Yiddish, the language of most European Jews (Ashkenazis) was spoken by Jews from Europe who began settling in Palestine beginning in the early 18th century. Palestinian Yiddish was infused with elements of other local languages, such as Arabic and Turkish. The British authorities, who ruled the country as a League of Nations Mandate from 1917 to 1948, did not designate Yiddish as an official language. Though Yiddish and its culture were shunned by the Palestine Zionist establishment, which aimed to construct a new “Hebrew” society, the language continued to be used by many immigrant Jews. After the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the influx of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, Yiddish gradually achieved some official recognition. Yet over the following decades, as the numbers of Yiddish speakers declined, Yiddish cultural production in Israel dwindled. The language has always been used by members of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi community. Yiddish is currently enjoying a certain popularity among secular Jews in Israel, and multilevel language and literature classes are offered in various venues. A recent trend in Israeli culture incorporates Yiddish speech and culture into visual performance. Yiddish klezmer and klezmer-style music are popular. The Hebrew-Yiddish conflict in the early 20th century was part of the formative process of the Zionist community in Palestine and its product, the state of Israel. The evolving relationship of Zionism with the language and its culture offers valuable perspectives on Israeli society. This article is divided into two sections: the Yiddish culture of British Mandate Palestine and that of the state of Israel.
The majority of Zionist settlers before 1948 came from Europe and were the products of Yiddish tradition, schooling, and culture. Though Hebrew was widespread and became an official language under British rule, Yiddish usage persisted, as did Yiddish production. Many Yiddish writers who immigrated to Palestine continued to express themselves in that language, both to meet the cultural needs of the local settlers as well as for publication abroad. Between 1928 and 1946, twenty-six Yiddish literary collections appeared in the country under the auspices of the Club of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Palestine. These Yiddish collections focused on local topics. Other Yiddish work written locally was largely published abroad. As the tragic events of the Holocaust became known, they found especially poignant expression in Yiddish production in pre-state Palestine. Bloomgarden 1918 presents interesting observations on the practice and function of Yiddish in the early Zionist community. Brenner 2016 depicts the relationships between Hebrew and Yiddish literatures during the interwar period, including in Palestine. Chaver 2001 offers an overview of Yiddish literature in pre-state Palestine. Chaver 2004 surveys and analyzes Yiddish cultural production within the Zionist community of Palestine during the pre-state period. Chaver 2012 presents uses of Yiddish in early-20th-century Hebrew literature. Halamish 1966 presents a selection of pre-state Yiddish writing in Hebrew translation. Halperin 2015 deals with Yiddish as part of Jewish linguistic practice in British Mandate Palestine. Harshav 1993 contextualizes Yiddish language and culture within the Zionist project. Kosover 1966 offers valuable information on Yiddish culture and usage during the early British Mandate period. Pilovsky 1986 is mainly a historical study of Hebrew-Yiddish relations in Palestine, ending with a brief survey of Yiddish literary output during that period. Rudner and Rudner 2012 is a bilingual collection of Hebrew folk songs translated from Yiddish in the pre-state period. Seidman 1997 views the Hebrew-Yiddish “language war” from its inception in the late 19th century through the lens of gender studies. Unger 1937 presents a bibliography of the Yiddish press in Palestine.
Bloomgarden, Solomon (Yehoyesh). Fun Nyu York biz Rechovos un Tsurik. New York: Farlag Oyfgang, 1918.
Bloomgarden, known as Yehoyesh, spent just under a year in Palestine. The renowned Yiddish poet’s reports of Yiddish usage in a Zionist settlement just before the First World War are symptomatic of the role of the language in 1914–1915, when the use of modern Hebrew was becoming widespread in Palestine. Especially striking is his description of the popularity of Yiddish-language newspapers from abroad.
Brenner, Naomi. Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016.
A perceptive study of the intricate connections between Hebrew and Yiddish literatures in the early 20th century. One chapter is devoted to manifestations of Yiddish literature and culture in Palestine, highlighting and analyzing the Hebrew-Yiddish ambivalence of some leading writers. The selection reflects the social and ideological variety, as well as some literary hallmarks of the Yiddish cultural community in the country.
Chaver, Yael. “Outcasts Within: Zionist Yiddish Literature in Pre-State Palestine.” Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (Winter 2001): 39–66.
A brief survey of Yiddish literary production in pre-state Palestine, situated within the cultural and social contexts of the time. Includes examples from the nonconformist fiction of Avrom Rivess.
