The Negation of the Diaspora

Here's a fun little experiment: If you're studying Hebrew, try speaking in an Ashkenazi accent and see what happens.

I tried this experiment myself in college. I had left school for a few years and moved to Los Angeles, and, while there, hanging out in the delis and watching the frum Jews in the Fairfax neighborhood, I found myself curious about my own family's background. I developed a terrific interest in the history of the Jews in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe. This is where my grandparents came from, and yet I felt like my education had skipped something, despite my having attended a Jewish high school, Jewish summer camps, and years of religious education through my synagogue.

No, the story of Judaism that I learned basically looked like this: Bible. Destruction of the Second Temple. Babylonian Talmud. Holocaust. Founding of the State of Israel.

There were hints of European history in there -- some mention of the rise of Hasidism, some tellings of the tale of the Golem of Prague, a few other things, atomized moments of history, unmoored in time and unsettled in location.

When I returned to college, it was to pursue a degree in Jewish Studies, and I found myself especially focusing on East European Jewish history. It felt like it was my history, in a way that was more intimate and direct than the ancient Israeli story I mostly grew up with, and the story of modern Israel, which was not my story. I was not an Israeli, ancient or modern. I was an American Jew whose grandparents were Eastern European Jews.

I started taking Hebrew again. The first day of class, students are generally assigned a Hebrew name, or, if you're Jewish, you probably already have one. I was Tzvi in my synagogue's Hebrew school classes, but I had no desire to be Tzvi again. I already had a Jewish name, Max Sparber, and was named after my uncle Max, a dealer in rare books in New York, many of them Yiddish books or books on Judaica. There was no reason for me to trade out my actual Jewish name for an artificial Hebrew name. I don't know why I rankled, but I did. I have a better idea now.

I also insisted on using the Yiddish spelling of my name rather than transliterating it into Hebrew. My teacher fought me on this, but I suppose I gave her the choice of either letting me use the name I wanted and spell it how I wanted or of docking my grade for this odd rebellion. She chose to ignore it.

I had also learned how to read Hebrew using an Askhenazi pronunciation, the pronunciation used by European Jews, which dates back to at least the 11th century, and might be older. It is not the accent preferred by speakers of modern Hebrew. That is the Sephardi pronunciation, associated with the Jews of Spain. It was the accent chosen by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, in part because it was the accent used by the Jews in Palestine, and apparently also because he just preferred it, despite hailing from what is now Belarus.

And, with that decision, and with the development of the State of Israel, a modern variant of the Sephardi accent came into prominence. It's the accent I was taught in religious school, it was the accent used in my Jewish high school, and it was the accent used to study Hebrew texts and teach Hebrew in college. I only heard the Ashkenazi accent when I heard my father and grandfather pray.

The accent

About this time, I started to use the Askenazi accent myself when I went to synagogue and used it when reading religious texts at college. And sometimes I would use it in my Hebrew class. I guess I felt about it the same way I felt about my name -- that it was a more authentic expression of my Jewish heritage, and I should be allowed to use it.

My teacher did not agree and corrected me every time. I understand her viewpoint: She was teaching conversational modern Hebrew, and the Ashkenazi accent is not preferred in modern conversational Hebrew.

I had my own viewpoint, which I didn't then know how to articulate: I was not interested in modern conversational Hebrew. I had no plans to visit Israel, I had almost no interaction with Israeli culture, and I knew almost no Israelis. I was studying Hebrew to study religious texts, and the accent I did this in didn't really matter. Actually, it did matter to me. It mattered that I studied them in the same accent as my family had.

By the way, my teacher was wrong. All teachers who insist the Sephardi accent is the proper modern Hebrew accent are wrong. There is a small but significant number of Israelis who use the Ashkenazi accent, albeit generally these are Haredi Jews or older European Jews. It's a minority accent in Israel, but is used, and the accents are mutually comprehensible, so there is no absolute reason why a modern Jew could not learn an Ashkenazi accent while learning modern conversational Hebrew. We just choose not to, and discourage those who choose to do so.

The negation

This didn't happen by accident, by the way. It is the product of a philosophy that has threaded its way, invisibly and in subterranean ways, throughout much of modern Judaism. It is a philosophy that, appropriately, has a Hebrew name, and that name is shlilat ha'galut. In English, it translates approximately as the Negation of the Diaspora.

I am going to turn to Wikipedia to sum up the philosophy, as I think they do it about as well as I could:

The negation of the Diaspora (Hebrew: שלילת הגלות‎‎, shlilat ha'galut, or Hebrew: שלילת הגולה‎‎, shlilat ha'golah) is a central assumption in many currents of Zionism. The concept encourages the dedication to Zionism and it is used to justify the denial of the feasibility of Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora. Life in the Diaspora would either lead to discrimination and persecution or to national decadence and assimilation. A more moderate formulation says that the Jews as a people have no future without a "spiritual center" in the Land of Israel. 
For those of you not familiar with the term, diaspora essentially means "dispersal," and there are a lot of Diasporas in the world -- as an Irish-American, I am also part of the Irish Disapora. Here's what it refers to in this case: The Jews used to have a homeland, the Land of Israel, but were forcibly dispersed in a series of exiles, culminating at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, when Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed and a significant portion of the population was exiled.

