In a few days, the miniseries Unorthodox It became one of the hits of the quarantine: the media and networks were full of comments about it, with some voices highlighting the repressive nature of Orthodox communities and celebrating the courage of Esty Shapiro (the character starring Shira Haas), while others express instead their amazement and even some suspicion at the critical way in which the new Netflix production represents the world of Hasidim. One of the main virtues of Unorthodox is just that: It shows us how little is known of Jewish life among non-Jews, and how little is known of Orthodox life among secularists.. But in addition, the miniseries achieved something that until recently seemed impossible: arousing curiosity about Yiddish, a language that until yesterday many considered dead and that others did not even distinguish from Hebrew. How Unorthodox, both ideas are very far from reality.
The history of Yiddish is the history of the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, those that settled in Central Europe during the centuries that followed the flight of the Jews from the land of Israel, and that during the late Middle Ages progressively moved towards Europe from the East. In those communities, life was bilingual. Hebrew held a place of prestige and spiritual superiority: it was the language of the ancient Israelites and of the sacred texts, and it was in that language that the Jews conducted sacred activities. Instead, the language of daily life and profane writing was a Germanic language that the Jews had adopted over centuries of European life; a language quite close in its vocabulary to modern German, but with different structures and with countless words preserved from Hebrew and others taken from the Slavic languages that dominated in Eastern Europe, such as Polish and Russian. That eclectic and dynamic language, arising from the fusion and combination of all these disparate elements, is Yiddish.
Over the years, the Yiddish language culture began to gain strength, especially after the introduction of the Hebrew printing press in Eastern Europe in the 16th century. Essays, storybooks, and historical treatises in Yiddish began to be printed in Hebrew characters throughout the Ashkenazi culture zone between the Netherlands and Ukraine. The emergence of Hasidic Orthodox religious movements in the 18th century, which began to attribute sacred value to texts written in Yiddish, contributed to increasing the prestige of the language. Instead, the advent of Haskalah, the enlightened Jewish movement led by figures like Moses Mendelssohn, came to repudiate this rise of Yiddish: for the most secular intellectuals of the time, the Jews had to abandon that strange and eclectic language, barely considered jargon, and instead adopt German or Russian as a social, political and cultural language, preserving Hebrew in the sacred world.
But the project of the maskilim failure. Towards the end of the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of Jews, especially on the western edges of the Russian Empire where they constituted a population of more than five million people, continued to recognize Yiddish as their mother tongue and hardly spoke a few words of Russian. It was him sign of a lack of integration into Russian life that was not explained to a lesser extent by the persistent anti-Semitism in the region and by the numerous legal restrictions that the Romanov empire maintained on the Jews. Thus, from the end of the 19th century, inspired by a less rationalist and more romantic imaginary, new generations of intellectuals and activists began to promote the use of Yiddish in the press, in literature, in the theater and in culture in general.
By the first decades of the twentieth century, Yiddish had gained unthinkable status, being the language of increasingly renowned writers as Sholem Aleichem Y I. L. Peretz and secular and socialist-oriented political movements like the Bund, which gained more and more weight after the 1905 revolution in Russia. A high point in this story was the Czernowitz conference of 1908, in which a group of Yiddish intellectuals, among others Peretz and the philosopher Chaim Zhitlowsky, proclaimed Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish nation, striving for the development of cultural and educational institutions in Yiddish. The founding of the YIVO institute in Vilnius in 1925 as an academy of language and culture aimed at preserving, studying and eventually regulating the use of Yiddish was another key point in the history of the language and its speakers.
All in all, tensions never ceased to surface with those like the essayist Ahad Ha’am, who believed that Hebrew should become the total language of the Jewish nation, or the socialist Zionist Ber Borochov, who defended the idea that Hebrew should be the Jewish language in Palestine and Yiddish, the official language in the diaspora.
The turning point, however, was the Jewish Holocaust, which the Yiddish designates to this day with the word khurbn and (in Spanish, “destruction”). The extermination of a significant part of Yiddish speakers by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, especially in Poland, where Jews represented almost 10% of the country’s population, as well as the dispersion of European Jews from of World War II, they had the dual effect of fragmenting the Yiddish-speaking population and reinforcing Israel’s legitimacy as a hegemonic political project for the Jewish nation.
Throughout the following decades, with the adoption of Hebrew as the official language of the State of Israel and with the progressive assimilation of the Jewish communities in the various countries that welcomed them after the Khurbn, and despite the efforts of many to maintain Live the intellectual and cultural life in Yiddish, the language however lost much of its strength and visibility. For many, the Yiddish thus became a relic, hardly the residue of a vanished world.
But appearances are deceiving. Even today, in the academic and university world, numerous departments dedicated to Jewish studies and culture in Eastern Europe continue to teach and transmit Yiddish. During the last years, even a certain hipster revival has appeared among the youngest, leading intellectuals and artists to get in touch with the language.. In addition, thanks to institutions such as the Yiddish Book Center in the United States and the Maison de la Culture Yiddish in Paris, as well as various newspapers and magazines such as the classic Forverts that is published in English and Yiddish, the language and culture of the Ashkenazi Jews continues to spread and continues to connect different generations of Jews, and even non-Jews.
Nevertheless, in most of these areas Yiddish retains a somewhat scholarly character. Most of these institutions use Yiddish in its standardized and literary form, which mixes features of the different dialects that traditionally existed in Eastern Europe. But there is a place where Yiddish is not used as an educated or academic language; a place where Yiddish continues to be the language of daily life and where, like all languages, it changes, evolves and transforms day by day: Orthodox Jewish communities, many of which continue to live in Yiddish as they did until 1945.
This is Esty Shapiro’s world in Unorthodox: a satmar community in Williamsburg where Yiddish is not only the current language, but also As everywhere else it is installed, it continues to change and borrow words and figures from the languages that surround it.. Thanks to the advice of Eli Rosen, the dialogues of Unorthodox They follow in detail the dialect of Yiddish that is cultivated in Williamsburg. The use of the language not only reflects the Hungarian roots of that community, but also the strong influence of English on the language of the Hasidim in the United States.
Esty, her family and friends speak with typical marks of Hungarian Yiddish, among other things putting i’s where the literary Yiddish would put u’s (something that is also done in other dialects), slightly altering some imperatives and coordinating reflexive verbs in a different way than the standard one. But also, they constantly use English words (“du bist geven azoy excited far dem!” = “You were so excited about it!”, Or “s’iz geven der greste mistake in mayn leybn” = “was the biggest mistake of my life ”) and build verbs by mixing English words and Yiddish endings, such as changen (“ change ”).
Among its many merits, the series offers us a window into a world in Yiddish as unknown as it is fascinating. In Unorthodox Yiddish is not a stony residue from the past, nor a noble object of academic study: on the contrary, it is the raw material on which the daily life of a community is built. And more importantly: like the language in general, the Yiddish of Unorthodox it is a field of experimentation, innovation, transformation and interaction with the world around it. That Yiddish that some wanted to kill and that others left to die, but which the Hasidim take care of keeping alive day by day, is the very proof that history does not stop even in the most closed communities and that no one can isolate themselves by full of its context.