Stranger in a Strange Land? A Review of Rachel Rojanski’s Yiddish in Israel

Avi Blitz

Rachel Rojan­s­ki, Yid­dish in Israel: A His­to­ry (Bloom­ing­ton, IN: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). 338 pages, $40, paperback.

Reviewing a poetry collection in Ha’aretz in 2015, journalist Eli Eliahu noted that of the many terrible things that happened to Abraham Sutzkever, the worst was watching the language of his literary oeuvre die in his lifetime. 1 1 Accessed September 27th, 2020. To this day, Israelis tend to hold pessimistic views about the future of Yiddish, while Jewish journalists and academics on the other side of the Atlantic are far more sanguine about the continued relevance of Yiddish in Jewish society and culture. These diverging attitudes towards Yiddish are echoes of a longstanding political-linguistic divide between Jews living in Israel and Jews living elsewhere. Rachel Rojanski’s new book, Yiddish in Israel: A History, explores the Israeli part of that story, uncovering the complex and multifaceted attitudes towards Yiddish in the Jewish state.

Rojanski’s interest in the subject began in childhood. Her parents came from Kovna and Bialystok, and spoke Yiddish among themselves. Typical of new Israelis, they decided to raise a Hebrew-speaking family, rejecting their native tongue for the old-new language of the Jewish state. But Rojanski’s intellectual curiosity in her parents’ language was piqued as an undergraduate, when she undertook an honors thesis on the history of the Bund. Her studies inspired her to pursue Yiddish, to recover, as Yael Chaver put it, “what must be forgotten.” 2 2 Yael Chaver, What Must be Forgotten: The Survival of Yiddish in Zionist Palestine (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004).

The reference to Chaver’s phrase here is important, as Rojanski’s work is very much a continuation of Chaver’s 2004 book. While Chaver charts the course of Yiddish in Palestine in the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, pitting the work of three writers, Zalmen Brokhes, Avrom Rivess, and Rikuda Potash, against the Zionist narrative and nationalist theory, Rojanski picks up in the middle of the century, tracing the history of Yiddish from the years running up to the establishment of the state until the end of the twentieth century. An exploration of the Yiddish press, Yiddish theatre, and Yiddish literature, the book constitutes the first systematic documentation of the history of Yiddish in the state of Israel written in English.

The conflict between Zionist ideology and socio-linguistic reality lies at the heart of the story. Developing a Hebrew-speaking culture that would replace the foreign languages of exile was central to the Israeli national project. Exploring Ben Yehuda’s role in the making of Zionism, for instance, Shlomo Avneri explains that Hebrew in Israel was not to be detached from its speakers, as it was for Hebrew writers during the Haskalah; instead, Hebrew culture could “develop only in a society which speaks Hebrew, with a Jewish majority which will relate to Hebrew as its living language of daily intercourse.” 3 3 Shlomo Avneri, The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State, Kindle ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2017).
Followers of Ben Yehuda’s linguistic vision conducted an anti-Yiddish campaign that peaked during the period of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), a time when fervent ideologues raised in youth movements like Poalei Zion moved to Palestine from the Russian Empire. Rojanski gives the example of Chaim Zhitlovsky’s trip to Palestine in 1914, during which a group of high school students physically prevented him from leaving the house where he was staying to give a lecture in Yiddish, an event that was ultimately canceled. 4 4 Rachel Rojanski,Yiddish in Israel: A History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2020), 7.

5. Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, translated by Anthony Berris. (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2012), 10.
For that generation, Yiddish was a “low, shaming language that cultured people should not use.”

As a consequence of changing demographics, however, attitudes towards Yiddish shifted by the 1940s. By September 1948, 225,000 European Jews who had been interned in British DP camps joined the 650,000 Jews already living in Israel, and by 1951 the Jewish population had doubled its pre-state numbers, radically changing the social makeup of the country. 5 5 Rojanski, Rachel, Op. Cit., 9.
Even Ben-Gurion’s attitudes towards Yiddish softened in the early years of the state. Rojanski tells the story of the first prime minister’s encounter with the poet H. Leyvik in April, 1950, and cites statements he made to the cabinet about Yiddish: “When there were a few of us [Hebrew speakers] in Israel, I was a zealot. Today I am still zealous about the Hebrew language—but we can’t deny a hundred thousand people a little pleasure.” 6 6 Ibid., 31.

Other voices among Israel’s earliest governments, however, maintained much stricter positions on language policy. Ben-Zion Dinur, a scholar of Jewish history who became Israel’s Minister for Education in 1951, took a harsher stance. When presiding over the Supreme Council for Cultural Affairs, a public body charged with overseeing Israeli culture and teaching Hebrew to new immigrants, the council made serious efforts to withhold government funding from the “foreign” language press. Ultimately, the council decided on a rigorous adult-education program that involved conscripting female soldiers as community Hebrew teachers and mandating that every newspaper include a Hebrew-language supplement.

