Yiddish in Israel

Newcomers to Israel are sometimes puzzled by the first question put to them: “Ma nishma?” (“How are you?”) Literally translated, it means “What is heard?” Actually, this expression is a remnant of a battle that raged in the 5680s/1920s and 5690s/1930s – the period of a Zionist attempt to eradicate the language of exile (Yiddish) from its midst.

Ironically, in the process, the Yiddish expression, “Vos hert zich?” transmi-grated into the present Hebrew form, “Ma nishma?”

The goal of secular Zionism was not only to create a new country but to cre-ate a ‘new Jew.’ One of the things that jarred the sensibilities of some Zionists was the “jargon” of exile – Yiddish.

Theodore Herzl himself would have been perfectly happy to have his ‘new Jews’ speaking German, as he wrote in his 5656/1896 manifesto, Der Juden-staat:

“After all, we are not going to start speaking Hebrew to one another! Who among us knows enough Hebrew to ask for a train ticket in that language? This can’t happen. Nevertheless, the whole question is straightforward. Everybody preserves the language that is the cherished homeland of his mind. Switzerland is the ultimate example of the feasibility of a federation of languages. Over there, we will remain exactly what we are now, and we will not stop loving, with a sense of longing, our home countries from which we have been driven out.”

Only one language was excluded from his broad-minded vision:

“We will rid ourselves of the ugly and stunted jargons, those ghetto languages of which we now make use. They were the furtive languages of prisoners. Our schoolteachers will turn their attention to this matter. Daily life will see to it that one language becomes established as the primary language, without any coercion. Our people-hood is, after all, a special and unique one. We acknowledge our belonging together only in the sense of sharing an inherited religion.”


This hatred for Yiddish was inherited from the early Reformers and, obviously, the revulsion they felt towards Yiddish was prompted by what it represented – a wall between Jews and the out-side world, and a transmitter of the Jewish way of thinking. A disciple of Moses Mendelssohn, David Friedlander, described Yiddish as the root of every evil, in his infamous 5538/1788 Epistle to the German Jews:

“It must be eradicated completely, and the holy language and the German tongue must be taught systematically from early youth onward. Only then will it be possible to lay the foundations for a useful and rational education for our youth. Once the child is stuck into the so-called Judeo-German language, he cannot have any correct conception of a single thing in the world. How can he be expected to act later in accordance with any proper principles of behavior?”

As Hebrew was transformed into a religion, gedolim, such as Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, opposed it. “I write in Yiddish,” Rav Yosef Chaim once said, “because one of the most destructive aspects of the secular schools is that they have turned the Hebrew language into a cardinal principle of Judaism.”

“But doesn’t the Yerushalmi state that whoever lives in Eretz Yisroel and speaks Hebrew is guaranteed a share in the World to Come?” the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, once challenged Rav Shmuel Salant. “What fault have you found with my Hebrew that you continue to converse and study in Yiddish?”

“Is any food used more for holy purposes than wine?” Rav Shmuel retorted. “Nevertheless, the moment a gentile touches wine, it immediately becomes yayin nesech from which no Jew may benefit.”

However, Rav Yosef Chaim did not fight against Hebrew where it meant that children would be driven to secular schools.

Thus, when parents of children in the She’aris Yisrael Yeshivah of Petach Tikvah wanted the lessons to be taught in Hebrew, Rav Yosef Chaim told Agudas Yisrael activists to not oppose them, if the parents insisted.

“It was, perhaps, our mistake not to adopt Hebrew immediately upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel.” Rav Yosef Chaim explained. “By doing this, we would have preempted the irreligious camp and robbed it of its most potent weapon… We would have then not been forced into taking a negative stand against Hebrew being the official language, on the basis of its having been adopted and transformed into a cardinal principle [of Zionism] by the secularists.”

In a similar vein, many decades earlier, the Chasam Sofer gave the following haskamah to a translation of Rashi into German by one of his talmidim although he opposed Jews changing their names, clothing or language:

“And now [the author] brought to me his work, for which he delved deeply in order to translate Rashi on the Torah into German, and I see in this a great benefit because many Jews in this generation speak foreign languages and do not read except for books printed in gentile languages. And most translations of the Torah printed in their language are merely literate translations that do not include the interpretations of Chazal and Rashi, the leading commentator who followed the path of Chazal.”

Similarly, when the secretary of the Pressburg community composed the mussar sefer, Machaneh Yisroel, in Ger-man, the Chasam Sofer wrote in its haskamah: “It is worthy and fitting towrite a publication that makes people wise, and to teach mussar and knowledge to the precious sons of Tziyon, in German.”

