By Jeffry V. Mallow
There appears to be a Yiddish renaissance, and not just in university or klezmer circles. Young Jews are organizing classes, even schools, where they and their children can learn Yiddish. Yiddish classes are appearing in Jewish day schools. The venerable Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) now boasts seven schools where Yiddish is taught. A glance at their website and others quickly leads one to the conclusion that many young Jews have leftist politics and associate them, correctly, with the politics of a significant fraction of East-European Jewish immigrants, probably their own great-grandparents. But there’s something new in the mix: their relationship to Zionism and Israel.
Not that their great-grandparents didn’t have a relationship to pre-state Zionism. There were five major Yiddish movements in America, four of whom had their own school systems. Classes were held weekday afternoons and weekends, since the students were enrolled in the American public schools as well. The Farband was socialist and Zionist. The Workmen’s Circle was socialist and non-Zionist. The Sholem Aleichem Institute
was cultural and apolitical. The Jewish Labor Bund, which did not have a school system, was socialist and anti-Zionist, as was the Jewish Communist movement. But what anti-Zionist meant at the time was opposition to the future formation of a Jewish state, in the anticipation that an international socialist revolution would be more beneficial to the Jews.
Today’s configuration is different. The Jewish Communist movement is moribund. The Sholem Aleichem Institute no longer exists. The Bund’s anti-Zionism is now more accurately described as non-Zionism: the view that Israel has not provided the promised answer to the “Jewish question”: physical safety and spiritual space for the actualization of Jewish values. (Who is to say they are wrong about the latter? As to the former, one
of the major Bund chapters has been in Tel Aviv.) The Workmen’s Circle is still officially non-Zionist, although its relationship to Israel as an entity, though not necessarily to its
current politics, is positive.
So what does the Yiddish renaissance mean with respect to Zionism and Israel? I have listened carefully to these young Yiddishists. For some, Israel is simply not on their agenda. It exists: done deal. They seek an authentic relationship with Judaism elsewhere, and seem to have found it in the secular progressive Yiddish culture of their great-grandparents. For others, Israel’s current right-wing policies and the kowtowing of
Jewish establishment organizations repel them and they turn to other avenues to express their Jewishness. Both of these groups represent a migration away from an American Jewish culture that focuses almost exclusively on the Holocaust,
religion, and Israel.
But some of the new Yiddishists are attracted to organizations that are at best ambivalent about or at worst actively oppose Israel’s existence. This is a troubling correlation between
attraction to Yiddish and anti-Zionism. It is hard to explain. Is it an out, a way to say “Look, I’m authentically Jewish, even though I think that Israel should never have been born, and should cease to exist”? These young Jews apparently believe that there is an elemental connection between commitment to Yiddish and opposition to Israel’s existence. They have bought into the radical left’s position that any shred of sympathy or
speck of support for Israel is reactionary. One example in Chicago is that some of them have joined a self-proclaimed “Non-Zionist” synagogue whose rabbi describes Israel as a
settler colonialist enterprise, and who is, unsurprisingly, a popular speaker at events sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine.
What is to be done? The new Yiddishists should be addressed in their own terms: authenticity. They need to learn what their great-grandparents actually believed and did. The Yiddish secondary school I attended in New York was called Di Fareynikte Mitlshul, the United Yiddish High School. Students came from the Farband, the Workmen’s Circle, and the Sholem Aleichem Institute. Children of Bundists attended as well. (The Communist Orden schools remained separate). Pressure to accept any group’s politics was not on their agenda.
Furthermore, Yiddishism and Zionism were not and are not antithetical. The Farband, subsequently absorbed into the Labor Zionist Alliance, was both Yiddishist and Zionist. Its progressive politics live on in Ameinu.
Finally, none of the Yiddishist movements called for the destruction of Israel once it had been established. Their members knew well that many of their relatives who managed
to survive the Holocaust found their way to Israel.
If the new Yiddishists claim to inherit the old Yiddishists’ traditions, then they should know those traditions. Does that mean accepting everything Israel does? Of course not. The old Yiddishists didn’t. But neither does it mean endorsing the argument that Zionism is inherently racist, that Israel was born in sin, and that the solution is extermination. The old Yiddishists didn’t.
The new Yiddishists have chosen to don a heavy mantle. They are the hope for reinstating the legitimacy of secular Judaism in the face of religious hegemony. They are the hope for
reclaiming Ashkenazic Jewish history, the thousand years concurrent with the development of Yiddish. They are the ones who can show that the last century and a half of that history was largely intertwined with movements of the left, not with fiddlers on roofs. Above all, they are committed to Jewish peoplehood. If so, they must include commitment to the existence of a major manifestation of that peoplehood, the Jewish state.