I think the article exaggerates the situation of Hebrew before ben Yehudah.  In fact, Hebrew was a language of discussion and discourse of religious and learned traditional Jews everywhere in the world, when they were talking or writing about religious issues or learned topics related to the Talmud and Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or to the Kabbalah.  So you could say Hebrew was a specialized language dealing with a narrow range of subjects but I don’t think you could say it was dead.  There were thousands of books written in Hebrew during this time. 

 

What the Hebraists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wanted to do was to give the language greater scope so one could talk about anything including the latest scientific advances.  They wanted to make Hebrew the daily language of a Jewish state in their vision of Zionism.  Nevertheless, most of them spoke and wrote in Yiddish as well to reach “the common man” in the Yiddish speaking populations of Eastern Europe.   A few of the Zionists even argued that Yiddish, being the language of the greatest number of Jews, should become the language of the new Jewish state.  The battles on this issue were intense. 

 

The Hebraists were strongly opposed by traditionalists who wanted to limit Hebrew to use in the religious sphere and wanted no part of a secular Jewish state.   These often used Yiddish as their daily language. 

 

They were also opposed by secularists and modernists who wished to integrate Jews into Europe and basically sought to promote the use of the national language in the country they lived.  In practice, this meant promoting the language of the dominant or dominating group in the state, German in Germany and Austria and Russian in the Russian empire, although some opted for Hungarian in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.   After the end of WWI, these groups switched to the language of the new nation of which they were now a part, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Rumanian, etc. 

 

Finally, they were opposed by the Yiddishists, who themselves were often aligned with the Bund, a Jewish socialist workers’ movement.  The thesis of the Yiddishists was that Eastern European Jews constituted an international people with members in many countries but who all shared a common language and culture.  This was the strongest movement in the early part of the twentieth century when Yiddish was spoken and written on all the continents except Antarctica 

 

The sects that I spoke of in my previous notes on this were analyzed from the perspective of religion, not ethnicity or language.  Those divisions arose mostly in the context of European jewry and their descendants, mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although the split between more protestant Mitnagdim and the more spiritual and earthy Hasidic movements started in the mid 18th century.  At the beginning of the 19th century, except for the Hasidim, a traditional Jew could go to any synagogue throughout Europe, North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East and understand himself to be in the same religious context everywhere.  That would not be true after the Enlightenment and emancipation swept through Western and Central European Jewry and Communism decimated the Jewish communities of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and so on. 

 

When we look at ethnicity and language we have to use a different framework.  In this regard, the primary split is between Ashkenzim and Sephardim, the “German” origin and “Spanish” origin Jews.  Historical analysis and recent DNA data suggest this division is even older and goes back to the split between the Jews of Judea-Samaria- Gallilee who seem to have moved into Europe either through Italy or the Balkans or even through the Caucasus, and the Jews of Babylonia who were the main precursor to Spanish, North African, Kurdish, Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Indian and Chinese communities. 

 

The Jews of Arabia and Yemen, Ethiopian Jews, and the Berber Jews of North Africa, the mountain Jews of Georgia and the Jews of Smarkand and Bukhara are the product of local developments whose provenance is not certain. 

 

The Italian community has maintained a separate identity even though DNA research suggests they are the original community from which the other European communities sprouted. 

 

Many of these communities used a language peculiar to themselves.  Ladino and Dzhudezmo are Spanish based languages spoken in North Africa and other former parts of the Ottoman Empire.  This is where many Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. 

 

There was a Jewish Berber dialect spoken by the Berber Jews of Morocco and Algeria. 

 

There were Jewish Arabic dialects spoken throughout Arabic lands, the most famous one being the Jewish Arabic dialect of Baghdad. 

 

The Jews of Kurdistan spoke an ancient Aramaic dialect related to the Aramaic used by their Christian neighbours (Chaldeans and Assyrians). 

 

There was also a Jewish Iranian dialect at one point in time. 

