Language of Our People

“I began researching this book in Los Angeles, as a UCLA/Mellon Fellow. For the opportunity to read Sholem Aleichem on the Santa Monica boardwalk (and have ‘Vos makht a yid’ shouted at me by a roller-skating passerby), my thanks…”
--from the Acknowledgements section, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem by Jeremy Dauber.


This is not a book review;

It is a Jeremy-Dauber influenced polemic. As with any polemic, its message should fit on a bumper sticker; namely, Learn Yiddish. As with many a polemicist, it would be helpful if I took my own advice. However, that is another story.

This story begins in Miami Beach in 1959. I was 12 years old celebrating Passover at the home of Lee Rosenhouse who had been my classmate since first grade at the other end of town—South Beach when South Beach was run down and before it became rediscovered and chic. Lee and I attended the Hebrew Academy—Hebrew being the operative word. When Rabbi Alexander S. Gross founded the Academy in a renovated Protestant Church in 1947, the Hebrew he taught was Ashkenazi. By the time we were in third grade, our teachers shifted our pronunciation to Sephardi in keeping with the official Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew. One consequence is that our pronunciation of Hebrew was a mishmash described as Ashke-Sephardi.

Rabbi Gross was something of a heretic and certainly a visionary. Years later when I read Louis Auchincloss’ Rector of Justin I learned that my rabbi/principal was indeed a Jewish rector whose vision—despite the Maimonides-ordained orthodoxy of our morning classes—was Hebrew and a secular manifestation of Hebrew at that.

Hebrew and Yiddish. Yiddish and Hebrew. Lee and I were part of an effort that swept our Jewish community abandoning Yiddish, the language of exile, in favor of a new world order symbolized by the Israeli flag displayed every morning in the Academy playground where first we saluted the U.S. flag and next we sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The anthem’s initial word means “The Hope.”

The contrast between Hebrew and Yiddish (the hopeful new world order vs. the old culture—which, as Lee and I saw it had kept us enslaved) expressed itself in 1959 at the Rosenhouse sedar table when Lee’s mother and father (Estelle and Mose) swapped dirty jokes with my mother. The jokes were in Yiddish. We did not understand. This was, as we saw it, the old order unfairly keeping from us (whose Hebrew was recent and hard-won) some secret magic.


It is possible you speak neither Hebrew nor Yiddish and you may have little appreciation for the language wars I am here describing. Let me start with the basics we students expressed quite clearly on the Hebrew Academy playground in the form of a question. “If the U.S. and Israel were to fight in a war which side would you be on?”

A generation later my younger daughter Amelia Altalena (whose middle name is fraught with meaning) told me, “You were willing to fight for Israel but not for the United States” over simplifying. Fifty years ago—on June 8, 1967 to be specific—I arrived in Israel eager to fight in the Six Day War. Three months later I reluctantly returned to New York to continue college because Israel (then overwhelmed with volunteers) did not want me. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet granted me the right to be a dual citizen although despite outward reality I am one. After I returned to New York, my draft board acceded to my request for conscientious objector status. I would not participate in Vietnam. It was an evil war.

It is not, as Amelia Altalena intimates, that my loyalties are divided. My loyalties are clear. The clarity I am trying to define here are my loyalties to the Jewish people. Yes, I believe in God. Increasingly, I find my Jewishness includes prayer saying as I do Modeh Ani when I arise. My loyalty (God is incidental) as a Jew is defined by two distinctly secular ideologies; namely, Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language. Personified, my loyalties are to Theordor Herzl (who married, as I did, a non-Jew) and Eleizer ben Yehuda who assembled THE modern Hebrew dictionary and whose children were stoned by the Orthodox community because his children spoke Hebrew in the streets at a time when the community believed Hebrew belonged exclusively to the synagogue.


Yes, this polemic begins with the insistence we all learn Yiddish. However, it is based on the assumption that first we Jews must master Hebrew. While I will return to the 1959 Miami Beach sedar table, it is first necessary to introduce you to two larger than life men whose ability to master multiple languages I urge you to emulate. They are David Ben Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky. I like to think of them (at least initially) as frozen in time in 1918 serving together in the Jewish Legion—an early effort like the Zion Mules Corps that preceded it intended to prove that Jews (despite a reputation for being non-resisting victims of anti-Semitism) could fight.

