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April 15, 2013 8:24 am

Interview with Prof. Chava Turniansky, 2013 Israel Prize Winner (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Anav Silverman / Tazpit News Agency

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Hebrew University Professor Chava Turniansky, winner of the 2013 Israel Prize, in her study. Photo Credit: Anav Silverman, Tazpit News Agency.

It is often overlooked that Yiddish, the language spoken by millions of Ashkenazi Jews for nearly 1,000 years across Europe, played an important role in the formation of Israeli culture.

For Professor Chava Turniansky from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, that point is very clear. The 75-year-old professor will be awarded the prestigious 2013 Israel Prize tomorrow, on Israel’s Independence Day for her lifelong research on the history of Yiddish and literature among Ashkenazi Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

“Yiddish and all that the language entails – literature, theater, song, and culture – it’s all part of our identity. We must learn about our past in order to understand our present,” explains Turniansky in an interview with Tazpit News Agency.  “Only then can we can properly address our future,” she believes.

“Hebrew has always had an influence on Yiddish and today Yiddish lives on with modern Hebrew. All the great writers, Y.L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sfarim, Bialik, and even Agnon in his early years produced both Hebrew and Yiddish literature.”

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“Many Yiddish words have integrated into Hebrew – for example, lefargen (to treat favorably), tachles (purpose, aim), nu (to hurry up) not to mention chutzpah, which is universally known,” adds the professor, who has been affiliated with Hebrew University’s Department of Yiddish for the past 50 years.

Turniansky herself was born and raised in Mexico in a household that spoke only Yiddish. “My parents refused to answer me if I spoke in Spanish,” she said. “For many Jewish families who immigrated from Eastern Europe to Mexico, speaking Yiddish was their way of maintaining European Jewish culture and identity.”

As she sits in her Jerusalem apartment, which is full of congratulatory flower bouquets, Chava says that winning the Israel Prize, the state’s highest award of honor presented each year to no more than 15 individuals, is unbelievable. “It’s like a dream that I never dared dream and now it’s happened.”

In 1957, Turniansky made aliyah to Israel but couldn’t find work as an elementary school teacher. She subsequently went back to university and found herself in Yiddish studies. “I’d always loved the language but I never imagined that someday I would research it,” she says, having worked her way to a PhD in Yiddish literature. “So I went back to university and haven’t moved on since,” she says with a smile.

But the road to Yiddish studies wasn’t an easy one.

When Turniansky came to Israel, she found herself in the middle of a battle – a battle against the Yiddish language and any other language that wasn’t Hebrew. It was only in 1962 that Hebrew University finally opened its Department of Yiddish, following earlier unsuccessful attempts to do so.

“There were protests against Hebrew University’s decision to open the Yiddish department,” says Turniansky. “Yiddish was considered the language of galut [Diaspora], and Hebrew was the pure form of verbal expression – there were posters throughout the university saying it was shameful to open such a department and that Yiddish was only jargon.”

In addition, in its early years, it was illegal to perform theatrical plays in Yiddish in Israel, with Israeli actors and actresses allowed to perform exclusively in Hebrew. The state discouraged immigrants from speaking their native languages and called only for spoken Hebrew, according to Turiansky.

“People were shocked when I told them I was studying Yiddish in university. They asked, why would you do that?”

“Today, the situation is very different. Yiddish is a language that is warmly embraced by scholars and students alike.”

While Yiddish lives on within the Haredi communities as the primary language spoken in ultra-Orthodox populations in New York and parts of Israel, Turiansky says that among some secular families, Yiddish has made a comeback as well.

“I’ve taught thousands of students, many of whom chose to study Yiddish in order to understand their roots. Some of these students – maybe 20 or more – have decided to speak only Yiddish with their children,” she says. “Those former students themselves speak Yiddish as if they were born in a Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe.”

There are many other Jewish languages in addition to Yiddish, which are still spoken albeit by fewer people, says the professor. She cites, Mughrabi, the language spoken by Jews from North Africa, Ladino by Jews of Spanish descent, different dialects of Jewish Arabic from Syria to Yemen as well as Judeo Iranian.

“But one of the greatest miracles of the Zionist movement is the living Hebrew language,” emphasizes Turiansky. “It didn’t mean however that we needed to forget our past.”

“Today Yiddish has the respect that it always deserved. It is a language rich in humor, depth and expression,” she continues.

“The word mensch is a good indicator of what kind of language Yiddish is. A mensch is not just a word for man, it means a good man who contributes to society and loves his people. A mensch is someone that you are proud to be in his presence. As Jews that is what we must aspire to be no matter what period in history we are living in,” concludes the professor.

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