 

The most well known of the Jewish dialect variations of local languages is Yiddish, which is basically a Jewish German dialect with vocabulary accretions from Slavic as the Jews moved eastward. 

 

The reason Yiddish is so well known is that it became the daily language of Eastern European Jewry who by 1939 were the most populous of all Jewish communities and continued to be spoken by the vast majority of them until the Holocaust.  Their descendants are the ones who immigrated to other countries where Yiddish also thrived for a time, especially in the United States where Yiddish theater, poetry, fiction, political writing and journalism were everywhere right up into the 1950’s.  Buenos Aires and Montevideo became major publishing centers for Yiddish in the early twentieth century.   By 1939 Eastern European Jews and their descendants constituted between 80 and 90% of the world Jewish population. 

 

Until the Holocaust, of all Jewish languages, Yiddish was the most widely used as a daily language throughout the world. 

 

After the Holocaust, the situation had changed dramatically.  Israel, the new state was being formed as a new hope as an entity that would throw off thousands of years of oppression in the diaspora.  It needed a language not connected to the diaspora or to the utter destruction of Jewish communities of Europe.  Yiddish was seen as a ghetto language connected to defeatism and death.  Moreover, there was now no “home base” for Yiddish.  The Nazis had destroyed the Jews of Poland and the Stalinists had suppressed the Yiddish of the Soviet Union.  The urge to move to integration in the rest of Europe was very strong and had always had strength in all Western countries like the United States where the children of immigrants were no longer using Yiddish in daily life.  Without replenishment, nourishment and interaction with the former “Eastern European homeland”, the remnants of Yiddish in the US, Canada, Australia, etc., simply evaporated except for very small pockets. 

 

Furthermore, in the short term, Israel was receiving more immigrants from Middle Eastern countries than from the West.  It made no sense to use Yiddish as language of communication.  To them this would seem like one more indication of European dominance in the state.  In fact, the majority of Jews in Israel were of Eastern origin until the arrival of the Russians in the nineties.  It is a myth that Israelis were mainly of European origin.   The majority were middle easterners who grew up in Arabic, Muslim and Asian societies and their descendants.  That may even still be true today. 

 

Today, there is only one Yiddish speaking population that is growing.  There are a number of traditional Jews, especially among Hasidim, who still prefer to speak Yiddish for their daily needs.  They tend to limit Hebrew to the religious sphere although they will speak Hebrew in Israel to communicate with the state, just as one sect in Quebec, speaks basically Yiddish and French. 

 

This is the great irony.  In order for me, a secular Jew, from a left leaning Yiddishist background to find small children to speak Yiddish to, I have to find members of the Lubavitch Hasidic community to deal with!  My son travels by bike from Brooklyn to NYU and has to pass through a Hasidic neighbourhood on the way.   He described his sense of amazement as he biked listening to wall to wall Yiddish on the streets, past stores with Yiddish signs and overtaking long lines of yellow and black school buses parked on the street, all with Yiddish lettering on them.  Talk about a strange world!   The pity is that none of these people is discussing Marx, or Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Plato in Yiddish the way my father did.  That part of the Yiddish world has almost disappeared. 

 

Rubin 


From: jcinostalgia@googlegroups.com [mailto:jcinostalgia@googlegroups.com] On Behalf Of mimieng.basslake@rogers.com
Sent: January 7, 2008 5:47 PM
To: jcinostalgia@googlegroups.com
Subject: [JCINostalgia] Article from thestar.com
 

 

Rubin and Leorah: This article is from yesterday’s TO Star. What a story - the resurrection of a language unspoken for over 2,000 yrs! I wondered though, why Ben Yehuda didn’t take the perhaps easier route by popularizing one of the existing languages (eg: Yiddish). Is it because he felt he had to go back that far to find a language that would be acceptable to all the different and scattered sects that you spoke of? Mimi 

Please visit link: http://www.thestar.com/article/291369