Chaver, Yael. What Must Be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.
This literary-historical study of the Yiddish culture in British Mandate Palestine follows its development in the face of mainstream Zionist repression. Chapters alternate historical background with close readings of prose and poetry texts by relatively unknown authors such as Zalmen Brokhes and Rikuda Potash. Many of these texts offer an alternative to the conventional Zionist cultural narrative.
Chaver, Yael. “Brenner and Agnon Between Languages: Yiddish in Early Twentieth-century Hebrew Literature.” In Between Yiddish and Hebrew. Amsterdam Yiddish Symposium 7. Edited by Shlomo Berger, 55–69. Amsterdam: Manasseh ben Israel Institute, 2012.
The article analyzes the underlying presence and poetic function of Yiddish in two stories by acknowledged masters of early-20th-century Hebrew literature, writing in Palestine. Brenner and Agnon incorporated transliteration as well as loan translations in their work.
Halamish, Mordechai, ed. Mi-kan u-mi-karov: Antologya sipurei yidish be-erets-yisra’el me-reshit ha-me’ah ve-ad yameinu. Tel Aviv: Sifriyat Po’alim, 1966.
This rich anthology comprises sixty-seven Palestinian-Israeli Yiddish stories in Hebrew translation, aimed at familiarizing Israelis with early local Yiddish production. The works are presented in chronological order. Includes an introduction by Dov Sadan, bio-bibliographical notes, and photos of writers.
Halperin, Liora R. Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920–1948. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
An innovative work that addresses Yiddish as part of the multifaceted cultural-linguistic landscape in the Jewish society of the pre-state period and presents a different perspective on the conventional narrative that portrays Hebrew as the exclusive language of the Zionist community. However, data are mainly derived from urban communities.
Harshav, Benjamin. Language in Time of Revolution. Berkeley: UC Press, 1993.
Following a nuanced overview of Ashkenazi Jewish historical and cultural developments worldwide during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the second part of this seminal book situates and analyzes the Yiddish-Hebrew language conflict in Palestine within the modernist Jewish project. An invaluable appendix contains primary source material, translated from the Hebrew, on the language issue in Zionist Palestine.
The Index of Yiddish Periodicals of the Yiddish Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Jewish National and University Library, includes a list of select literary Yiddish periodicals published in Palestine, as well as a few items published after 1948.
Kosover, Mordecai. Arabic Elements in Palestinian Yiddish: The Old Ashkenazic Community in Palestine, its History and its Language. Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1966.
Based on the author’s observations in Palestine in 1927–1937, this study is rich in information on language practice among Ashkenazi Jews in daily life and discourse and reveals an idiosyncratic Yiddish culture. The chapters include examples from various domains. Six appendices, headed by “Ladino Words in Palestinian Yiddish,” enhance the detailed work.
Pilovsky, Aryeh. Tsvishn yo un neyn: Yidish un yidish literatur in erets-yisroel, 1907–1948. Tel Aviv: World Council for Yiddish and Jewish Culture, 1986.
An authoritative historical study, with special attention devoted to the language polemics within political parties, the conflict over establishing a chair in Yiddish at the Hebrew University, and debates on Yiddish in the Hebrew literary journal Ketuvim. The last section provides an overview of Yiddish literary production in Palestine during this period.
Rudner, Tamar, and Amos Rudner, eds. Zemerl: Shirim she-lo nishkakh. Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad, 2012.
A bilingual collection of fifty Yiddish folksongs in Hebrew translation that were popular in the Palestine Zionist community, with musical notation. Annotated and illustrated. Two sections are devoted to Holocaust and resistance songs. The book is accompanied by a CD.
Seidman, Naomi. A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
This groundbreaking study analyzes the traditional sexual-linguistic system that dictated the relations between Hebrew and Yiddish cultures and literatures. Chapter 4 is a nuanced examination, in this light, of the Hebrew-Yiddish “language war” in 1920s Palestine.
Unger, Menashe. “Bibliografye fun der yidisher prese in erets-yisro’el.” In Zamlbukh lekoved dem tsvey-hundert un fuftsikstn yoyvl fun der yidisher prese, 1686–1936. Edited by Yaakov Shatsky, 136–174. New York: Yivo, 1937.
A comprehensive listing of 221 Palestinian Yiddish periodicals, with annotations, biographical details, and quotations that often reflect contemporaneous language politics. Especially valuable for its information on one-time publications of small or local organizations.
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