Response from Hannah Sirdofsky to Rohkl Kafrissen on Yiddish
To the Editors:
I enjoyed reading “The Jewish Future Needs Yiddish” by Rokhl Kafrissen. I studied anthropology at the University of Michigan, and I constantly stress to my friends and colleagues the importance language has as a binder of culture. I use the example of my Chicago-born college roommate, who is deeply connected to her Puerto Rican heritage (having never lived there) because she grew up speaking Spanish.
As an American Jew, I have always been disheartened by the lack of emphasis on learning Hebrew. Aside from Day School, there is no outlet for the majority of Jews here to learn their native language. People always talk about the disconnect between Diaspora Jews and Israelis, and I think a very large, underestimated reason for the growing divide is that we do not speak the language.
With that, I found “The Jewish Future Needs Yiddish” a great read because it stresses the importance of language to culture and makes the case as to why we as Jews should study Yiddish. While I agree with that sentiment, I disagree with the stance of learning to speak Yiddish, on reviving it.
As we know there was a great debate on what the national language of Israel was to be during the founding of the modern state. Hebrew was settled on, due largely in part to the fact that Yiddish was only spoken by European Jews. Decreeing Yiddish the language would have isolated much of the Jewish population coming to the country and created a greater divide between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews—a hierarchical division that was already an issue as the country was coming into its own.
The article states that modern Hebrew incorporates Yiddish, but much of Yiddish also incorporates Hebrew. Hebrew is our foundation, not Yiddish.
Yes, I, too, believe Yiddish should be studied from an academic perspective. There is so much tremendous history there to be learned. But to revive it, teach it as a spoken language in the classroom, should not be an emphasis for the American Jew. It was used during a time when we lived in exile. It would be a detrimental effort that would once again fracture and weaken our already shrinking community.
We should start by learning Hebrew—and I mean being able to speak it, not just read prayers for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Let’s learn the language of our culture and strengthen our ties as one Jewish people.