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.