You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Hebrew as the Language of the Progressive Jewish Future

Rafi Ellenson
October 25, 2017


by Rafi Ellenson

IN LEARNING YIDDISH, the language of our past, we should not neglect the language of our future: Modern Hebrew.

The radical and dynamic linguistic adaptation of the Jewish people is arguably one of our defining characteristics, and the Yiddish Revival is a testament to our vibrant diaspora. While at first glance the resurgence of the language of the shtetl may seem odd, the prevalence of Ashkenazi Judaism and a renewed spirit of political leftism seems to have decisively made the Jewish language of Eastern Europe the de facto language of the new Jewish Resistance. Yiddish classes are now in vogue among secular Ashkenazi Jews in their twenties who are seeking to return to their roots, and its literature is becoming increasingly popular and even, dare I say, punk. The resurgence of Yiddish as a language of contemporary Jewish expression is exciting, but we should not get lost in it. Fundamentally, learning Yiddish is to praise an idealized Jewish past.

This revival shouldn’t come at the expense of recognizing the immense potential of Modern Hebrew as a protest language. Though the Yiddish revival has an important place in the framework of radical politics in the diaspora, we should consider fluency in Modern Hebrew as arguably the most potent tool for political action. By speaking Modern Hebrew, we reframe it as a vibrant language of leftist sectors in the Jewish diaspora — and not the sole property of the State of Israel or rightwing forces. By doing so, we assert a Jewish linguistic culture that reflects present day Jewish realities, as well as formulating powerful solidarity with the Israeli left in more meaningful anti-occupation work. Learning Hebrew is a profound act and central to the broader project I propose here —the radicalization of Hebrew and reclaiming of Hebraism as part of the left’s values.

Compared to the Leftist and punk Yiddishists, Modern Hebrew is now “uncool.” Its usage in the diaspora seems to have fallen out of fashion amongst those engaging in radical politics. Whereas there were once literature, newspapers, and whole schools dedicated to the radical prospect of a vibrant Hebrew language in America, the only relic of these early-20th-century American Hebraists is an altogether unpopular vestige: mandatory rote Hebrew learning in some Jewish institutions. Despite the prevalence of Hebrew education in summer camps, ulpanim, day schools, and a variety of other sources, the 2013 Pew Survey indicates that while 52 percent of American Jews know the Hebrew alphabet, only 13 percent can actually understand what it is they are reading, and a mere 10 percent can carry a conversation!

Gone is the poetry and prose of those like Gabriel Preil (1911-1993) who, while living in a native-Yiddish speaking home, wrote his own Hebrew poetry and translated Robert Frost and Walt Whitman into Hebrew. Writers like Preil helped forge an anti-assimilationist strain of Jewish life that refused to peddle solely in the Yiddish of his country of origin or the English forced upon him in his new country. To write and to speak in Hebrew simultaneously brings about a uniquely Jewish, and uniquely modern, way of approaching American life. It is a uniquely Jewish linguistic endeavor that refuses antiquity as well as erasure.

YIDDISH was the language of important 20th-century radical struggles, and Yiddish revivalism is often advertised as the language of a new Jewish revolution. Not only do I find this description short-sighted, I also believe it negates and minimizes the great Jewish moral dilemma of today: Israel’s illegal military occupation of millions of Palestinians. Occupied Palestinians live in a state of compromised human rights, and this reality is partially supported by myopically placing a strong emphasis on an idealized Jewish past — the ancient Jewish state — over a clear-eyed view of the present.

While, it is true that Yiddish was the language of the Bund, early Jewish labor organizing in America, as well as many other radical and leftist causes, to embrace solely Yiddish is to lose yourself in the past at the expense of the present. Yiddish, like any language, isn’t inherently radical — it was the language of these past radical struggles because that was the lingua franca amongst working-class American Jews from Eastern Europe. But nowadays, the dominant language of non-haredi Jews in America is English. So unless you are organizing haredi Jews, it seems pointless to revive Yiddish from the perspective of organizing. Learning Yiddish to celebrate heritage and to connect with Ashkenazi history? Learning Yiddish to read old family letters and to better understand a culture that belonged to Ashkenazim? Certainly! But to study Yiddish as a way of somehow reviving this genuinely radical past is a performative, if well-intentioned, way of reliving the early to mid-20th century.

Though I respect Yiddish speakers in their desire to preserve history, learning to speak, read, and write at a high level in Hebrew does far more to engage, support, and participate in radical left politics, especially in Israel. But why should these Yiddish speakers want to do so? Choosing to abstain from Israel’s radical left is to enact a willing blindness to the occupation, a crime that implicates Jews all around the world. One can engage in American domestic issues such as labor rights, immigration, and a host of others without speaking Yiddish, but to engage with any sort of rigor with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — or, indeed, any injustice in Israel — learning Hebrew (as well as Arabic!) is a must. Imagine the message it would send to leftwing Jewish allies in Israel if there were a large contingency of diaspora Jews ready, willing, and able to engage with them in their language. I consider it irresponsible to be a fully participating member of the Jewish community without at least a passing knowledge or desire to become fluent in Hebrew. It is a great challenge to effect change in a country where there is not at least a conversancy in the language.

FOR SURE, THERE ARE many Jews who simply wish to rid any relation to Israel from their vocabulary and Judaism. The growing numbers of this type of anti-Zionist claim that to learn Yiddish is to assert a new diasporism in which Israel is irrelevant. To be clear, I think radical diasporism is a theoretically tenable position, but it’s also divorced from a reality in which our collective hands are stained by the occupation. To end this fifty-years-too-long era, we need all hands on deck. Rejecting any connection with Israel may seem to solve the problem of the occupation, but it really only makes it a problem for others to solve — namely, the Palestinians. This ultimately harms those we seek to help by placing the onus on native Hebrew speakers and Palestinians to solve a collective Jewish problem. To minimize the importance of Hebrew is to isolate oneself from the realities in Israel. And while Leftists motivations may be different, by doing so they join the right wing in the occupation-perpetuating “cocoon”.

So instead of ignoring Hebrew, we should radicalize it. Key to doing so is identifying and challenging Hebrew’s nationalist roots. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of the Modern Hebrew revival, acknowledged that Hebrew language would only succeed by becoming the spoken language of the emerging emigration to Israel — those who came to Israel from all around the world. Much in the way that English is a painful language to many First Nations peoples, we must acknowledge that Modern Hebrew has a similar connotation to the indigenous Palestinian population. I remember how one winter, while I was working in Ar’ara, a Palestinian village in Israel, my students refused to speak with me in Hebrew, the language of their education, and greatly preferred to speak in broken English with me (somewhat ironically, given Britain’s colonization of the Mandate of Palestine). But it is Hebrew in which the occupation began and is perpetuated — and Hebrew is the language in which the occupation will end.

In other words, don’t leave Hebrew to be defined by those who spout hate and violence. Let’s reclaim Modern Hebrew for what it was always meant to be — a language to bridge and unite the multiplicity of Jewish narratives. Although Yiddish should be celebrated as the language of Ashkenazi heritage and should be studied, spoken, and regarded with the same respect as Ladino and the plethora of other Jewish languages, there is no way to replace the utility of Hebrew in the modern fight against the the occupation, the great moral stain on the Jewish people.

When the day comes when we can viably speak Hebrew in the diaspora, I am certain diaspora Jews will be empowered to join the fight against the occupation. And we will come in droves.

Rafi Ellenson is currently a student of Jewish Studies at Goddard College. He has taught Hebrew in a variety of youth settings across America.