The destruction of the Temple was an extraordinarily traumatizing and transformative event for Jews. It took away the spiritual center of  Judaism and forced the development of smaller, community based approaches to Judaism, including the rise of synagogues and rabbis and the codification of Jewish law. Modern Judaism, as we know it, was created in the Diaspora, which, in Yiddish, is called the Galus. It was a religion of exile, a religion that constantly look both back to the Israel that once was, at least in myth, and an Israel that we hoped would one day be, with the arrival of a messiah and a return to the Holy Land.

As you can see, embedded into Judaism was the idea that this exile was temporary -- that Jews are actually displaced Israelis, waiting for the opportunity to return, and if it didn't happen in life, it would happen after death, with something called the quickening of the dead, when all deceased Jews would return to life with the arrival of the Messiah and join him in Jerusalem. Nowadays, this is a largely undiscussed aspect of Jewish philosophy, in part because many modern Jewish movements have replaced the idea of a literal messiah with the hopes for a messianic ideal, a future of justice and peace. And it may go undiscussed because it gets very weird, as ideas about the messiah got wrapped up in Jewish mysticism, and ends up seeming like a collection of oddball folk stories and virtually incomprehensible metaphysical discussions. I mean, in some tellings, the messiah will sacrifice a giant sea-monster, called Leviathan, and a giant land-monster, called Behemoth, and maybe even a giant bird, called Bar Juchne, and then ... well, we just roast them and eat them, like some sort of eschatological barbecue.

If it goes seldom discussed now, I cannot overstate how important the idea of the coming of the messiah and the return of the exiles was to the Jews of the Galus. It was a constant obsession, and that obsession leaked into Zionism. The idea of a literal messiah was replaced with messianic hopes for the reborn land of Israel, but you find many of the same ideas, especially those of the return of exiles and the end of Galus. The Disapora was not merely temporary for many Jews; it was temporary and terrible, a time of poverty and wandering, where everywhere we went we were treated as aliens, and the population inevitably turned hostile and murderous.

Add to that the fact that one particular part of the Galus, the mystical, religious, squabbling, Yiddish-speaking Pale of Settlement, was sometimes treated with contempt and embarrassment by the Jews of Central and Western Europe. Yiddish was seen as not so much a language as a degraded German jargon, and the unassimilated Eastern European Jews were often presented as being uneducated, unwashed, and superstitious. This had particular impact on American Jews, as the major institutions of American Jewry were largely created by assimilationist German Jews who barely had any interest in maintaining their own culture, and positively recoiled at the culture of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It wasn't much better in Israel, where there was an unfortunate tendency to see European Jews as somehow being weak for having suffered antisemitism and a Holocaust, which left a strong desire to leave that world behind.

The results are that, with the exception of Haredi communities that basically playact at still be in 18th Century Poland, modern Jews have largely rejected the Galus, even though most of us are still in it. There are almost 6.5 million Jews in Israel. There are seven and a half million Jews in the rest of the world, including almost 5.5 million in the United States alone. The Diaspora experience has proven not to be temporary, but ongoing, and Israel is undeniably a center of the Jewish experience, but is one of many. In fact, there was a Jewish philosophy that developed parallel to Zionism, one that we now call ethnic nationalism or diaspora nationalism, which focused on Jews maintaining a unique identity while still in the diaspora, but while pursuing the same rights and responsibilities of whatever nation they are a part of. It's strange that this approach is currently so neglected, because this is actually the experience of most Jews in the world, as well as prefiguring a lot of modern discussions about race, ethnicity, and religion in a pluralistic world.

The dreidel

If you're a student of Yiddish, you start wondering why American Jewish institutions rejected Yiddish. After all, the Jewish community has been uniquely skilled at maintaining historic languages, teaching Hebrew and Aramaic over periods of thousands of years beyond when those were spoken languages. It was even possible for me to study Syriac in college, and I did so as part of my Jewish Studies program, which did not offer Yiddish.

Jewish things don't fade naturally; we tend to preserve them, even when they weren't originally Jewish. You'll still find Jews playing mahjong, a game they learned in the 1920s, while refusing to speak Yiddish, which survived and actually flourished in the United States until the 1950s. Yiddish did not simply fade. It was deliberately allowed to fade, and, not infrequently, helped along the way. Examples of this erasure abound, but I'll give just one.

On Hanukkah, Jews spin a little top called a dreidel. It is a gambling game: The dreidel has four sides, and each side has a letter on it, and each letter causes a different outcome: You might add to a pot, or take out of a pot. The letters are Hebrew, and they are nun, gimel, hey, and shin. I was taught this was short for a Hebrew phrase, and everybody I know was taught the same: Nes gadol haya sham, "a great miracle happened there," referring to a holiday miracle involving olive oil and a gold candelabra.