Enter my parents at the end of the Second World War that followed the First. Miriam and Isadore met at a synagogue meeting intended to introduce the variety of groups that described themselves as Zionists. My mother was attracted to the socialist movement led by Ben Gurion. My father was a leader of the capitalist indeed militarist movement founded by Jabotinsky who died in 1940 and was led (when my parents met) by Jabotinsky’s disciple Menachem Begin. It may be true that opposites attract, but as Mother and Dad would make quite clear, not for long.

The one reality that united Mother and Father was Hebrew. When she was still pregnant with me, Mother graduated from two colleges, Hunter and a now-defunct Hebrew college in New York where she received a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew. When Mother was in her early Sixties, she received a doctorate in Hebrew letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Between degrees, Mother was a Hebrew school teacher and principal. Before Mother died from dementia, I spoke to her in Hebrew, the only language she still understood.

My father’s Hebrew was ideological. Isadore was a follower of Jabotinsky; indeed, so it says on his headstone. Isadore’s love for Jabotinsky and his movement was intense. When I was eight, my father began reading to me the Balfour Declaration providing over the years his special interpretation. Isadore was fond of repeating the story of Jabotinsky’s insistence the World Zionist Congress change the language of its proceedings from Yiddish to Hebrew. Not knowing Hebrew, Jabotinsky insisted the Congress learn the language storming out of the hall insisting he would not return until he was able to speak in Hebrew. In my childhood recollection of the story, it took Jabotinsky 15 minutes to learn Hebrew.

The temptation here is to linger—to tell stories of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the Walt Whitman of Modern Hebrew and Shmuel Yosef Agnon whose Chekov-like tales of Jews in exile caused him to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966—the only Hebrew author to win a Nobel. I am tempted also  to further describe the hatred Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky, two Zionist giants, felt for each other. The point here is language and language facility.

I am fond of the story of Ben Gurion, certainly a show off, practicing yoga in front of reporters on his kibbutz in the Negev. Among the languages Ben Gurion had mastered was ancient Greek. When he was alive, he had the reputation for being alone in the world at being able to recite by heart the plays of Sophocles. Indeed, he was fond of doing so while standing on his head and interrupting himself to answer reporters questions about politics.

Similarly, Jabotinsky’s language command included Italian, Russian, and English. Jabotinsky wrote a screen play on Samson and Delilah which Hollywood turned into a film starring Victor Mature. Of course, both Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky spoke Yiddish.

Who we are as Jews is tied strongly to our ability to move globally and speak a variety of languages. It is worth noting that in The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge’s popularization of current brain research, Dr. Doidge asserts that a key for the aging to avoid senility is to learn a new language. At 69 and a grandfather, my focus is on teaching diligently to our children. Jewish parents in the U.S., first have your children master Hebrew, then Yiddish, then aspire to learn more languages.

As my father got older he repented his decision not to teach me Yiddish. Isadore asked me to watch Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s story. “It is about my people,” he pleaded, “It describes the community where I was born.” Fiddler was trendy then and I am a snob. I hesitated. Shortly before my father entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in Miami, I finally watched Fiddler and told him so. “It is too late,” he said.

As it turns out, this is not a review of Columbia Professor Jeremy Dauber’s excellent biography of Shalom Aleichem. It is instead, a plea to preserve what we are losing of our culture as exemplified by Mose, Estelle, and Lee Rosenhouse at their sedar table in 1959. For my mother—who for much of my childhood was a single parent—Lee’s large extended family sitting around the table on Passover represented the home Mother longed for but never had.

Describing the joy the adults felt as they taunted the children by speaking Yiddish only begins to describe a Jewish world quickly disappearing. Everyone around the table is dead. Mose, head of household, represented the father and husband Mother never had. A politician and a prominent attorney, when Mose died, the Miami Herald featured his obituary on page one. Mose had come to Miami from Milton, a small town on the Florida panhandle where kosher meat was trucked in from Chicago and being Jewish meant speaking Yiddish.

Shalom Aleichem.

--Joel Solkoff

[Joel Solkoff is the author of The Politics of Food and Learning to Live Again, My Triumph Over Cancer.]