The Israeli Knesset will soon be offering Yiddish courses to its MKs.
According to a Hamodia report, this initiative is the brainchild of MK Ya’akov Margi, who chairs the Knesset’s Education Committee. It is not the first time the Knesset has launched an initiative to familiarize MKs with a language other than Hebrew: Last summer, under Margi’s leadership, the Knesset offered a course in Mughrabi, a Hebrew-Arabic dialect spoken by Moroccan and other North African Jews. And, according to MK Margi, it will not be the last time this occurs: The Yiddish course will be followed by a course in Ladino (also known Judeo-Spanish and other names).
Like many Yiddish programs for us non-MKs, which often emphasize the inextricability of Yiddish language and Yiddish culture, the Knesset course will teach history and folklore along with language. It will be taught by Dr. Mordechai Yushkovsky, an internationally renowned Yiddish scholar. According to Margi, many MKs are enthusiastic about the Yiddish course. “Many of the second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants from Europe are interested in their family and cultural tradition, and are afraid of losing it,” he told Hamodia, echoing sentiments often expressed by young Jews who choose to study Yiddish.
The course’s intention is to promote greater communication between MKs and their constituents. Margi, who is Moroccan-born, is a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that is predominantly Sephardic and Mizrahi. Yiddish, of course, is an Ashkenazi Jewish language, but Margi’s initiative is a move to represent the many Haredi Jews in Israel who speak Yiddish as their primary language. A 2011 survey estimated that 2 percent of Israel’s population speaks the mame-loshn, mostly in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
Israel has made some efforts in past years to celebrate the original language of so many of its citizens: In 2009, the Knesset, under the sponsorship of then-MK Lia Shemtov, officially marked Yiddish Language and Culture Day for the first time. Yiddish and the State of Israel have a fraught history, however: Early state builders felt that Yiddish, as a diaspora language, was antithetical to Zionism. In their strategic attempt to construct a linguistic nationalism, they suppressed Yiddish, instead opting to reinvigorate Hebrew. For this amateur Yiddishist, it is heartening to see this attempt to incorporate Yiddish in small ways into the Israeli government.
The courses are being given by the World Jewish Congress’ International Yiddish Center.
Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.