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Israeli Hebrew didn’t kill Yiddish. As a new exhibit in NYC shows, it gave it a new place to nest.

(New York Jewish Week) — Just before the end of the second millennium, Ezer Weizman, then president of Israel, visited the University of Cambridge to familiarize himself with the famous collection of medieval Jewish notes known as the Cairo Genizah. President Weizman was introduced to the Regius Professor of Hebrew, who had been allegedly nominated by the Queen of England herself. 

Hearing “Hebrew,” the president, who was known as a sákhbak (friendly “bro”), clapped the professor on the shoulder and asked “má nishmà?” — the common Israeli “What’s up?” greeting, which some take to literally mean “what shall we hear?” but which is, in fact, a calque (loan translation) of the Yiddish phrase vos hért zikh, usually pronounced vsértsəkh and literally meaning “what’s heard?”

To Weizman’s astonishment, the distinguished Hebrew professor hadn’t the faintest clue what the president was asking. As an expert of the Old Testament, he wondered whether Weizman was alluding to Deuteronomy 6:4: “Shema Yisrael” (Hear, O Israel). Knowing neither Yiddish, nor Russian (Chto slyshno), Polish (Co słychać), Romanian (Ce se aude) nor Georgian (Ra ismis) — let alone Israeli Revived Hebrew — the professor had no chance whatsoever of guessing the actual meaning (“What’s up?”) of this beautiful, economical expression.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Yiddish and Hebrew were rivals to become the language of the future Jewish state. At first sight, it appears that Hebrew has won and that, after the Holocaust, Yiddish was destined to be spoken almost exclusively by ultra-Orthodox Jews and some eccentric academics. Yet, closer scrutiny challenges this perception. The victorious Hebrew may, after all, be partly Yiddish at heart.

In fact, as the Weizman story suggests, the enigma of Israeli Revived Hebrew requires an exhaustive study of the manifold influence of Yiddish on this “altneulangue” (“Old New Language”), to borrow from the title of the classic novel “Altneuland” (“Old New Land”), written by Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the Jewish state.

Yiddish survives beneath Israeli phonetics, phonology, discourse, syntax, semantics, lexis and even morphology, although traditional and institutional linguists have been most reluctant to admit it. Israeli Revived Hebrew is not “rétsakh Yídish” (Hebrew for “the murder of Yiddish) but rather “Yídish redt zikh” (Yiddish for “Yiddish speaks itself” beneath Israeli Hebrew).

That said, Yiddish had been clearly subject to linguicide (language killing) by three main isms: Nazism, communism and, well, Zionism, mutatis mutandis. Prior to the Holocaust, there were 13 million Yiddish speakers among 17 million Jews worldwide. Approximately 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. Yiddish was banned in the Soviet Union in 1948-1955.

It is high time that a Jewish institution address the issue of Zionism’s attempted linguicide against Yiddish. I am therefore delighted to hear about YIVO mounting a fascinating and multifaceted exhibition in Manhattan titled “Palestinian Yiddish:  A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948,” which opens today. I commend Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s academic advisor and director of  exhibitions, for an exquisite exhibition on a burning issue.  

Characterized by the negation of the diaspora (shlilát hagalút) and continuing the disdain for Yiddish generated by the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment, Zionist ideologues actively persecuted the language. In 1944-5 Rozka Korczak-Marla (1921-1988) was invited to speak at the sixth convention of the Histadrut, General Organization of Workers, in the Land of Israel. Korczak-Marla was a Holocaust survivor, one of the leaders of the Jewish combat organization in the Vilna Ghetto, Abba Kovner’s collaborator, and fighter at the United Partisan Organization (known in Yiddish as Faráynikte Partizáner Organizátsye).

Left, “Di yidishe shtot Tel Aviv” (The Jewish City Tel Aviv), a Yiddish-language guidebook created by Keren Hayesod in Jerusalem, 1933. Right, wounded Yiddishists after an attack by Hebrew language fanatics, Tel Aviv, 1928. Ilustrirte vokh, Warsaw, Nov. 30, 1928. (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

She spoke, in her mother tongue Yiddish, about the extermination of Eastern European Jews, a plethora of them Yiddish speakers. Immediately after her speech she was followed on stage  by David Ben-Gurion, the first general secretary of the Histadrut, the de facto leader of the Jewish community in Palestine and eventually Israel’s first prime minister. What he said is shocking from today’s perspective:

…זה עתה דיברה פה חברה בשפה זרה וצורמת 

ze atá dibrá po khaverá besafá zará vetsorémet…

A comrade has just spoken here in a foreign and cacophonous tongue…

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Battalion for the Defense of the Language (Gdud meginéy hasafá), whose motto was “ivrí, dabér ivrít” (“Hebrew [i.e. Jew], speak Hebrew!), used to tear down signs written in “foreign” languages and disturb Yiddish theater gatherings. However, the members of this group only looked for Yiddish forms (words) rather than patterns in the speech of the Israelis who did choose to speak “Hebrew.” The language defenders would not attack an Israeli Revived Hebrew speaker uttering the aforementioned “má nishmà.”

Astonishingly, even the anthem of the Battalion for the Defense of the Language included a calque from Yiddish: “veál kol mitnagdénu anákhnu metsaftsefím,” literally “and on all our opponents we are whistling,” i.e., “we do not give a damn about our opponents.” “Whistling on” here is a calque of the Yiddish fáyfn af, meaning both “whistling on” and, colloquially, “not giving a damn about” something.

Furthermore, despite the linguistic oppression they suffered, Yiddishists in Palestine continued to produce creative works, a number of which are exhibited by YIVO.

Just like Sharpless, the American consul in Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madama Butterfly,” “non ho studiato ornitologia” (“I have not studied ornithology”). I therefore take the liberty of using an ornithological metaphor: On one hand, Israeli Hebrew is a phoenix, rising from the ashes. On the other, it is a cuckoo, laying its egg in the nest of another bird, Yiddish, tricking it to believe that it is its own egg. And yet it also displays the characteristics of a magpie, stealing from Arabic, English and numerous other languages.

Israeli Revived Hebrew is thus a rara avis, an unusual and glorious hybrid. 

The post Israeli Hebrew didn’t kill Yiddish. As a new exhibit in NYC shows, it gave it a new place to nest. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

The post Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder first appeared on

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