It was here that Zionist ideology came into conflict with Yiddish. Through the story of Mordechai Tsanin, Rojanski delves further into language policy and the place of the Yiddish press in the early years of the state. Born in 1906, Tsanin moved to British Mandate Palestine in 1941, where he founded Israel’s first Yiddish newspaper in 1948, the short-lived Ilustrirter vokhnblat. As permits for newspapers were required from the government, Tsanin only received permission to publish the Ilustrirter vokhnblat three times a week, a restriction he circumvented by establishing a second newspaper, Letste nayes, that appeared on alternating days, making no secret of being the Ilustrirter vokhnblat’s sister publication. Rojanski’s research explores the nuances in Tsanin’s story: while Dovid Katz reports Ben-Gurion’s government’s obstruction of Tsanin’s publishing efforts, Rojanski chronicles the varied and competing voices within that government. 7 7 Dovid Katz, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (Cambridge MA: Basic Books, 2004), 319. Based on primary newspaper accounts, she provides a stimulating political narrative highlighting the challenges involved in balancing the cultural needs of Yiddish-speaking immigrants with the establishment of a new Hebrew-speaking society.

While the central scenes in Rojanski’s section on the Yiddish press played out in the 1940s and early 1950s, her research on Yiddish theater spans the subsequent decades. 8 8 Donny Inbar, “No Raisins and Almonds in the Land of Israel: A Tale of Goldfaden Productions Featuring Four Hotsmakhs, Three Kuni-Lemls, Two Shulamits, and One Messiah,” in Inventing the Modern Yiddish Stage: Essays in Drama, Performance, and Show Business, eds. Joel Berkowitz and Barbary Henry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 295-320. Like Donny Inbar, whose work addressed the history of Yiddish theater in the Ottoman through early state periods, Rojanski notes that the Israeli government made serious and quite successful efforts in the 1940s to ban theatre in Yiddish entirely, only lifting the restrictions in 1951. While Inbar’s work examines the survival of Yiddish theatre in Hebrew translation, however, Rojanski focuses on cultural production in the Yiddish language itself and its treatment in the Yiddish press.

The dramatis personae in this part of the book reads as a who’s-who of Yiddish celebrities: there is Zygmund Turkow, director of the short-lived Yidish folks teater, Max Pearlman, the Yiddish Fred Astaire, and the Burstein family, singer-actors who moved into the Bristol Hotel in Tel Aviv in 1954 and performed for the famed former mayor of the city, Haim Levanon. Then there are the names that not even the Israeli government’s most ardent Hebraists could ignore: Ida Kaminska, Maurice Schwartz, and Joseph Buloff. A vivid picture evocative of a magical chapter for Yiddish in Israel, Rojanski’s text is not only a catalogue of biographies; it is also a record of the successes and failures of Yiddish stars.

Among those stars, few have a story as poignant as Dzigan and Shumacher. Cabaret performers in Łodź in the 1920s, the duo performed right up until the invasion of Poland in 1939. They fled to Bialystok, then into Soviet-controlled territory, and kept performing until the Nazi invasion in 1941. They tried to join the Polish Anders Army, but were caught and sent to a Soviet labor camp where they spent five years. The pair finally arrived in the port of Haifa in 1950, a moment that received much press coverage.

Everyone who’s written on Jewish humor, most recently Ruth Wisse in No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, has touched on Dzigan and Schumacher. But Rojanski offers a thorough biographical sketch of the duo, and documents their complicated relationship with Israel and Israeliness, the mainstay of their repertoire in the 1950s. She also asks how Dzigan and Schumacher were able to make the transition from visitors to permanent fixtures in Israel, and considers what made them successful when so many other Yiddish performers were not. Although the high quality of the duo’s shows and their image as victors over European persecution certainly helped keep them in the public eye, it was their ability to stay relevant, Rojanski explains, that ensured their continued popularity. While Dzigan and Schumacher’s work in Israel preserved the “precious world of characters and types drawn from Jewish life,” they were also “archetypal purveyors of an inherently Israeli satire.” 9 9 Rojanski, Rachel, Op. Cit., 138.

