Killing the mame-loshn. The sacrifice of mother tongue at the altar of a new Hebrew identity

Conference talk
Maternal Sacrifice in Jewish Culture. Rethinking Sacrifice from a Maternal Perspective in Religion, Art, and Culture, INALCO, Paris (21st November 2019)

Tags: Hebrew language | Hebrew literature | Israel studies | Literary criticism | Sociolinguistics | Yiddish | Yiddish language


In August 1949 a ban was issued by the Israeli Council for the Control of Films and Plays, forbidding theatrical performances in Yiddish, with few exceptions. One year later, a request to publish the Yiddish periodical Letste nayes three times a week was rejected on the grounds that there was a shortage of paper, although six dailies in foreign languages were published at the time in Israel.
Zionism and the building of a new anti-diasporic identity were closely linked to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. In a time when most Israelis had been raised in languages other than Hebrew, policies discouraging the use of other Jewish languages in the young nation appeared as a necessary means to achieve the kibbutz galuyot (‘ingathering of the exiles’). Nevertheless, attitudes towards Yiddish, which was by far the most widely-spoken language among world Jewry, did not originate solely in the need for immigrant absorption. As a necessary step in the struggle for independence from the old world, State policies fought attempts at reviving Yiddish, while they favoured its preservation as a relic of the past. That is, as the silent picture of a deceased mother.
The open hostility reflected in Ben-Gurion’s remarks on Yiddish («a foreign and grating language») echoed the pre-State language war. In the early 20th century, the debate about Jewish authors choosing Hebrew or Yiddish resorted to cartoons personifying the two languages as a lady and a maid, an old aristocrat and a pretty lower-class girl, a legitimate wife and a mistress. Such visual imagery always involved women, and their relationships with writers were sexualised. Linguistic attitudes in the early years of the State can be equally read as stemming from a complex relationship with a womanly figure. Taking into account that a vehement opposition to Yiddish came from an Ashkenazi political and cultural establishment raised in Yiddish-speaking communities, it appears as no less than the rejection of an intrusive and suffocating mother.


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