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Is Yiddish Getting Popular Among Arab Israelis?

The mame-loshn may be finding new speakers

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Bar Ilan University(Demotix)

The debate about whether Yiddish is or isn’t becoming trendy again seems to crop up every few years. First, it was the Israelis, then the hipsters, then the politicians. Then came the worriers who fretted aloud that Yiddish was dying. Some assessments about the language seem to suggest that it’s doing well and remains popular enough to keep it off the list of endangered languages (sadly, not the same can be said for Chamorro). Today, I was pointed to a story (h/t Miriam Krule) about how Yiddish might gaining steam with a new group of speakers:

About a quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan are Arabs, says Ber Kotlerman, academic director of Bar Ilan’s Center for Yiddish Studies. According to Kotlerman, some of the Israeli Arabs are searching for a way to connect to the Jewish culture with which they must cope, and it is not easy for them.

“Even Jews in the Diaspora search for this — a way to connect to the local culture — and it is wonderful that Yiddish can be a sort of ambassador, a bridge between nations and cultures,” he says. “Take, for example, the case of Tevye the Dairyman, whose daughter marries a Christian and he sits shiva [the traditional Jewish mourning ceremony] for her. Two years ago, a female Arab student approached me to say that her father would do the same thing if she fell in love with a Jew,” says Kotlerman.

The rest of the story is pretty great. Be sure to check out the whole thing.

Earlier: Amid Dying Languages, Yiddish Lives On

Nu? Arab Students’ New Shtick: Kibbitzing in Yiddish

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Robin Margolis says:

Dear Adam:

I would reluctantly suggest that there is a darker aspect to the essay “Is Yiddish Getting Popular Among Arab Israelis?”

As someone who has read a great deal of Yiddish literature and theology, I can state that at least every nine pages there is a murder, a kidnapping, an imprisonment of Jews at the hands of the local oppressor — the Russian empire, the Polish aristocrats, etc. Even the happy stories are set against a background of oppression.

If Israeli Arabs are studying Yiddish literature, it is likely that they are identifying with the Jews who were forced to live in the in the militarized confines of the “Jewish Pale” of the Russian empire as second-class minority citizens with very few civil rights — just as Israeli Arabs live in Israel today. The parallels with the situation of the Palestinian Arabs living under the military occupation of the West Bank are even more marked.

Anyone who doubts this, have a look at the last 12 minutes of the movie of “Fiddler on the Roof” — Jews being driven from their homes by a remote and cruel military government!

    daized79 says:

    Of course without changing the names of the players, you might also suggest that they take joy in our bittersweet stories. Ah there is the natural state of the Jews. We hope to one day again oppress them as we did for over a millennium. the jew is weak and does not know how to lead and have power. These stories give us insight in how to properly oppress them and drive them out of Land and into the sea. With whom will we identify? The Jew or the Russian?

      Robin Margolis says:

      Dear daized79:

      Let’s hope for the sake of the Israeli Jews that the Israeli Arabs are not reading Yiddish literature while taking notes on how to revenge themselves on the Israeli Jews some day.

        daized79 says:

        Avenge. And I think the Arabs should be more afraid of us turning into them… Can you even imagine a Jew taking revenge for the countless cold-blooded murders that have been perpetrated by Arab individuals and supported by the vast majority of their people? The only ones who have done it are mentally unstable (I’m thinking folks like Baruch Goldstein here — there have literally been so few that you can count them on one hand and have to go back decades) and were immediately vilified by 99.99% of the Jews. But if we took a cue from the Arabs and with our superior firepower… Homs would look like a birthday party. So it would be in their interest to help us remain Jews and to insulate us from Arab influence. But then again they rarely do what’s in their interest. Yiddish stories make us look weak to the Arabs because we do not take vengeance ourselves, instead asking G-d to do it. I would imagien that’s part of their allure, if any.

    daized79 says:

    no matter how I may feel about or Russian and Polish oppressors, the Jews did not dream of murdering them and bathing in their blood. Nor did the Jew dream of chasing the Russians out of their land and into the sea. The Jews knew they were guests in a land that was not theirs even though that had been there 1,500 years.

      Robin Margolis says:

      Dear daized79 — You are idealizing the Jews of the Pale in an attempt to let Israeli Jews and their poor treatment of Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians off the hook.

      Alas, I have read histories of Israel’s founders — all Jews — and of the co-leaders of many of the Russian Empire’s revolutionary parties — radical communists and socialists — many of whom not only expressed bloodthirsty wishes towards the Russian Empire’s officials, but actually carried out murders, and encouraged other people to do so as well.

