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May 26: In Israel, Yiddish Language and Culture Day

May 25, 2016

zhitlovsky-sketch-pixlr-228x300The Israeli Knesset observed Yiddish Language and Culture Day on this date in 2009 at the behest of MK Lia Shemtov of Israel Beiteinu, a rightwing nationalist party with strong support among Jews from Russia. A Yiddish-Hebrew parliamentary lexicon was released for the occasion, with such phrases as Ordners, derveytert im fun zal! - “Ushers, remove him from the hall!” The observance provided an interesting contrast to an event on this same date in 1935, when a Yiddish lecture in Tel Aviv in honor of the 70th birthday of Dr. Chaim Zhitlowsky (sketch at left by H. Ber Levi) was attacked by members of the Betar youth group, who cut off the building’s electricity and pelted the audience with stones, forcing police to break up the meeting. According to the Forward’s columnist on Yiddish, Philologos, “The real number of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the world” at that time “was probably no greater than 6 million or 7 million, and it is a myth that Yiddish would have continued to be spoken widely today had it not been for the Holocaust. At most, it would have survived in Eastern Europe as it has survived in the United States, in ultra-Orthodox communities clinging to it for religious reasons.” Be that as it may, the Yiddish language was heavily suppressed in Palestine and Israel in its early days, and the impact of the anti-Yiddish campaigns was in evidence in March, 2015, when the Tel Aviv Municipal Library gave away its entire collection of Yiddish books, some 5,000 volumes.

“A grandmother in Tel Aviv speaks to her grandson in Yiddish. He replies in Hebrew. She speaks in Yiddish. He replies in Hebrew. An observer asks her why she’s speaking to him in Yiddish. ‘I want him to know he’s Jewish!’ she replies.” —Source unknown