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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 39-66

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Outcasts Within: Zionist Yiddish Literature in Pre-State Palestine

Yael Chaver

In the new Zionist society that was evolving in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century, the emerging dominant Hebrew culture controlled the public stage. The disparaging term "jargon" used by early Jewish and non-Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment--including Yiddish-speakers themselves--continued to denote Yiddish, the mother-tongue that was perceived as an integral part of the negative character of the diasporic Jew. Yiddish, the language and emblem of the Diaspora, had to be abandoned in favor of Hebrew, the once and future language. The mainstream culture created a historiography that suppressed the Yiddish culture imported into Palestine with the pioneers who were nurtured in it. However, not only did this culture continue to survive but it also produced significant original work.

The selective creation of a new national identity, emblematized by Hebrew, was fraught with tensions. Although the ruling British Mandate authority designated Hebrew as an official language of Palestine in 1923, a large proportion of the Yishuv's population (the new Zionist community) considered Yiddish their language and defined themselves as ignorant of Hebrew. Censuses of Jewish workers in Palestine carried out by the Histadrut (the Jewish Labor Federation) in the 1920s show that the percentage of Jews who reported that they knew Hebrew had actually dropped from 91.6 percent in 1922 to 85 percent in 1926.1 Roberto Bachi attributes this drop to the massive immigration from Poland, in particular, in the wave known as the Fourth Aliya (1924-28). Even more intriguing than the statistic itself is Bachi's footnote. He remarks that "the data of the two official censuses of 1922 and 1931 [End Page 39] cannot be used, since these were largely affected [nifgeu, "damaged"] by inaccurate statements as a result of purposeful political propaganda to have all the Jews declare 'Hebrew' in response to the question about languages." 2 No source is provided for this surprising information; however, it would seem to indicate a clear political cast to the ostensibly impartial, scientific census. This statistic, combined with the fact that Yiddish cultural activity persisted in the Yishuv in the late 1920s and 1930s, contradicts the mainstream version. Yiddish literary enterprise in Palestine at that time was tenacious and prolific: 16 publications devoted to Yiddish letters appeared between 1928 and 1938 under the auspices of the Club of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Palestine. 3

Certainly there were enough Yiddish readers in the country to provide an audience for European Yiddish writers who immigrated to Palestine. A revealing statistic in Zohar Shavit's recent survey on the development of Hebrew culture in Palestine substantiates Bachi's data, contradicting the official line that the Yishuv had relinquished Yiddish culture. According to Shavit, Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers were being read in roughly equal numbers in Tel Aviv; on a random day in June 1927, 91 people read Hebrew newspapers at the Barzilay Library whereas 86 read Yiddish newspapers published in Warsaw and New York. 4 Thus, it appears that, at this time, the two cultures were, more or less, equally active.

The pervasiveness of Yiddish culture in the Yishuv can be teased out through an examination of the poetic affiliations and activities of such major Hebrew writers of the time as Avraham Shlonski and Uri Tsvi Grinberg. Shlonski, who came to Palestine with the Third Aliya (1919- 23), was a fervent Hebraist and innovator in the language (to the point where a Dictionary of Shlonski's Neologisms was compiled). 5 Yet it is little known that he maintained a strong poetic and personal relationship with the Yiddish poet Perets Markish both before and after his immigration to Palestine (the two may have met again in Europe in 1924). The affinity between them is reported by Lyova Leviteh, who recalls that, in 1921 in Europe, Shlonski told him about Markish and would read from his poetry at literary gatherings. 6 Although Shlonski's poetic links with Markish are clear in his early...


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