~`photo by This is Tel Aviv
Many people who don’t have a lot to do with the Jewish culture, find it hard to define the differences between Hebrew and Yiddish, or even wonder if it’s not the same language - “uhm, the one all these Jews speak, right? ”. Although both of them are written with the same alphabet, they are never ever supposed to be confused. Not only they come from two distinct language groups and have been spoken in different parts of the world by people of different ethnicities. In Israel, they also represent two opposite worlds that have a completely different vision of what being a Jew means.
But let’s start with the linguistic aspects. Yiddish was used by the Aschkenazi families in Eastern Europe. Some scholars consider it just a Judeo-German dialect, others describe it as an independent language. Hebrew is a Semitic language of Afroasian origin. Classical Hebrew is the ancient, Canaanite version in which the Bible is written, therefore today it is used mainly for religious purposes. However, in this article I’m referring only to Modern Hebrew - don’t get lost. This language is quite peculiar, artificial in a way. It has actually come into being only at the end of 19th century, as a fruit of the Hebrew revitalization project. All the Jews settling in Palestine about that time needed a common language to unite the diverse, arising nation. The Zionist linguists and writers (Ben Yehuda in particular) modernized the old, biblical Hebrew by changing various grammatical rules, making the sentence structure more Slavic and borrowing many words from various Jewish or foreign dialects. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, this hybrid has become (beside Arabic) one of the two national languages.
The whole Zionist movement that led to it was based on the importance of Jewish identity, but most of its secular activists would perceive it somewhat differently than the Ultra-Orthodox haredim. The establishment of the Jewish state meant breaking off with the “diaspora mentality” and creating a brand new exemplar, totally different from the pale, bearded intellectual of the past. The pioneer Sabras were supposed to be strong, direct, plain and persistent; full of ideological socialist-zionist enthusiasm; liberally distanced from the Hasidic religious tradition, dividing time between the strenuous farming work, Hebrew poetry and heated debates in the kibbutzim communities. The Jewish identity has been replaced (or smoothly transformed?) by the new Israeli one. The words perfectly mirrored that transition. Many Zionists after coming to Israel would symbolically change their old names into new ones – take Ben Gurion, ex-Dawid Grün. Erec Israel signified a new beginning. They associated Yiddish with the ghetto-shtetl provincialism and treated the Eastern European Jews with a sense of superiority or contempt. It was only later that Yiddish gained back a bit of respect and started to be considered another part of the rich Jewish tradition. Nowadays, it returns to being in young Israelis’ favors, it can even be studied at the Israeli universities.
If you wish to learn one of these languages, it will certainly be a splendid window on the Israeli life and culture. Nevertheless, you must remember that each of them will reveal a different image of the country - one of its many, many faces.