The Boere Jode – Afrikaner Jews

Boere Jode are Jews who immigrated to South Africa and settled in Afrikaans speaking areas. At the beginning of the 19th century, small numbers of European (Ashkenazi) Jews arrived in South Africa from Europe. They founded the first Hebrew congregation in 1841. Between 1900 and 1930, Jews began to arrive in large numbers from Lithuania and Latvia (via Britain). Many of them arrived with nothing more than experience and seykhl (brains – “kh” pronounced like the guttural “ch”).

Most of the Jewish immigrants knew no English. Many were to learn Afrikaans before they learnt English. Others learnt Afrikaans only. The latter became known as the Boere Jode (Afrikaner Jews). Yiddish remained the language of the home. In my family, English was the children’s first language, and my parents second language. Yiddish was the language my mother and father spoke to each other. They spoke to us in broken English; or was it broken Yiddish? Izzy also knew some Russian but there were no other (Bela)Russians in the house to verify how much Russian he knew.

Yiddish is a complete language and one of a family of Western Germanic languages such as English, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Yiddish is closer to Afrikaans than English, and so, Jewish immigrants to Afrikaner regions of South Africa felt an affinity to Afrikaans and so learned the new language quickly.

The term “Yiddish” derives from the German word for Jewish” jüdisch. Yiddish was the mame loshn (mother tongue) of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe. (The Yiddish word loshn is derived from the Hebrew lashon “tongue”). Mame loshn is not to be confused with my favourite: mama’s lokshin (noodles).

Yiddish began to come into its own around the 12th century after French and Italian Jews migrated to the Rhine valley. With the migration of Jews from Slavic countries in the Middle Ages, Slavic elements were added to the mix of Hebrew, Jewish French, Jewish Italian and a variety of German dialects. Yiddish reached a peak of 11 million speakers by World War I. After WWI, it began to decline. Then came the Holocaust of WWII and the disappearance of a vast swathe of Yiddish speakers. Today, about one million Jews across the world speak Yiddish.

There are modest attempts to revive Yiddish; for example, in America. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has been more successful in the Yiddish revival. Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel use Yiddish, not Hebrew, as their language of communication. They reserve Hebrew for worship and religious studies. The ultra-orthodox Jew considers Modern Hebrew to be a corruption of the pure language of the Bible. Not only does the ultra-orthodox Jew refuse to speak Modern Hebrew, he regards those who do speak it as apostates. Israelis, in contrast, regard Yiddish as primitive; but then most modern Israelis regard much of the Torah in the same light.

The ultra-orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists. They’re not opposed to living in Israel – otherwise they wouldn’t be living there. What they do object to is Jewish political control of Israel, or Jewish control over any nation. They base this belief on the Bible, which teaches that only when the Messiah comes will the land of Israel come once again under Jewish control.

Most of the Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel – more than a million in the last decade – learn Hebrew and then English as their third language. The vast majority of these Russians are secular Jews who have no background in Judaism and thus know no Yiddish. The ultra-orthodox Russian immigrants, of course, already know Yiddish before they emigrate to Israel.

The basic grammar of Yiddish is Middle High German. The vocabulary is a mixture of Hebrew, German and Slavic elements. Yiddish vocabulary and idiom varied across classes where the more educated classes used more High German words than the original Middle-German of the Middle Ages.

Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew words are pronounced as in Biblical Hebrew, and not as in Modern Hebrew. For example, Modern Hebrew talit (prayer shawl) is pronounced talis in Yiddish, which is the ancient (biblical) Hebrew pronunciation. Unlike the modern Jew, a Yiddish speaker uses the original pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible. Here is another example: a modern Jew says “Yisrael” (Israel), while a Yiddish Jew says “Yisroel”.

The oldest known printed Yiddish sentence is a blessing found in a prayer book in Worms, Germany in 1272 , which, like all Yiddish was written in the Hebrew alphabet:

gut tak im betag wer dis makhazor in bes hakneses trag
“(may) a good day come to him who carries this prayer book into the synagogue.”

Here is the literal English translation: (may) good day to him come who this prayer book into the synagogue carries.”

I said earlier that Jewish immigrants didn’t find Afrikaans difficult. One of the reasons for this was because the word order and much of the vocabulary are similar in Yiddish and Afrikaans. The above 12th century Yiddish sentence illustrates this point well. Here is the literal English translation of the Yiddish sentence above followed by the Afrikaans translation in italics:

“(may) a good day to him come

(mag ‘n) gooie dag aan hom kom

who this prayer book into the synagogue brings.

Wie die gebedeboek in die synagoge bring.

