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Long Suppressed, Yiddish is Making a Comeback in Israel

June 18, 1987 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Yiddish, the earthy language of Eastern Europe’s Jews, is making a comeback in Israel where it had been despised for decades as a threat to Hebrew and a negative symbol of the Jewish diaspora.

But skeptics say this nostalgia is not enough to guarantee the survival of the language that evolved a millenium ago from medieval German and also incorporated Hebrew, Polish and Russian.

Before World War II, Yiddish was spoken by nearly 11 million people, including many American Jews. Many Yiddish words have sounds that suggest the meaning and became part of modern American urban slang: shlep (to carry), nosh (to snack), schnoz (nose) and klutz (clumsy person).

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Today, there are about 1 million Yiddish speakers around the world, including 250,000 of Israel’s 3.5 million Jews. Israelis speaking the language include the elderly, immigrants from the Soviet Union and the ultra-Orthodox who reserve Hebrew for prayers.

The major reason for the decline of Yiddish was the Nazi Holocaust. Of the 6 million Jews killed, the majority were from Eastern Europe. Postwar Jewish assimilation around the world, especially in North America, also reduced the number of Yiddish speakers.

After the war, large numbers of Yiddish-speaking East Europeans came to Palestine, which later became Israel, and Zionist groups waged an aggressive campaign against the language, fearing it would prevent the revival of Hebrew.

″Because of the many years of cultural battle ... there was a collective embarrassment about admitting that you come from a Yiddish culture,″ said American actor Mike Burstyn, 41, who was raised in the Yiddish theater.

Burstyn said that when he toured with his parents in Israel in the 1950s, members of Zionist youth groups would smash theater windows to disrupt performances. A 10-percent tax was levied on shows in Yiddish, and he said his parents were unable to book their shows at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, the country’s largest concert hall.

Dan Miron, who teaches Yiddish and Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, said David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a leading opponent of Yiddish.

In 1945, a young Holocaust survivor addressed his Histadrut labor union movement, speaking in Yiddish about life as a partisan in Nazi-occupied Poland. Ben-Gurion thanked her for ″an interesting story, even though it was told in a foreign and ear-straining language,″ Miron quoted the leader as saying.

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The anti-Yiddish campaign bore fruit when Israel became a nation. Those born in Israel admonished their parents to speak Hebrew, and the older people stopped using Yiddish, first in public and then at home.

″Yiddish is considered the language of the diaspora (scattering of Jews); it is for old-fashioned people,″ said Drora Frydrych, a Tel Aviv resident in her 40s who picked up Yiddish from her grandfather but rarely speaks it.

She said she didn’t try to pass the language on to her teen-age son and daughter. ″They should spend their time to learn some other language,″ she said.

But a growing number of youngsters are studying Yiddish.

Three years ago, Yiddish was offered at only one of 6,000 schools in Israel. Today, it is taught in 25 schools and the demand is growing, said Max Dunetz, an Education Ministry official who supervises Yiddish instruction nationwide.

During a recent Yiddish class at Rehavia high school in Jerusalem, 17-year- old Anna Meshulam struggled through reading grammar exercises, her intonation closer to the staccato of Hebrew than the soft singsong of Yiddish.

Miss Meshulam, one of four students in the class, said she doesn’t get much support for her efforts.

″My father asked me what I need it for, and my friends laugh about it,″ she said.

Yael Oren, 17, said she also studies English and Arabic, but that Yiddish has a special meaning for her.

″Yiddish is culture, literature,″ she said. ″Through the words you understand the life of the Jews in Eastern Europe.″

Yiddish is also making a comeback in other areas.

″Yiddish in Israel today is flourishing,″ said Gershon Winer, chairman of the Yiddish department at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University which launched Israel’s first Yiddish teacher training program last year. Eleven students are enrolled.

The mayor of Tel Aviv has set up a committee to create a national Yiddish theater company.

And Burstyn, touring Israel in the musical comedy ″A Hassene in Stetl″ (A Wedding in the Stetl), said he is playing before packed houses.

″In the past, you couldn’t get 100 people out for a Yiddish show,″ he said.