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The Return of the Repressed: Yiddish in Israel

Lawrence Bush
April 2, 2009

by Benjamin Weiner
Hebrew’s defeat of Yiddish in the language war of early Zionism is well known, but recent scholarship has added to our understanding of the conflict. The works of Dovid Katz and Yael Chaver, in particular, attest to the outright hostility, even physical violence, of the Hebraist camp, and the extent to which its victory emerged out of a passionate self-loathing. Israeli identity was at first a projected ideal attempting to supplant a more organic alternative, substituting the bronzed Hebrew for the stigmatized European Jew, whose ignominy was encoded in Yiddish. But a national character founded on repudiation must inevitably contend with the return of the repressed.
It is not that Yiddish emerges from the Israeli unconscious as a fiery demon. Hebrew won the battle, and consolidated its victory, too definitively for Yiddish to persist as anything more than a subtle nagging that prompted different strategies of mediation across the generations. Walking home from shul one shabbes evening in Jerusalem, a friend and I asked an older man, in Hebrew, if he spoke Yiddish. “Of course,” he answered, with a smile broadening his face, “but not anymore. Now we speak Hebrew.” A younger Israeli told us he couldn’t listen to Yiddish songs. “They’re so sad,” he said. “They’re all from the Holocaust.”
To the current generation of Israeli Jews, the language is either morose or hysterical, either the melody of a “Holocaust song” or the buffoonery of the Wise Men of Chelm, into whose antics — judging by the sampling of children’s theater that I witnessed — the entirety of Ashkenazic achievement has been distilled. For their part, some middle-aged Israelis now long for Yiddish with a dewy-eyed nostalgia. And the State has acknowledged its neutralization of the language by enshrining it in the pantheon of “our proud Diasporic heritage.”
There was a moment, however, when the victors feared their triumph would be undone. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of survivors, the accidental Zionists of World War II, swelled the ranks of Yiddish-speaking Israelis. The simultaneous immigration of numerous Mizrakhi Jews counterbalanced this infusion, and, in fact, without justifying the virulence of anti-Yiddish repression, demonstrated the merit of selecting a more universal official Jewish language for the state. But while Holocaust refugees did not turn the tide, they did augment the Israeli Yiddish scene with several luminaries. These included a comedy team from Lodz, who had survived the war in a Stalinist labor camp: Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumaker.
I heard Dzigan and Shumaker for the first time on a recording played at a lecture in Vilna on regional Yiddish accents, about a decade ago. The two sharp-tongued comedians served as an example of the rough Lodzer dialect. Their routine was about the theory of relativity, and the joke was in the calisthenics it took to explain such a rarefied topic in the vernacular, one ignoramus to another.
Later, I watched Undzere Kinder (“Our Children,” 1948), the last Yiddish feature film made in Poland, about the duo’s attempt to spread cheer among orphaned child-survivors. It is a fascinating historical document, produced with the oversight of the Soviet-backed Polish government, which assured the portrayal of Poles as unwilling participants in a purely German cruelty. It also contained a full kleynkunst (art house) rendition of Sholem Aleichem’s “Kasrilevke Firemen,” a slapstick or, perhaps, whimsically apocalyptic farce about a batch of Keystone firefighters fanning an inferno with their hapless attempts to extinguish it.
Dzigan and Shumaker experienced enormous popularity after emigrating to Israel in the early 1950s because of the still robust number of Israelis who preferred to laugh in Yiddish. The duo was so plagued, however, by state language laws curtailing performances in Yiddish that they eventually moved their act to Argentina, where there was a large Jewish immigrant population. After a time, Dzigan and Shumaker reached a compromise with the authorities in Israel by agreeing to include a certain percentage of comedy material in Hebrew. (Neither of them ever learned the language very well.)
The team split up in the 1960s. Shumaker died shortly thereafter, and Dzigan, after years as a television comedy star, passed away in 1980. Some of their latter-day routines have been re-released on a series of CDs, with a laugh-track inserted by an Israeli technician who must have been guessing, usually incorrectly, which inscrutable cadences sounded the most amusing.
This material represented an effort to translate the old-world outsider’s irony to the rapidly developing Jewish homeland. In one exchange, Dzigan plays a cigar-chomping American to Shumaker’s vigorous tour-guide. “What’s the difference between thunder, lightning, and the aliyah from America?” asks the guide. “Thunder you hear. Lightning you see. And the aliyah from America? You don’t see it and you don’t hear it!”
In a subsequent monologue, Dzigan skewered upstart Israelis who put on the air of high culture: “She said to me, ‘Oh, you should have been at my soiree! The whole night we played Chopin.’ ‘Nu,’ I asked her, ‘who won?’”
But the pair of refugee funnymen took pride in Israel, assuming her enemies as their own. They recounted military victories with jubilation, singing the praises of “yidn who fought like goyim, and put goyim to flight as if they were yidn.” Their routines castigated Gamel Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arabist president of Egypt, whose reliance on Soviet aid and ex-Nazi brainpower made him easy to associate with an older generation of foes. But they also reserved plenty of their barbs for the Israeli postal service, for the Histadrut, for the difficulty in finding a reasonable apartment, for the aforementioned khalutsnik vigor and American vulgarity, for Yitzkhak Rabin’s rumored infidelities, and for Golda Meir’s underwhelming sex appeal.
