Yiddish was never the language of a radical, progressive past

The idea that there was a bohemian-revolutionary Yiddish culture is fantasy

September 06, 2023 16:01

The New York Times has been roundly criticised this week for an opinion piece arguing that Charedi Jews who speak Yiddish today are, in effect, not as clever as their secular predecessors.

As the writer puts it, Jews who speak Yiddish today “aren’t multilingual, as secular Yiddish speakers always were”. It’s an example of how Yiddish remains a contemporary topic for Jews, even if it is no longer the lingua franca of anyone other than the Charedi.

However, for young Jews on the left, the language is being spoken once again. To speak it now is seen as an act of subversion, breathing life into a language that our oppressors looked to exterminate. In English-speaking countries across the world, young progressive Jews are taking Yiddish culture and language up with ideological zeal — with that distinctive fusion of German and Hebrew that was the mother tongue of eastern European Jewry until their migration to Western Europe and Palestine.

There’s the recently established, and now closed, Pink Peacock café in Glasgow, described by its founders as “the only queer Yiddish anarchist vegan pay-what-you-can café in the world” and, of course, “anti-Zionist”.

If you’re in Australia, you can watch the “Yiddish Divas” perform their hit musical at the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre — established in 1911 but undergoing something of a revival. In New York, the Workers Circle, a language school dating back to a mutual aid society founded in 1900, now has more than 1,000 students who tune in for Zoom Yiddish classes. You get the picture. Among Jews of a certain age and political bent, Yiddish is the new language of dissent.

You can understand why. Yiddish is seen as carrying a subversive gene in resisting attempts at its elimination on all fronts, from Victorian Anglo-Jewry, whose leaders tried to have it banned from being spoken at the JFS in 1887, to the Zionist movement, which saw it as the lingua franca of the shetl and wanted to replace it with muscular modern Hebrew.
This history appeals to young Jewish progressives. Yiddish’s resistance to Englishness and Zionism is seen as the fight against the aggressive nationalism we want to reject — the former being associated with the British Empire and the latter the oppression of the Palestinians.

Of course, Yiddish is also perceived to be the historic language of the Jewish left in which the East End’s radical pamphlets and the Bund’s election posters were printed. More recently, many LGBT people have taken to Yiddish, arguing that it speaks to their own experience and history. Earlier this year, Jewish Cambridge students put on a production of Indecent, Paula Vogel’s 2021 adaptation of Sholem Asch’s 1907 play God of Vengeance, which sees a brothel owner’s daughter fall in love with a prostitute. And Buttmitzvah, a biannual gay Jewish club night set up in 2016, features a klezmer band with organisers giving out smoked salmon bagels at the end of the night. 

It’s always heartening when Jews find meaning in forgotten chapters of Jewish history — better Jews find reflections of themselves in our own culture than give up on it entirely. But this new reading of our past runs into one problem: this version of “Yiddishland” as a place of radicalism is more imagined than real. Having spent the last year buried in the archives of 19th-century Anglo-Jewry researching a university dissertation, I reached the conclusion that the late Victorian East End was not one big subversive-bohemian party — contrary to the impression you might get from attempts to revive the “Yom Kippur balls” of the 1880s where “Jewish anarchists and atheists turned a sombre day into a riotous party filled with food, music and anti-religious speeches”.

Instead, the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who came to Britain from Russia and Poland were, in fact, religious and conservative. They shunned the type of modernised Judaism pioneered by Nathan Adler (Chief Rabbi between 1845 and 1880) in favour of the traditional chederim: small rooms where men — and it tended to be only men — would pray. Marriage was not questioned. In 1911, only 2.4 per cent of the male immigrant population over 35 had never married; the figure falls to just 0.7 per cent among women. 

In contrast with the new, romanticised version of the past, the community’s more established leaders weren’t trying to impose boring English conservatism on avant-garde, irreligious immigrants. Quite the opposite: the Anglo-Jewish establishment was desperate for the immigrants to take up its modern liberal ideas.

Take Lily Montagu, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism whose West Central Jewish Girls’ Club held religious services and classes on subjects from English literature to metal work. Several decades earlier, the JC offered a prize for an essay on Hebrew literature given “much will depend on the progress we make in knowledge, sacred and profane”. Even Jewish radicals understood the importance of becoming familiarised with English culture, in their case so that they could join with their non-Jewish comrades in the working class.

According to interviews my family kept with my trade unionist great-grand uncle, Mick Mindel, the Stepney Communist Party in the 1930s was full of the children of immigrants fluent in the vernacular as opposed to Yiddish; East End anarchists organised trips to the British Museum and studied The Importance of Being Earnest. If there was a single language of progress, it was English, not Yiddish. Of course, Yiddish radicalism was a significant political force in the East End. At its peak in 1905, the anarchist journal Der Arbyter Frayned claimed 5,000 subscribers; in March 1889 socialists led a march to the Great Synagogue to demand the Chief Rabbi condemn exploitative working conditions; and later that year agitators successfully led Jewish tailors out on strike. However, such politics was firmly on the fringes of the community.

Of the 30,000 Jewish immigrant workers in London in 1892, only 1,000-1,200 were part of Jewish trade unions. Just 569 copies of the anarchist journal Fraye Velt’s (Free World) first three issues were sold in London.

Compare these numbers with the 8,000 who by 5.30am were crammed into the vast Great Assembly Hall sponsored by the United Synagogue during a High Holiday for services that were not due to start until 7am, or the 26,612 worshippers who passed through London’s 65 synagogues on the first day of Pesach in 1903, representing over a quarter of London Jewry. The unifying culture among the immigrants of the East End was religious orthodoxy, not radical politics. 

You can see why some young, left-wing Jews are turning to the romanticised history of revolutionary Yiddishland. In some sense, we are looking for an alternative ideal of secular Jewish civilisation to the one claimed by our parents, Israel, which we feel hasn’t lived up to its utopian principles.

But this isn’t it. There are aspects we can celebrate and look fondly upon, but to pretend the East End was the apogee of a bohemian-revolutionary culture conducted in Yiddish is a fantasy. A warm, enticing fantasy sure, but a fantasy all the same. 

September 06, 2023 16:01

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