My Yiddishe Mahmoud


“I find a certain mystery in Yiddish, a refined and enigmatic musical note. I cannot explain it, but I have always felt a connection to this language.”

Contrary to what one might expect, the speaker is not a Polish poet or a German philosopher. He is Yusuf Alakili, 50, of the Arab Israeli town of Kfar Kassem, who is working on his master’s degree at Bar-Ilan University’s Literature of the Jewish People Department, while studying Yiddish for his own pleasure.

How did this affair begin? “In the 1980s I worked with a Jew of Polish descent in Bnei Brak, where Yiddish was the dominant language. I was fascinated by its sound and decided to study it earnestly. My dream is to read Sholem Aleichem’s ‘Tevye the Dairyman’ in its original language.”

And what bothers him? “I don’t know who to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language, which has such an extensive body of literature, is being neglected. Did you know that (Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef) Agnon started writing in Yiddish and only later turned to Hebrew?” he asks.

Alakili is not alone. About one-quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar-Ilan University are Arab, says Dr. Dov-Ber Kotlerman, the academic director of the the Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies.

Maybe Yiddish should be the language of Israeli diplomacy. It wouldn’t hurt in dealing with that putz, Ahmadinejad.


  1. Bloodthirsty Liberal said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    It’s funny. I grew up hearing Yiddish all around me. My parents communicated in Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand. Some of the older relatives have sort of ok English and mainly communicated in Yiddish. But my generation was intentionally denied the language.

    Some forms of Yiddish are now extinct, as the Nazis and their European collaborators murdered all the speakers; others are still around and one hears them occasionally, in certain neighborhoods. Sometimes I hear what is clearly Yiddish but the accent seems wrong to my ears, and that’s because the speakers originated in parts of Europe that are not Odessa or Bialystock, my roots.

    We weren’t taught the language because it was the language of the ghetto and of the Holocaust. There is a Yiddish revival now because it is a beautiful language, and why let the Germans kill that too? But most Israelis probably prefer Hebrew because it is associated with toughness and success, rather than victimhood. The Jews of Europe created the most passive culture imaginable, and it didn’t work out well.

    - Aggie

  2. Bloodthirsty Liberal said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    But most Israelis probably prefer Hebrew because it is associated with toughness and success, rather than victimhood.

    Aggie, I almost wrote something like that, too. But I wasn’t so sure of myself. But yes, Yiddish has a strong cultural and historical (even sentimental) hold on Jews—and even many gentiles who live among them!

  3. Bloodthirsty Liberal said,

    December 24, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    I read a book once about the history of Yiddish, which is of course tied to the history of shtetl Europe. The Jews of Europe really only aspired to live in peace and to study and pray. They studied and studied and studied. And they were constantly attacked in a series of pogroms ultimately followed by the holocaust.

    Israel chose Hebrew because Jews all over the world are familiar with it, but it has stronger defense connotations. The Europeans Jewish culture had no means of defending itself at all. None at all. And that’s not good.

    - Aggie

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