There’s a common knowledge that Herdi (religious) Jews refuse to speak Hebrew. That they feel that Hebrew language is reserved for Torah, for G-d. To use Hebrew for everyday things like cooking and TV and toilet fowls that language, takes out of the realm of Holy (Kadosh) and brings it down to the un-pure earth. Its a beautiful thing if you think about it, a language just for G-d, just for torah.
I met one of these Herdi Jews, in Union City, New Jersey. He was the most passionate one at the synagogue and he took me home for Shabbat Dinner on a cold winter day. Yehiel speaks choppy English. He is my age but already a grand father. And ten years later, he still calls me once a year and we catch up on the family and have a secular to religious Jew discussions. Every time I learn something about him and he learns something about the secular world. This time I thought I would give him a pleasant surprise about the Yiddish society that teaches people to speak Yiddish. I should have known that the opposite would be the case. “Why resurrect a language and focus on Yiddish when you can focus on Torah instead? What will you find in Yiddish that will make you closer to god?”
I was shocked. So I asked: “But don’t you want your kids to speak Yiddish?”
“Yes, but only because that tells me that they find their forefathers important and will study Torah because that was important to the forefathers. But your kids should speak English or Russian, not focus on learning Yiddish for Yiddish sake.”
He went on to say how Yiddish was spoken since the second temple, in Israel and around the world. What he was talking was Yid-ish, or the direct translation of Yiddish, which is the “language of Yids”. A language Jews created as diaspora by necessity, blending the language of their invaders or captors to add the words to Hebrew which didn’t exist while retaining the language of Hebrew just for religion.
It dawned on me, (and he agreed) that this made Jews unique and also what kept us as Jews for 2000 years. This one language that we retained for God meant that it didn’t change. Yiddish, Ladino, Karoite, Amharic, all changed and evolved as languages do, but the Jews who learned Hebrew didn’t. Yehiel went on to tell me how Rashi made all his commentary in French in order to reserve Hebrew for God.
Then I thought of the refusal by Herdi to speak modern Hebrew. I thought about it, how learning modern Hebrew brought me closer to God by making me understand Hebrew of the book. It also made me remember how different the two are. In fact, modern Hebrew was invented by Elizer Ben Yahuda who was reverse engineering tower of Babel. All these people came back top the tower that is Israel, speaking all these languages, and to build the country, they would need to speak one language.
So Elizer like Ezra the scribe of Babylon, took Hebrew as the base and added words from Arabic and Russian and Polish and English and modified the grammar. He created a whole new language, engineered a new type of Yid-ish, to the point that Hebrew of the torah, the one spoken by Abraham and Moses was similar but also different from the Hebrew of Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. The two Hebrews would remain separate. One would evolve and change with the Jews of Israel and diaspora. While the Hebrew of the Torah would continue to stay fixed.
This was the miracle of the two Hebrews, the ability of Jews to retain the old and create the new impressed both of us, we both came away from the discussion with more respect and understanding for the religion and the secular Jewish people. We both see a need for learning Yiddish, but not by me, but by scholars and historians to understand the Ashkenazi Jews of past. Same for Ladino and other Jewish languages. As for me, Hebrew of the Torah and the new Yiddish of Israel would be enough. The Yiddish I can enjoy translated to English, Russian and maybe even French.