I recently participated in an online panel that accompanied the screening of the film documentary, Yiddish: the Mama Loshn, for the Boulder Jewish Film Festival. I was not invited to the panel as a Yiddishist or professor of Yiddish or Jewish history (the three other panel members were). Instead, director Pierre Sauvage asked me to join the panel because in 1978, as a 23-year-old UCLA Yiddish student, I had a cameo in the film itself. I made a short impassioned speech about the value of Yiddish. Pierre wanted me to speak to how studying Yiddish had impacted my life.
Seeing one’s 23-year-old self on film five decades after the fact is a slightly unnerving experience. It fills you both with longing for who that person was, and a meditation on how little you achieved of that person’s dreams. Add to that the fact that most of the Jewish celebrities interviewed in the film, including Herschel Bernardi, Isaiah Sheffer, and Leo Rosten, along with all the native Yiddish speakers featured, had died in the intervening 44 years. The entire experience made me confront not only my own mortality, but the mortality of an entire element of Jewish life.
The film offered a sweeping visual montage of the bustling, thriving Jewish life of eastern and central Europe conducted mostly in the Yiddish language. There were the actors of the Warsaw Jewish theater, the Klezmer troubadour musicians performing at chosenehs (‘weddings’) in villages from Poland to Romania to Ukraine. In the same period here in America, there were the Borsht Belt tummelers; Abraham Cahan, long-time editor of the Forverts; the Second Avenue Yiddish theater; and the schmatteh businesses lining 7th Avenue. Where did they go? What happened to them?
Yiddish was at its strongest when the outside world was at its meanest. Amidst pogroms and discriminatory laws which deprived Jews of the opportunities afforded much of the European non-Jewish world, Jews were left to their own devices. As a result, they used Yiddish as a lingua franca to encapsulate their experience of suffering and living.
In America, of course, assimilation sapped the vitality of this thriving culture. Acceptance into the mainstream eliminated the need for a language that marked Jews as Other and shut us off from the rest of the nation. The younger generation grew up speaking English and saw no need for a second language to express their Jewishness. So from a population of millions of native Yiddish-speakers, the numbers crashed into perhaps a few hundred thousand.
The panelists were quick to point out that Yiddish is by no means dead in the US. It is spoken by several hundred thousand Jews. But who are they? They are almost completely from the ultra-Orthodox community, which is a minority of the overall Orthodox population (itself a minority of the American Jewish community). Of course, the Hasidic community is growing by leaps and bounds due to its high fertility rate. So the future of Yiddish is secure.
But what of the Yiddish secularists? The Bundists, Anarchists, Communists? What of the Yiddish actors and comedians? The Klezmer musicians? All those who contributed to the richness of Jewish culture? They are almost entirely gone.
To be fair, there are remarkable institutions flourishing devoted to ensuring the continuity of Yiddish culture. There are wonderful films like Pierre’s, which was the first documentary devoted to the subject. There are amazing Klezmer ensembles which have brought old traditions back into the mainstream. But there can be no return to the glory years of the past.
If we turn to the Yiddish-speaking world of Europe, of course, the sole reason for its demise was the Holocaust. Hitler killed 6-million Jews, the majority of whom spoke Yiddish. The genocide was not only a death blow to Jews themselves, it was a death blow to centuries of European Jewish culture including theater, literature, music and art.
We know that nature abhors a vacuum. So where the Nazis hollowed out a void in Diaspora Jewish life, something would fill it. That “something” was Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. After the Holocaust, Jews responded to the genocide by flocking to a movement they had hitherto either rejected or ignored.
In 1920s Warsaw or Manhattan, there was a bracing heterogeneity of Jewish life: there were the Orthodox, the Zionists, the secularists. They each offered a different element of Jewish existence to their adherents. The whole was as rich or richer than the sum of its parts.
But post-1945, Jews were forced to realize that Hitler had not only eviscerated European Jewry, he had destroyed secular and Yiddishist culture along with it. What was left? Zionism offered an answer to Jews aghast at the vast catastrophe their people had suffered. If six-million could be murdered, then Jews must turn to the only movement that seemed to offer a response to the killing. The Holocaust validated the Zionist movement as it had never been validated before. Creating a nation-state for the Jews went from one among many expressions of Jewish identity, to the only one that appeared to make any sense.
Zionism: Shlilat Ha’Galut (“Negation of Exile”)
But Zionism posed a fundamental problem to the Diaspora: it negated it. It argued that creating a nation-state was the only means to secure the Jewish future. Even more radically, it argued that there was no Jewish future outside Israel, that the Diaspora was doomed by rampant anti-Semitism, which would eventually destroy whatever Hitler hadn’t.
The rise of Zionism and its eventual domination of world Jewry meant that Diaspora Jews were, in the view of leaders like Ben Gurion, living on borrowed time. Thus, though the Zionists cultivated strong bonds with the world’s Jews, the latter were seen as a dying breed. It put Jews in the Diaspora in the awkward role of both supporting Israel and, in doing so, confirming their own eventual demise.
This is, to say the least, an untenable position. It confers on Zionists and the State of Israel the ability to speak on behalf of world Jewry. It permits them to reject the very notion that Jews outside Israel have any interests that might diverge from it. If Israel fights a war, then all the world’s Jews must fight along with it. If it conquers a people, then these same Jews must defend it no matter what the cost to morality or decency.
Since 1945, Zionism has sucked the oxygen out of Jewish life. It has formed a monopoly on Jewish identity. It has rejected all other competing forms. It has suppressed diversity. It has made us into cardboard cut-out Jews, who have no vitality or existence apart from Israel.
In this way, the Holocaust amputated the limbs of world Jewry. We were left as paraplegics, as half-Jews. Our other half was gone. And with it went the balance in Jewish life that existed before the genocide.
There is, of course, no way to restore that balance–at least not in the same sense it existed a century ago. But we surely must come to understand the toxic impact that Zionism has had on us as Jews. It has forced us to make a choice we should never have been forced to make.
There have always been two poles in Judaism: Zion and Diaspora. The one enriched the other. We lived in one place and yearned for another. But that yearning never meant we rejected places that had come to be home. Now, we must as independent Jews reject any ideology that demands we deprecate such a fundamental part of our identity.
People reading this may believe that I am an anti-Zionist. That’s not precisely true. I don’t reject Zion. I reject the definition of Zion put forward by the Judeo-supremacists who have hijacked contemporary Zionism. They are so firmly in control of the levers of power in Israel and the Diaspora that one could easily make the mistake of assuming I reject Zion itself.
I reject a Zion that demands conquest, that demands expulsion, that demands theft. I favor a Zion that embraces shared homeland, shared political rights and full equality. This Zion is no less legitimate in Jewish terms than the Judeo-supremacist Zion.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.