You’d probably recognise Yiddish if you heard it. It’s that old Jewish vernacular that contains the noticeably guttural, German-esque noises you might associate with Jewish orthodoxy. Words like schtick, shmuck and chutzpah all come from Yiddish, which first appeared in Eastern and Central Europe around the 9th century AD.
Yiddish was once the main language of Judaism, and was spoken by up to 75 percent of all Jews worldwide. But the Holocaust drastically reduced the number of Yiddish speakers, and today the language is mainly spoken by the ultra orthodox.
I say mainly, because Yiddish is now getting something of a rebirth. And not among the devout, but among a new demographic of young, socially progressive Jews in countries such as Australia. This group isn’t taking their cues from the orthodox community, either. Instead they’re looking back to a time when Yiddish was the working class language of anti-Zionism, anti-fascism, and anarchism.
I caught up with a few young Jews learning Yiddish in Melbourne. We talked about the how the old language is being reclaimed by the left, and in many cases how it’s a language that’s been adopted by the LGBTQ community.
Sonya Goldberg, 26
Sonya is a student. They've been learning Yiddish for two years
VICE: Hey Sonya, what led you to learn Yiddish?
Sonya Goldberg: Because Zionism has a stronghold over what it means to be Jewish in Australia, I grew up zionist and learnt Hebrew and even moved to Israel. But when I was there, the realities of occupation made it impossible to be a Zionist as well as a humanist, or socialist, or someone who cares about the equality of humans. I always thought the best way to deal with that tension was to work for justice within Israel. But living there, I realised the society's way too bound up in the military—you can't separate the violence from the state.
When I came back to Australia, I was reconfiguring my identity and trying to reconcile feeling Jewish but wanting to be in Australia. That’s when Yiddish philosophy and Bundist ideas started to become appealing to me as a Jewish person in the diaspora, whereas Zionism didn’t. It came from a sense of wanting to reconnect with a cultural identity that has been colonised both by Western Anglo society in the places where Jews live, but also by Zionism within the Jewish community itself. It’s made me review what I’ve learned about what it means to be Jewish and made me rethink how I view Zionism in relation to Jewish identity and the Holocaust.
What in Yiddish culture do you connect to the most?
It’s my actual roots, so the connection isn’t imagined. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, and my family lived in Poland for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I also like the idea in Bundism of “hereness,” which is about creating and making the places where you live ideal. It accords with how I view social justice. I want to push towards creating the best society and dealing with issues of injustice wherever I am. Bundism frames it as coming from a Jewish place, which is motivating for me. Bundism acknowledges that I’m part of multiple communities and have a hybrid identity. It has answers for that, while still being really firmly rooted in identity.
With Zionism, there’s this real anxiety of belonging, of not feeling settled and secure, which stems from Holocaust trauma. I see a return to Yiddish as trying to be comfortable with who I am and where I am—trying to deal with those anxieties in a healthy way.
Is it connected with another political movement for you besides Anti-Zionism?
I study indigenous studies, so colonisation and decolonisation in Australia are things I’m concerned about. Yiddish is a way of dealing with the fact that Jews live on stolen land in Melbourne. It helps me acknowledge where I’m actually from, try and pick apart the colonisation of Melbourne, and understand where I sit in a critical way in regards to the patriarchal, white, possessive culture of Australia. Social justice politics encourages you to reclaim culture and unpack your whiteness. For Jews who have strategically lived as white in Australia, it’s a process of decolonisation in ways that are healthy and that acknowledge our own culture.
Let’s lift the mood slightly. Is Yiddish a good way to pick up?
It definitely can be! When you're a Jewish person in queer or social justice circles, there's a lot of signalling that goes on to be like “no, I'm not that kind of Jew.” You might bring up Israel and be like “yeah, I hate Israel,” or do something self-hating. One of the ways to virtue signal about being socially conscious is to say “you know I learn Yiddish?”
Russell Goldblatt, 23
Russell is a student and has been learning Yiddish for a month
Hey Russell, what do you think of young leftist Australian Jews reconnecting to Yiddish?
It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of it. I actually hated Yiddish for a long time. It reminded me of an ugly Jewish stereotype—of the little Jew in the ghetto before the Holocaust, ugly appearance, money handling. Holocaust propaganda. As much as I know that's all bullshit, it's a strong image I had. When a few of my friends started taking up Yiddish classes a couple of years ago, I was like “that’s so lame, that’s a totally weird thing to do.” I thought Yiddish was a dead language.
But then more and more people started learning Yiddish and my perception of it started to change. Especially in Melbourne, when you think of Yiddish you think of the Bund who historically were not necessarily anti-Zionist, but were a non-Zionist socialist group that spoke Yiddish and wanted it to be the language of the Jewish people in opposition to Hebrew. I actually heard a really beautiful rendition of the Jewish mourning prayer recited in Yiddish, and in that moment I decided I wanted to learn it.
What’s your favourite Yiddish word?
I don't actually know that many words cause I’ve only started learning recently. But I recently discovered that “bagel” was Yiddish. I used to think it was English, but it's of Yiddish origin! And I love bagels!
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