This diaspora-honed Yiddish humor dovetailed with a growing general critique of an Israeli reality belying utopian dreams. Though Yiddish may have been its wellspring, this sarcastic undercurrent survived the language’s decline. I once even heard a young Ethiopian Jew make a classically Yiddish-inflected play on the legendary pronouncement by Theodore Herzl. “Im tirtsu eyn zo agada. If you will it, it is no dream. But now we say: im tirtsu, eyn — if you want it, there isn’t any.”
Yiddish itself can still be appreciated in the State-sponsored arenas of the pantheon, such as university departments and the affiliates of the cultural ministry’s Agency for Yiddish and Ladino Culture. Last year, for example, I rode from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to attend a production at Yiddishspiel, Israel’s official Yiddish-language theater. Founded in 1987, the company serves at least as much as a theater of historical preservation as a living dramatic organism. I had been warned that it was not a serious artistic endeavor by a friend who had recently witnessed what he called an excessively shmaltzy and jingoistic production of Mendele’s “Travels of Benjamin the Third”. But I had also watched their sharp production of Sholem Asch’s “Motke the Thief”, rendered on scratchy videotape at the Sholem Aleichem Club, a Jerusalem gathering of Yiddish-lovers and de facto senior center. So the jury deliberating on the merits of Yiddishpiel was still out.
The offering that night was a musical review called “Mazel Tov, Yidn!” mounted as a tribute to two beloved members of the repertory cast, Yankele Halperin and Yankele Bodo, both veterans of the Rumanian Yiddish stage who made their way to Israel decades ago and were now celebrating over fifty years each of theatrical endurance. The promotional material had promised “topical innuendo,” but much of the evening was filled with venerable shtik of the kind that saw its heyday in vaudeville. In one contrivance, Bodo, as a flabbergasted house-painter, is forced into a turbulent love-scene with an actress who takes him for the rehearsal partner her studio has promised to send over. The audience’s warm laughter seemed to arise more out of recognition of the genre than out of genuine amusement.
The cast was rounded out by additional Rumanians, as well as Russians, Argentines, and young Israelis who may not have understood anything more than their dance steps. They included old musical saws, including the “audition of the cantors” (which they used to take unexpected potshots at 
Neshama Carlebach). With the first strains of “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” the audience, composed mainly of nostalgic second-generation Israelis — some enhancing their experience with simultaneous headphone translation — fell into a reverent trance.
After the stage was cleared, the lights came up on a park bench by the sea, with two retirees, played by the Yankeles, sitting down for a leisurely chat. It was clear from the first moments of banter what kind of territory they were covering. American thoughts would have flown to Abbot and Costello; it was the same style of comedy based on a maddening crescendo of misunderstandings, pitched in two ridiculous tones of voice, the one a low growl and the other high and piercing. Those in the know recognized immediately that Bodo and Halperin were channeling the spirits of Dzigan and Shumaker. At last, the program was fulfilling its promise of “topical innuendo,” as Halperin’s Dzigan took up the task of trying to explain to Bodo’s Shumaker about this Ach-he’s-mad-in-a-jar and his pursuit of a, what did you call it, a nuclear muzzle?
Powerlessness, as Ruth Wisse has recently argued, is no virtue — but when the language of the powerless has its day, it can remind us of an existential humility missing from the dialectics of power. Here were two old Jewish men, stumbling provocatively in Yiddish over the name of the Iranian president and trying, with their inadequate vocabulary and a number of illustrative gestures, to puzzle out the logic in a nuclear-tipped missile flying in an arc from Tehran to Tel Aviv. Their futility undercut the notion that the scenario possessed any logic whatsoever, and the audience was laughing hysterically.
Israel has found the need to repress far more than Yiddish. Normal life on Israeli streets is fringed about with newspapers crying out the potential descent of ruin from every point of the compass and whispering about the moral quagmire in the territories. The Iranian nuclear threat looms larger and larger as apocalyptic scenario number one. But life goes on, as it must, enabled by the willful blurring of consciousness that makes love and work possible in the midst of constant tension. This is not unique to the Jewish state. America has its own nightmares, which we choose, with good cause, not to rehearse for ourselves every hour of the day. In Israel, however, at least to this observer, the phenomenon is far more pronounced.
For this very reason, Dzigan and Shumaker, emerging out of the shrink-wrap of historical preservation, had something vital to offer the contemporary Israeli psyche: the opportunity to speak the name of terror in a comic language of no consequence. The misty-eyed nostalgic chuckle had rooted itself deeper in the belly, knotting the stomach with uncontrollable laughter and shaking real tears out of the eyes. The audience was reveling in the absurd, which, as the old language has long known, is the last, sane refuge of the hope-deprived.

Benjamin Weiner is a Reconstructionist rabbi who writes on arts and culture, politics, and finance for a variety of publications. An amateur Yiddishist, he did coursework at Columbia University with Miriam Hoffman, and then went on to study with a number of teachers, including Yitskhok Niborski, Avram Novershtern, and Mendy Cahan, at Yiddish programs in New York, Vilna, and Paris.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.