Nu? Arab Students' New Shtick: Kibbitizing in Yiddish

Article Summary
A quarter of the 400 students in the Yiddish department of Bar-Ilan University are Arabs. Dudi Golman explains that many Arab Israelis study the language as a way to connect with Jewish culture.

“Yiddish intrigues me with its majesty and its enigmatic, refined musical tone. I have no explanation for the fact that I have always felt a connection to this language.”

Contrary to what you might expect, the speaker of these lines is not a Polish poet or German philosopher. He is Yusuf Alakili, 50, from Kfar Kassem, currently investing much effort in his studies for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan University’s Hebrew. Alakili studies Yiddish on the side for his own enjoyment.

How did this affair start? “In the 1980s, I worked with a Jew of Polish origin who lived in Bnei Brak, and Yiddish was the main language there. I was captivated by its musical tone and decided to study it in earnest. My dream is to read Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman [the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof] in its original language.”

And what bothers him? “I don’t know who is to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language is neglected, when such an extensive body of literature exists in Yiddish. Did you know that [Nobel Prize laureate] Agnon started writing in Yiddish, and only later transferred to Hebrew?” he asks.

Alakili is not alone. About a quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan are Arabs, says Ber Kotlerman, academic director of Bar Ilan’s Center for Yiddish Studies. According to Kotlerman, some of the Israeli Arabs are searching for a way to connect to the Jewish culture with which they must cope, and it is not easy for them.

“Even Jews in the Diaspora search for this — a way to connect to the local culture — and it is wonderful that Yiddish can be a sort of ambassador, a bridge between nations and cultures,” he says. “Take, for example, the case of  Tevye the Dairyman, whose daughter marries a Christian and he sits shiva [the traditional Jewish mourning ceremony] for her. Two years ago, a female Arab student approached me to say that her father would do the same thing if she fell in love with a Jew,” says Kotlerman.

Salam Bashara, 22, of Tira, is currently finishing her undergraduate degree in Arab literature. She explains how the Yiddish language and culture move her greatly.

”I fell in love with Hebrew literature back in high school. When I studied Yiddish, I became acquainted with Sholom Aleicham and the early works of Agnon," and also watched various films, such as the wonderful movie "The Cantor from Vilna."

"The cantor’s loss of his son [to the surrounding secular culture] is a universal experience, something that everyone can identify with,” says Bashara, who hopes one day to write her masters thesis on the parallels between Arab and Yiddish literature.

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