      The list is very long: Trotsky (two Jewish parents — Lev Davidovich Bronstein), Vladiimir Lenin (Jewish grandparent), and many, many others.

      In fact many of the Jewish Communists of the former Soviet Union also murdered and tormented other Jews — so the Jews of the Pale were not meek and submissive. They could be quite as bloodthirsty as anyone else.

      One of the first Jewish groups to arrive in Israel in the 1880s, Bilui, openly advocated violence against the Arabs to take the land of Israel away from them. The aging Holy Maiden of Ludmir, a Jewish mystic then living in Israel, warned that this policy would be catastrophic.

      Also, the Jews of the Russian Pale did not consider themselves guests. If you read the Yiddish literature and theology books — or just watch the movie of “Fiddler on the Roof” — you will see that they considered themselves citizens of those lands — despite obligatory prayers for return to Israel when the Messiah might come — something that was mostly a fantasy to them — and much of their indignation at their cruel treatment stemmed from their long tenure on the land in many areas.

      Surely you’ve watched “Fiddler on the Roof” when the Jews talk about their lands and their homes — which they own — and which are taken away from them with no explanation by their remote dictatorship? — just as Israeli Jews have repeatedly dispossessed Palestinian Arabs?

      No wonder the Palestinian Arabs are reading Yiddish literature. It certainly must strike a chord with them.

        daized79 says:

        A few points. You are right about the Jewish communists. I’ll take Trotsky (with distaste), but please do not try to give me Lenin (it’s bad enough I probably have to take Qaddafi, not to mention Marx himself). But what made these people who they were was not embracing Jewish culture, but rejecting it. As opposed to those Arabs who are our enemies (not all are, of course, but those who aren’t are rejecting the majority culture).

        daized79 says:

        You can’t possibly be using an American movie as proof of how a people felt. Even Tevye was an American movie, made by people with an amazing amount of ignorance (pay attention to the schabbes [shabat] scenes which are really messed up with lighting candles, havdala, etc.). I do not have the time or access to bring you proofs, but just a few things to think abut — the huge spread and popularity of Zionism from the early 18th Century on, the upheaval of shabtai tsvi only 150 years earlier, the huge migrations to America (despite the hardships involved in getting here and the completely alien culture — more than moving to Germany or even France)… Obviously there were those who tried to integrate, but they were few and far between statistically. We are discussing Yiddish culture here — not Judeo-German or French.

        daized79 says:

        Last, I am not idealizing the Pale. There were thieves, charlatans, and even murderers among those who were within the Jewish community (as opposed to the communists who left it), but nothing on the level of the Arabs. So there are two disparate groups you feel are oppressed: Israeli Arabs and West Bank Arabs. Israeli Arabs aren’t even in the same universe. They vote, they have
        civil rights, they can never be executed, they have food and water, they
        can practice their religion when it isn’t a death cult (and sadly even
        when it is), and they are not conscripted to the army or civil service. I am not one to idealize their situation. Israeli Arabs
        are better off than any other Arabs (and unlike their millions of
        brethren, they largely don’t want to kill us all, man, woman, and
        child), but there is no excuse for poorer municipal services, garbage
        collection, education, etc., even if there are tax collection problems.
        Israel has a duty to make that system fair (or to cut taxes, localize,
        and deregulate which is unlikely). But there’s no comparison.

        daized79 says:

        And West Bank Arabs don’t vote, but otherwise are treated infinitely better than Jews in the Pale. And more importantly, their problems are their own making. Israel tries to let them govern themselves. They just can’t do it. The only problems Israel has is with them coming into Israel proper. They want their own country and don’t want to be part of Israel, but for some reason, they need to work in Israel. Israel even lets them — but because they largely want to kill us (man, woman, and child), Israel has checkpoints. And this is what gets everyone in a huff. Again, the situation is not ideal. A good person who was born in the West Bank Arab territory and can’t get out is someone who has my empathy, but his hatred should be toward his own culture, not toward Jews (enough self-hating Jews, let’s get some self-hating Arabs — that would be progress).

I took Prof. Kotlerman’s class and most of the class was Arab women. They took the class because it was easy, as far as I can tell. They had a rotation where only a couple of them would show up each week and give notes to the rest. The test was easy and open-notes. I wouldn’t say this indicates a trend in which Arabs love Yiddish…

    Robin Margolis says:

    Dear Lahav Harkov:

    Thanks for the on-site feedback!



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Is Yiddish Getting Popular Among Arab Israelis?

The mame-loshn may be finding new speakers

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