On the other hand, the Chasam Sofer was fundamentally opposed to Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Chumash since it hinted at heretical ideas and, according to one report, when someone once handed him a copy of it, he threw it on the floor. Similarly, the Chasam Sofer was upset when a rabbi, with leanings towards the Enlightenment movement, began to deliver sermons in German.

“But I have heard that he is a lamdan,” the Maharam Shick protested tothe Chasam Sofer, his mentor.

“That is the way of the yetzer hara,” the Chasam Sofer replied. “First he finds a man, like that rabbi, to make a breach and, after that, he makes sure that the person who comes after [the first victim] is a person who knows nothing except how to preach in German, even if he is an ignoramus.

It is claimed that that rabbi died young on account of the Chasam Sofer’s anger towards him.


In the 5680s/1920s and 5690s/1930s, Zionists resorted to violence to keep Yiddish out of public life in Palestine. For a few years, the violence was sporadic. A gang would occasionally break up a Yiddish meeting or firebomb a printing shop that dared to reproduce Yiddish literature.

In 5683/1923, the opposition became more organized and intimidating with the founding of the Gedud Meginei HaSafah (The Battalion for the Defense of the Language) that made no attempt to hide its hatred and disgust for Yid-dish, declaring, at its founding, that:

“It has come to the point where news-papers in Jargon (Yiddish) have begun to appear in Jerusalem, our capital! Various announcements are posted on our streets in the Jargon language… We, founders of the Battalion for the Defense of the Language… cannot remain eye- and ear-witnesses to this scene and just look on with indifference to this vulgar derision…

“Hebrew person! Speak Hebrew! Get rid of the hold of that galut [mentality] that accumulated on your soul in the long years of your exile. Purify yourself! For you are now in the land of the Hebrews!”

Leading lights of the establishment, such as Chaim Weizmann, glorified the movement, terming its members “Heroes of Israel.” One of the organization’s greatest battles was in 5687/1927, when the newly opened Hebrew University wanted to install a Chair of Yiddish Literature. Funding for this was granted by an American Yiddish newspaper to the tune of $100,000.

The Battalion swept into action, instigating riots in the streets of Yerushalayim and molesting university staff. As a result, the university’s chancellor sent an agonized telegram to America, begging the newspaper to cancel the project:

“A friend University and myself beg you to relinquish Yiddish chair whatever the conditions. Huge outburst being organized severer than Hilfsverein (a fight about whether to teach in German in the university). Whoever triumphs University ruin certain. Withdraw prior kindling battle.”

Violent   tactics   were   used   against printers who published Yiddish literature. The Hebrew enthusiasts even prevailed upon the British authorities to illegalize the printing of a Yiddish publication twice in a row. To get round it, one publication humorously changed the name of their journal at every printing, calling their first 5689/1929 issue Eyns (One), the next issue Tzvey, and the third one Tsvishn Tsvey un Drey.

Another anti-Yiddish organization was the “Igud leHashlachat Ha’Ivrit” (Union for the Imposition of Hebrew). A typical example of their activities is a letter sent to the Tel Aviv printing business, Azriel:

“We have just been informed that you are preparing to publish or print a news-paper in Yiddish… We warn you not to do this thing and not to assist those who dishonor the Hebrew language, which would lead to conflict and unrest and bring about the involvement of the police. The responsibility for the consequences will be yours. Stop the typeset-ting of the newspaper immediately.”

A similar letter was sent to the Horev publishers in Yerushalayim, in 5695/1935:

“A copy of Anshot Nayvelt, printed at your press has reached us. It was hard for us to believe what our eyes saw, that, in the holy city of Jerusalem, a newspaper appears in Yiddish… We feel certain that you did not properly evaluate the seriousness of your actions and that you have acted in error. We therefore ask you to rapidly make good that which you have committed, and to stop printing the above-named paper, which brings grave damage to the interests of our life.”

The editors of Nayvelt printed the letter in an article with the apologetic title: “Is Yiddish in Israel Persecuted?”

Chareidi Jews kept out of the sense-less struggle and continued speaking and printing in their age-old language, Yiddish. In a way, Hebrew never completely won the battle since some scholars claim that modern Hebrew is as much influenced by Yiddish as by its ancient Hebrew roots.

(Sources: Most quotes culled from “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish” by David Katz, Basic Books 2004. Also “Rabbeini Moshe Sofer” by Yehudah Nachshoni, Mashavim 1981 and “Guardian of Jerusalem” by Rav Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, Mesorah Publications 1983)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.