But it doesn't mean that, not originally. The letters are short for Yiddish words. Nun means nisht, or none. Gimel means gants, or all. Hey means halb, or half. Shin means shtel ayn, put one in. And that's the way the game is played. It's a European game called teetotum, which is played the same way, and was simply borrowed by the Jews. The whole "great miracle happened there" explanation didn't happen until the dreidel became primarily associated with Hanukkah. I haven't been able to track down precisely when this happened, but I have not been able to find any mention of the toy associated with the holiday from the 19th century, and the first American reference to both dreidels and Hanukkah I find is from December 17, 1916, from the Jewish Daily News of New York. The earliest reference I find to the letters meaning "A Great Miracle Happened There" is much later, in 1951, in an article in Canton, Ohio Repository. The Hebrew translation does not appear in print in a book until later still, in 1978, in "The Jewish Party Book" by MaeShafter Rockland.

(Note: Since writing this, I located a reference to dreidels being used on Hanukkahthat dates back to 1864, from a letter to Leopold Low, saying that the toy, here called a "trendel," was then associated with the holiday, and following this up I discovered an entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia that clarifies the relation between the dreidel and Hanukkah: In the Middle Ages, rabbis passed decrees against gambling games, but these were lifted on intermediate holidays and Hanukkah so long as these games were not played for money.)

Note that these two references come after the creation of the State of Israel. Hanukkah had been a relatively minor holiday, but, because it happens about the same time as Christmas, it grew in popularity as a sort of Jewish alternative to the Christian holiday, especially in America during the 20th century. Parallel with this was the development of Zionism, and while Hanukkah is not an explicitly Zionist holiday, it is one that celebrates the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire's influence on Israel in 167–160 BC. With the rise of Zionism and especially with the formation of the modern state of Israel, Hanukkah took on new significance, and while I can't say with any certainty that the Hebrew version of the letters of the dreidel date from this time, I do find it unsurprising that this is when we find evidence that Hebrew was being favored over Yiddish -- indeed, the Yiddish interpretation of the letters is now entirely absent.


So it is. So we find Yiddish being erased, decade by decade, an ongoing negation of the diaspora that, in this instance, replaces Yiddish with Hebrew and turns a European Jewish toy into one celebrating Israel. This has happened subtly, invisibly, for a century or more, and continues to this day, where the experience of Jews in the Galus are invisible or secondary. Here's a quick example:

There are a series of camps in North America called Habonim Dror that have taken steps to develop a gender-neutral form of Hebrew, which is a language that has little flexibility for the nuanced understanding of gender that has developed in the past half century. This is in response to a real need: The camp had campers who did not fit Hebrew's strict binary. This is also a need in the larger American Jewish community, as there are branches of Judaism, particularly Reform, that have taken enormous steps to be as inclusive as possible in their services.

According to the Washington Post, this has received criticism from alumni, who claim the camps are "teaching the children fake Hebrew that they won’t be able to use in the outside world." But of course they can use this Hebrew in the outside world. It's very possible to take the experiments of this camp and apply it to the synagogue. It's a response to a real need experienced by Jews in the Diaspora (and not just in the Diaspora; this discussion has also happened among Israeli Jews.)

I got in an argument about this on a discussion forum with an Israeli. "Your influence on the Hebrew language is directly proportional to the frequency at which you use it to criticize a driver's competence on Ibn Gavirol Street," he told me, which could not be more clear an expression of the Negation of the Diaspora. This wasn't even a real discussion, he argued, because it was happening at some American camps, but he had not yet heard any Israelis call for such a thing.

Let me be clear: I don't care what Israelis think about what American Jews do. If we want to invent our own fake Hebrew so that we don't exclude members of our community, we are free to do so. Not only did we not disappear once Israel became a state, we did not stop mattering once Israel became a state, and Hebrew is does not belong exclusively to Israelis, but is something used by American Jews that sometimes is adapted to American needs. We get to do this.

Our history did not stop mattering. It must be abundantly obvious at this moment that the Negation of the Diaspora was as much a myth as grilling up Leviathan at the end of time was a myth. Not only did the Diaspora not end, but it is entirely possible to maintain a Jewish identity and pursue being an equal member of society outside Israel. It is possible to be a Diaspora Jew and have a Diaspora Jewish identity -- in fact, I would argue it is vital to be able to develop such a thing, because the Diaspora is not going anywhere.

Part of the reason Yiddish appeals to me is that it is one of the languages of Diaspora Jewry. My name is not Tzvi, it is Max Sparber, after a Yiddish bookdealer, from a family of East European Jews, and we did not speak modern Hebrew, and, when we used the language, it was with the wrong accent. And I'm never going to let someone tell me otherwise again.