See the story of Colonel (Res) David Teperson, one of South Africa’s more lustrous Boere Jode.

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14 thoughts on “The Boere Jode – Afrikaner Jews

  1. Oulike artikel-nie voorheen aan die Yiddish en Afrikaans’e angle gedink nie-stel baie belang in die onderwerp van Boere-Joodse mense.

    Translation added by onedaringjew:

    Nice article – never thought about the Yiddish-Afrikaans angle before. I’m very interested in the Boere (Afrikaaner)-Jewish connection.

    • If you contact the Jewish Board of Deputies library in Johannesburg, they will be able to refer you to books on the history of Jewish communities of country towns in South Africa. When I was at the JBD I saw a few monographs on the topic.

      • Shalom thank you for the translation and reply. Last year spent time in the Graaf-Reinett area with an Israeli friend of mine.There is so much that happened in the Platteland with the arrival of Jewish people over time that as an Afrikaner it becomes clear God blessed our country thru this in a way that for me is special or “oulik” (the word nice doesn’t quite translate oulik for me: maybe comforting-warm-nice with a bit of French attitude added) What I love is to discover-jump to Italy and there is a city on a hill called Pitigliano-the little Jerusalem…visited last year and the same there-the town and surrounding area was blessed with life because of the Jewish population-and yes it does feel a bit like Jerusalem-Tikva mixed with Dolce Vita-The Main Jewish street was called Sugar street in Italian-so merci for the bloq was a welcome surprise on this chilly winter morning!

        • I visited Graaff Reinet for first the time a month ago. It’s frozen in time, as you know. I am very interested in Andrew Murray’s family roots there. The Murray’s “pastorie” house was wonderful. Do you have info on the Jews in the Graaff Reinet area?

          • Hallo again
            We stayed at a B*B who had a tiny little book on the subject funded by the Rupert trust.Your Springbok link showed the Rabbi who I remembered where mentioned in the little book. That is why I am interested to see if anyone has compiled all these stories of the Karoo in a book yet. Did you go to Willowmore?There is a beautiful white synagoge on a side street…in Graaf-R its a modern one close to the Bowls Club and somehow I had hoped it would look like the one in Willowmore. Found the one in Willowmore not looking. If I find a copy of the little book
            I will post the detail. The interesting aspect of the Murray house to me was the NG Kerk’s stay after the familie’s and that no plants really grow in the garden similar to Freud’s home (My Israeli friends input) The Murray home-Pastorie- was wonderful but left me sad as much was done afterwards in the Name of GOD by my people to others that was not the way of Life at all.

            • If you had gone down the back steps of the pastorie and turned left through the arch, the big garden is there. Who are the “others” in your last sentence?

              • Yes I saw the big garden-the garden I refer to is as you go out directly behind.The journey was a discovery of what is hidden behind the obvious and the not so. If one is sad because of understanding more of the divisions that came into being because of various reasons it just is.

                • The nature of God is Vision, the nature of man is division. The Murrays were in tune with the Vision; many of those who sat in their pews (and their children) were not. It’s natural. Human nature is sad, as you say.

      • good morning ! I came across your conversation this morning totally by accident.i grew up as a child in willowmore and still remember the Musickhant’s ,an influential Jewish family.Julius ,the father and his son,Jack could speak Afrikaans.They had a shop selling everything from a needle to an anchor.

  2. It is ridiculous and totally inaccurate to say that Yiddish grammar as we know it is Middle High German. Yiddish grammar has evolved in an original way for more than a thousand years and has been Slavicized to a great extent. Biblical Hebrew (loshn-keydesh) has also influenced Yiddish grammar, syntax and word formation. Modern Yiddish pronunciation and word order are light-years away from Middle High German.

    • I wrote:

      “Yiddish began to come into its own around the 12th century after French and Italian Jews migrated to the Rhine valley. With the migration of Jews from Slavic countries in the Middle Ages, Slavic elements were added to the mix of Hebrew, Jewish French, Jewish Italian and a variety of German dialects.”

      Where have I purportedly slipped up in that description?

  3. The slavicization of (Eastern-European) Yiddish took place in the Eastern-European countries where Polish, Ukrainian and Belorussian were spoken. Several words also reflect Czech influence. Quite a few vocabulary items illustrate older variants of Polish. In the Western Yiddish of Germany and Alsace, Slavic influence was minimal (limited to a few words). Jews speaking Western Yiddish migrated from German-dialect territory to Eastern Europe (mainly Poland, the Baltic countries, Belorussia, Ukraine, Rumania) in three waves. There they came in contact with Slavic-speaking Jews. Richard Zuckerman

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