GTU professor explodes myths about demise of Yiddish language

The culture wars pitting Hebrew against Yiddish are long over.

Hebrew won, hands down.

But arguments over the strategies and internal politics behind the battles are far from finished.

In "A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish," Naomi Seidman of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union offers the latest perspective on the perennial debate.

Instead of viewing the linguistic clash as solely the result of nationalistic or class struggle, this assistant professor of Jewish culture sees the degradation of the feminine as one of the forces that worked against Yiddish in modern times.

Hebrew's revival at the turn of the century grew out of Zionists' hope of returning to the land of the Bible and the need to create a common tongue for all Jews.

"This meant…a kind of rejection of a language that was perceived as feminine — not just diasporic or weak, but also feminine," she said after her book was published this summer.

That language of "emasculated" Jews was Yiddish, known nostalgically today as the mamaloshen, or mother tongue.

Seidman offers dozens of examples of Yiddish being denigrated as the language of "women and uneducated men" or "women and men who are like women."

Nineteenth-century writers, even those famed for their Yiddish stories, were aware of this image.

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, considered the grandfather of modern Yiddish literature, wrote that the "Yiddish of my time was an empty vessel, containing nothing but prattle and foolishness and deceit, written by simpletons with no style and no names and read by women and the poor who couldn't understand what they were reading."

Even the debate over Hebrew pronunciation had sexual overtones, Seidman asserted.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda — a leader of Hebrew's revival in pre-state Israel and the first father there to raise a native Hebrew speaker in modern times — pushed for the Sephardic accent in Hebrew instead of the "soft, weak" Ashekenazi accent.

In the late 1920s, Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky questioned women's devotion to Hebrew.

"Even the most fervent Zionist cannot guarantee that his wife is also a Zionist or that she takes his side with regard to the importance of Hebrew speech," he said.

This book, part of the University of California Press series "Contraversions: Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture and Society," isn't the 37-year-old professor's only endeavor as of late.

The past year has seen the publication of several books and articles she has written, co-edited or translated.

In addition to her newest book, these works include a collection of stories called "Israel, A Traveler's Literary Companion," a controversial article on Elie Wiesel's Yiddish version of "Night" and a translation of a biography of Hebrew writer Dvora Baron.

In the midst of all that, she gave birth to Ezra Hillel on May 31. She is using summer break as her maternity leave, though she hopes to translate Baron's short stories into English before the fall session begins.

Seidman is aware that "Marriage Made in Heaven" may be labeled feminist rhetoric or "anti-Zionist and part of the growing critique of Zionist history."

She does not deny that Hebrew was the right choice for Israel. She just wants to set the historical record straight on the denigration and suppression of Yiddish.

Academics, Seidman said, tend to agree that gender distinctions between Hebrew and Yiddish speakers in Europe existed during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Males learned Hebrew for synagogue prayer and Yiddish for everyday talk. Women were excluded from Hebrew religious studies and thus confined to using Yiddish.

By the 20th century, however, most scholars contend that ideological — not gender — differences split Hebrew and Yiddish backers.

"My argument is that the earlier gender split continued to inform the…ideological split. It never ended," Seidman said.

Though Seidman focuses on Zionists in Europe and pre-state Israel from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, she noted that Yiddish eventually lost out on all fronts for numerous reasons.

Communists "violently suppressed" Yiddish in the Soviet Union. English won out in assimilation-prone America. And the Holocaust annihilated Yiddish speakers in Europe.

Seidman tends to emphasize Zionists and pre-state Israel, however, because she believes the gender politics were closest to the surface during the creation of the "new Jew" there.

Despite her attention to Yiddish's links with the feminine, Seidman doesn't believe that, statistically, more women used Yiddish than men. Even literature, ostensibly written only for women, was consumed by men. But Jews perceived Yiddish as part of women's realm, she said.

"My argument is that a myth can be very powerful, even if it's not statistically true."

While Hebrew did indeed win the language wars, Seidman asserts with some irony that Yiddish has today achieved "a status it never had before.

Hebrew is now the daily language of Israel. Yiddish is the language associated with the past. It is the language spoken by Holocaust victims. And with the exception of the Orthodox world, she said, it is generally known only by scholars and older Jews.

"It has a kind of holiness."