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Saturday, April 16, 2005
The death of Yiddish
Since the former article is in the Jerusalem Post, it deals with how Aramaic speakers do in Israel. They do pretty well, it turns out, because Jeremiah 10:11 and chunks of Ezra are in Aramaic (as is half of Daniel, if you want to count that); and so's the Kaddish and a lot of other Jewish literature. Christian Bible fans like Mel Gibson are fans of Aramaic too.
Anyway, the article further notes how Aramaic is an Eastern phenomenon; European Jews don't speak it and only their rabbis really got into it. My maternal grandmother is, or was, a European Jew. What European Jews spoke a lot of was "Yiddish".
For that, it becomes necessary to understand European Judaism. The Jews had been in Europe for millennia, but they were never trusted, and that distrust became a doctrinal point of faith when the Gentiles dropped a perfectly functional paganism for what they called the "New Testament". In Italy the Church inveigled the state to corral all the Jews into the smelly part of town, nicknamed "ghetto" from the pottery-fires that caused the pollution. When this happened in Germany, the mediaeval German dialect there became an independent language, which subsequently acted as a ghetto Lingua Franca.
This is normally the point where a Slim Shady ex-fan like myself would pull a "Beastie Boys" and go off on representin' da original Geto, but I'll spare you that. My mom told me that "we were not ghetto Jews". Au contraire; we were the sort that assimilated. We lived with our Polish and Ukrainian neighbors, eating their ham and cheese sandwiches, taking the ultra-Slavic name "Slovess", and if we did anything particularly Jewish we kept it to ourselves. My eyes are more Central Asian that European (or Semitic) as a result. (My nose is a different story.) We thought of ourselves as Russian, if anything, at that point.
But maybe that's what the Ukrainians in Kiev didn't like. At some point in the 1800s, the great-great-grandparents moved to Turkish Palestine and thence to a Polish neighborhood in Chicago. There my great-grandfather Michael reinvented himself as an anti-European racist, I am sorry to say, but that is another story.
What is always a culture shock for me is to come across the sheer volume of Yiddish and Hebrew-script literature the Yids cranked out over the centuries. We weren't involved in this, because we were Not Ghetto; but this was a thriving civilisation that would have been a glory to take part in.
And now it's gone. There are only a few dozen thousands of Jews in mainland Europe anymore, instead of millions, and those that are left are still facing the hatred of the ignorant. Needless to say there is no Yiddish.
I wish I knew more about what my ancestors saw in the Ukraine - something convinced them that, ghetto or not, they were better off in the Near East or Chicago.
I guess it worked out so that I got to be here; pan-European, multi-ethnic, non-religious. I cannot forget, though, that a whole civilisation was wrecked in the process.
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