No work on the history of Yiddish in Israel would be complete without serious attention to Abraham Sutzkever. Sutzkever’s gripping story, his journey from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Israel via Moscow and Paris, was most recently retold in David Fishman’s masterful epic, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. Sutzkever, Fishman explains, was always ambivalent about immigrating to Israel: he petitioned Max Weinreich several times for help with a US visa, and only decided to move to Israel, where he had a brother, when his American dreams failed to materialize. 10 10 David Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (Lebanon NH: University Press of New England, 2017), 213 & 220. Rojanski’s work, however, picks up in 1948, a year after Sutzkever’s arrival in the Jewish state, examining Israel’s relationship with Yiddish literary culture through the prism of Sutzkever’s journal, Di goldene keyt, published between 1949 and 1995.

Rojanski proposes two theses regarding Di goldene keyt. First, she suggests that the journal, which was funded by the Histadrut (The General Organization of Workers in Israel), evinces the Ben-Gurion government’s interest in preserving, and perhaps even cultivating, diasporic high culture in Israel. 11 11 Rojanski, Rachel, Op. Cit., 155. To support this claim, she presents a detailed account of the establishment of the journal, concluding that Di goldene keyt could not have come into existence without the approval of the heads of government. Key figures, in other words, went against their own policies of encouraging Hebrew in order to support the journal.

It is possible, Rojanski explains, that Di goldene keyt was founded as a way of luring Sutzkever to Israel; Sutzkever’s celebrity bona fides were well established long before he arrived in the Jewish state, and the government was interested in bringing high-profile figures to the new country. 12 12 Ibid., 162. Sutzkever’s project received mixed responses, her research demonstrates, among Israel’s intelligentsia: an article in Ma’ariv, for example, accused Sutzkever, “the partisan poet,” of “planning a partisan action” with his Yiddish journal. Yosef Sprinzak, on the other hand, who served as the head of the Histadrut between 1944 and 1949 and as Speaker of the Knesset between 1948 and 1959, 13 13 Ibid., 163. argued in Di goldene keyt that the “language war” had been won, and that Yiddish could now play a role in Israel’s cultural life.

In addition to providing a comprehensive picture of the events and personalities that chart the history of Yiddish in Israel, Rojanski’s work also engages with a theoretical dimension. Her references to Gramsci and Anderson mark her work as an exploration of nation building, and her examinations of the conceptual differences between Yiddish cultural production in the United States and Israel expose the subtle interplay between immigrant culture and the state. She undertakes a comparative analysis of literary themes in contemporaneous works in Yiddish and Hebrew published in Israel, and explores the shift in public opinion towards Yiddish that came about in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial in 1961, a watershed moment that heralded a reassessment of Ashkenazi Israelis’ European past.

In discussing the nostalgia for Yiddish that prevailed in the 1960s, Rojanski touches only briefly on the demographic changes that inspired a reassessment of Israeli-Jewish identity at the time. Throughout the 1950s, waves of Jewish immigration from Arab lands fundamentally changed the social and political tapestry of the country. Rooting a discussion on nostalgia for European Jewry’s Yiddish past more firmly in the context of these changes would have opened space for Rojanski to draw further attention to the different and often unequal experiences of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in the Zionist melting pot, a crucible that often sacrificed the uniqueness of diasporic Jewish societies to the pursuit of a hegemonic Jewish monoculture.

Rojanski documents Yiddish’s transition from spoken language to curious specter in Israel’s collective memory. The final chapters of the book discuss the twilight of Israel’s Yiddish luminaries, the closure of Tsanin’s Ilustrirte velt vokh in 1975, an event marked by an article poignantly entitled “A korbn fun der tsayt,” a victim of time. Rojanski concludes that Sprinzak’s inaugural article in Di goldene keyt had been correct in its assertion: the language wars really had been won.

Yiddish in Israel comes to an end in the final years of the twentieth century, with a singular focus on the production of secular high culture in Yiddish. But by ignoring ultra-Orthodox Jews, her ending misses a large part of the story. Yiddish continues to be used today in Israel by growing numbers of Haredi Jews, and the social, religious, and linguistic fault lines that divide ultra-Orthodox and secular sectors of Israeli society in the twenty-first century warrant serious study. Rojanski stops short of addressing this twist in the story of the Yiddish language in the Jewish state. Still, Rojanski’s book sits firmly in the library of Yiddish Studies. It is also a fresh and unique retelling of Israel’s past, a book that escapes well-trodden narratives and explores instead a nuanced and underrepresented corner of the country’s history.

Blitz, Avi. “Stranger in a Strange Land? A Review of Rachel Rojanski’s Yiddish in Israel.” In geveb, October 2021:
Blitz, Avi. “Stranger in a Strange Land? A Review of Rachel Rojanski’s Yiddish in Israel.” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Avi Blitz

Avi Blitz completed his PhD in Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies at Indiana University. He currently teaches Yiddish language, literature, and culture through the Argentinian branch of YIVO.