Why are German anti-Zionists learning Yiddish?

In a misguided attempt to relive the past, they have blinded themselves to Israel’s present

October 05, 2023 12:28

"Ma?” is the bemused response I get from my Israeli friends when I tell them that learning Yiddish is an increasingly popular pastime among some on the Left in the diaspora.

It makes no sense to them that the language of our dead ancestors and past torments could attract such enthusiasm.

If you want to learn a tongue of past oppression, go for Arabic, they say. At least it has a real-world application, and is, in fact, a language already spoken by one in ten Jewish Israelis.

However, there is one small corner of Israeli society that feels very enthusiastic about the renaissance of the ghetto language that is Yiddish: German expats.

Last year, I interned at Haaretz newspaper and lived in Florentin, Tel Aviv, a neighbourhood that is very popular with young Germans. So much so that my six-bedroom flat in a crumbling Bauhaus building on Herzl 104 — known throughout South Tel Aviv as Hostel 104 because of its never-ending carousel of European tenants — often felt like Little Deutschland.

From the off, I was intrigued as to why these Germans had chosen to come to Israel. My curiosity only deepened when it became apparent that most of them were strident anti-Zionists. Yes, there were some lively dinner table chats at Hostel 104.

These German tourists had scant desire to understand Israel and its modern-day Jews, but they all felt deeply invested in Ashkenazi history. And they all wanted to learn Yiddish rather than Hebrew.

Every Sunday evening, they would trot off to Yung Yiddish, a counter-cultural centre inside the “balagan” (chaos) of Central Bus Station. There, they would enjoy klezmer music concerts, Yiddish folk story sessions, and pay 45 shekels (£9.70) for a bowl of cholent.

Coincidentally, Sunday was also the day my chef boyfriend would visit the bus station. The complex is home to the city’s biggest and best Korean supermarket in Israel and Aidan would return with cut-price Asian fruit and veggies, for which he had bargained hard.

Sometimes, he’d pop into Yung Yiddish. In his words: “Imagine if the Library of Alexandria was curated by a neurotic hoarder. It feels out of time with history, like it has wandered off the set of Fiddler on the Roof.

No, it wasn’t our bag, but then I don’t think we were its intended audience. Between us, we have Ashkenazi, Mediterranean, Sephardi and Native American ancestry. Like many young Israelis, we’re the flesh-and-blood realisation of Ben Gurion’s Jewish melting pot vision. It also means that shtetl-core culture isn’t evocative for us. It feels too far removed.

“The Germans have more in common with Yiddish culture than we do,” my Sabra friend Lior would say.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to learn Yiddish, but the politicised revival of the language does rather chime with the American writer Dara Horn’s conviction that people love dead Jews more than living ones.

And if something Jewish is embraced by non-Jewish anti-Zionists, alarm bells should ring, surely?

Let’s not forget, either, why modern Hebrew was invented. Yes, it served an important ideological function in creating a distinct Jewish national identity.

But the creation of the language was primarily practical: it enabled Jews from across the globe to talk to each other.

This desire to build bridges through shared language endures in the Jewish state. According to a 2022 research report from the Knesset, more than six in ten Israelis think that Arabic should be a compulsory subject at school. (At the moment, students have the choice between English or French or Arabic as a second language).

It’s hard to imagine a similar level of enthusiasm being expressed for Yiddish. Unless you’re a German expat with little interest in Israeli cohesion, of course.

“A lot of Germans arrive with a fixed idea in their head of what a Jew is,” says my Israeli friend Dana, who now lives in Berlin.

“Then, after spending five minutes in the country, all their stereotypes are shattered. It must be kind of exasperating. So I get why some of them seek solace in strange little enclaves like Yung Yiddish.”

I’m not quite as forgiving as Dana. I find it sad and ironic that in my German flatmates’ attempt to relive the past, they’ve become blind to the present.

I guess it’s easier to mythologise dead Jews than coexist with living ones.

October 05, 2023 12:28

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