological state apparatus, but Yiddish as a language and Yiddishkeit as a culture do not embrace consensus. Yiddish micro-communities emerge who, according to Shandler, are freer to evolve their own norms through practice rather than prescription. For instance, the organisation ‘The League for Yiddish’ published a list of transgender and non-binary terms in Yiddish which include terms for agender, nonbinary, and gender-fluid persons. Given the current demographics of Yiddish speakers, and the prominent sexual taboo in Hasidic society, the use of these terms, in a vernacular sense, is likely to be negligible. In a postvernacular sense, however, their existence is significant. It evidences Yiddish’s ability to foster a space for queer Jews and allows the community of queer Yiddishists to popularise this terminology within their sphere of influence.
Yiddish’s defiance of political, religious, geographical, and sexually controlling systems is a testament to its free spirit. Its speakers have been persecuted and killed, but the language lives on. It served as political resistance against Nazism, the USSR, and is now being used to critique Zionism. It is the language of the other: Jews othered from Gentiles, women othered from men, and queer people othered from heteronormativity. Its lack of a central authority and the existence of a vast array of micro-communities gives Yiddish an enduring status as an anarchist language.
A wonderfully ironic coincidence of the Duolingo flag is its similarity to the Yiddish Anarchist one, prominently displaying a circled A. The Komets Aleph, ‘אָ’, on the Duolingo flag is Yiddish’s A. Inadvertently, and though it lacks a circle, the Duolingo flag is emblematic of Yiddish’s complex roots in resistance and its status as a diasporic language to be used whenever and however its speakers choose.
Adam Possener is reading Music at St. Anne’s College. He promises music isn’t a fake degree.
Art by Leya Jasmin.