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  • The End of “Language Wanderings?”Yiddish in David Grossman’s Ayen erekh: ahava and Aharon Megged’s Foiglman
  • Yael Chaver (bio)

khanelen a matonele be-ahava1

The mid-1980s saw the publication in Israel of two Hebrew novels in which Yiddish figures largely: David Grossman’s Ayen erekh: ahava (See Under: Love) and Aharon Megged’s Foiglman.2 In both these novels, which are set in Israel, the relationship of native-born Israelis to Yiddish is a crucial theme. The language serves as a key to unlocking part of the protagonists’ heritage and in the process redefines their personalities; it is Yiddish that impels and enables them to set out on a hazardous journey of self-discovery. While they are not the only relatively recent works of Hebrew fiction to incorporate Yiddish into their fabric, these novels are perhaps the most salient examples of their time to illustrate the incontrovertible fact that Yiddish language and culture are integral components of daily life in Israel. In Ayen erekh: ahava, Yiddish permeates the first section to the point that the language becomes a virtual character; in Foiglman, Yiddish and its evolving significance for a native Israeli form the core of the entire novel.

The conventional view of Zionist history seems to contradict the assertion that Yiddish is still consequential in Israeli culture and literature. The European Zionists who began immigrating to Ottoman Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century fervently believed that a revived Hebrew should be the national language of the Yishuv, the forming Jewish community. The Yishuv would nurture a new society, one that had jettisoned the diasporic way of life, including its language—Yiddish—which was to be replaced by Hebrew. Hebrew became an ideological emblem of the new model of behavior that Zionism imposed on the Yishuv, a model that considered everything connected with diaspora to be inferior to the new culture that was developing in Palestine.3 The members of this new society came to be known as “Hebrews,” in opposition to diasporic “Jews.” As Yiddish was the mother-tongue of most European Ashkenazi immigrants, however, many of them continued to use the language in Palestine. Zionist settlers often found it difficult to relinquish their mother-tongue (contrary to the official line, which represented the exclusive [End Page 143] adoption of Hebrew as voluntary and total.)4 Referring to this internal struggle, the literary critic Rachel Katznelson titled her radical 1918 essay on the role of Hebrew in the Yishuv “Nedudey lashon,” or Language Wanderings. Katznelson writes poignantly, “We had to betray Yiddish, even though we paid for this as for any betrayal.”5 In fact, Yiddish was perceived as a real danger to the nascent culture of the community; a Hebrew–Yiddish language war was waged in the early decades of the century, sometimes erupting in violence.6

Indeed, Yiddish could not be completely discarded; it had a crucial role in early-twentieth-century Hebrew culture. The Hebrew of the time, in Itamar Even-Zohar’s terms, was a “deficient” polysystem that lacked the capacity to perform colloquial functions.7 Ghil’ad Zuckermann considers that “the revival of a no-longer-spoken language is unlikely without cross-fertilization from the revivalists’ mother-tongue.”8 Zuckermann goes so far as to believe that Yiddish is crucial to the development of modern Hebrew, which he terms “hybridic Israeli” and views as “based simultaneously on Hebrew and Yiddish (both being primary contributors.)”9 Hebrew writers of the time were bound by the stiff, formal, canonic style known as the nusach. Their goal was “to say things in a native Hebrew way,” but the evolving language was still largely incapable of achieving this.10 Yiddish, on the other hand—as famously stated by Max Weinreich—is a “fusion language” in which inserts from disparate languages are integral.11 As a fusion language it had great fluidity of expression and flexibility of range and register. At the turn of the century, Yiddish was a lively vernacular with a well-developed literature.

Above and beyond its linguistic importance, Yiddish also survived as a cultural substrate well into the statehood period. As Benjamin Harshav notes, the Zionist project was “accompanied...


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