An Orthodox Jew in a modern world

By Julia Elkouby

With help from Disa Witkowska and Viktoria Makai 

Over the course of the summer school I managed to have a long conversation with my friend Gidon Goldstein about Yiddish culture and Judaism and how he identifies with both.

How did you learn to speak Yiddish?

I didn’t speak it at home. In a way it was a bit like learning a foreign song. I couldn’t just go to shop and ask them for a pair of green shoes. In ultra-orthodox Jewish society an average person will chuck Yiddish words here and there just like slang in teenage English society; so Yiddish becomes a sort of Jewish slang. My second Talmud academy taught some things in Yiddish.

Why did they teach in Yiddish?

Before WW II, the Talmud academies were mainly in Europe and the main Jewish language was Yiddish. It was considered the soul of Judaism. It was a very onomatopoeic language. I think that after WW II all those institutions got destroyed and the remains of them were re-set up in places like Israel and America mainly.  For example, the second school I went to was set up by Eastern Europeans and they spoke Yiddish to keep our tradition. Especially the way we learn Talmud, they want to keep that as pure as possible to pass it on from generation to generation. They wanted to keep their traditions going and the language was a big part of that.

Where I lived in Israel, you could walk down the street and most people are in certain sects whose main language was Yiddish. These are people that look like they come out of history and live in the modern world but they don’t really live in the modern world but they hold onto that historical essence of Judaism. It also happens to be a beautiful language. I love speaking Yiddish. People are very jealous of me.

How come your friends don’t speak Yiddish then?

They didn’t learn it because it wasn’t taught rigidly. It depends on how orthodox your school is. The orthodox school I went to you wouldn’t learn Yiddish there as it’s an orthodox school that is more modernised. Near Newcastle in Gateshead there’s a little community there who are a very isolated, religious Jewish community. They have a couple of Talmud academies that a lot of people from England would go to. I came from a slightly more modern background, so I didn’t go there, I went to Israel to study instead. A lot of people my age use Yiddish as slang but only the really orthodox learnt Yiddish at school.

Have you met people your age that spoke Yiddish from such a young age?

In the second academy in Israel almost all of them came from the more religious school than mine and spoke Yiddish. The class I was in was a massive class, about 600-1000 people and if you want to ask a question it was very intimidating if you didn’t speak Yiddish. Interestingly, in Israel they barely speak Yiddish. It’s much more common for Europeans to speak Yiddish than Israeli. The Jewish European communities now, such as in Belgium and Vienna, all generally speak Yiddish.

I thought lots of people rejected Yiddish because it reminded them of what happened.

I imagine that they were trying to find an identity was different from orthodoxy and Jewish law. So to adopt the language of Yiddish that was associated with the old style orthodox Jew of pre-war was something that they didn’t want. They wanted a new modern Jewish. I don’t think that was so much to forget a war thing but I find that European Jews now, of which there are some large communities although they are fizzling out, are very multilingual, for example in Belgium they speak Flemish, French, English, Modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

They started a Yiddish theatre in America to bring back Yiddish culture. Is it something you are aware of in your community or not so much?

No, the only thing that does happen here, and you will probably see this if you will come to my wedding, at probably one to two in the morning. They have something called the mitzvah tantz where different people dance with the bride and they hold her with a type of belt (because they cannot touch a woman). Whilst this is happening a comedian tells jokes and sings. This tradition is from the Hassidim (Jews from Poland) as my fiancé is from that kind of background. The ones I have seen on YouTube; the girl looks absolutely horrified. But it is not what is going to happen on my wedding, but that is the only kind of Yiddish entertainment left at weddings.

Which sect are you part of?

I am a bit of everything.  It all depends on where in Europe you descend from, most people in England have a majority of grandparents who came from Europe, so for example I have three German grandparents and one from Czechoslovakia. So I am a bit of everything. Nowadays you’ve got some more modern orthodox and then people that will call themselves Haredi, which is ultra-orthodox in English. My family is not ultra-orthodox, but I would say I am more to that part. For example, I would only wear white shirts; That is not an obligation, but I would choose to do so. There is nothing wrong with not doing it. But that’s just what my kind of sect of Judaism does.

Why did you move away from what your family believed? And why do you think that is?

The truth is that the shift is not major. As an observant, it is pretty much the same, maybe minor extras that I had to take on. The institution which I thought was the best to study in, were run by and promoted a slightly more orthodox culture, and I liked the institute and I felt that, that kind of community and set of value system spoke to me more.

The difference between me and my family is quite minor, see the dress code is just an easy way of seeing it. It is hard to pin down, but I would say it is the clothes. It’s just because I thought that the ultra-orthodox community is the best way to keep Judaism alive.

Don’t you think being ultra-orthodox secludes you more from society?

Yeah I think it does, in a way I think it may be a positive thing because the world and the modern society allows everyone to be free and live however they want as long as it is not harmful to other people. But the modern values kind of run against a lot of Jewish values. So in order to keep Judaism strong, in the way it is supposed to be, there needs to be a bit of seclusion. On the other hand, there also needs to be a bit of integration because you cannot kind of live your own life, for example I am at university, many people would not go to university but I thought it was a necessary part of integration.

Do you think Yiddish should be described as almost like a dead language? As so few people speak it. What do you think makes a language in its own right?

You might be right. I think now there are so many varieties of it, every different sect of Judaism, which I spoke of before, will have a slightly different Yiddish which has adapted depending on how they pronounce Hebrew; their accent and where they initially came from.

Do you think it should be the Jewish language?

I think nowadays no. I personally think that it is great and I love speaking it, and more people should speak it for fun. And I think it is good that some communities are holding onto it because I think it is a good connection to historical, cultural Judaism, which is important in a religion and culture that is so big. To study the Talmud in a way that is very culturally Jewish enhances the studying, and it complements the culture. The Jewish culture now, even the orthodox, is fairly highly integrated into non-Jewish culture; So it does not make sense anymore for it to be a language, because we need to be part of the world as well. So that way English is our main language, but I just think it would be great if people learned it. I think it would be Geshmuk (great in Yiddish).

Many young people nowadays reject their Jewish heritage if they live somewhere else, how true do you think it is, and why do you think it should not happen?

The main answer is because the way I see it Judaism for a Jew is an obligation, for which as a religious person is accounted for in afterlife. There is the belief is that if a Jew lives a good life, then he gets eternal reward for it and we’re kind of promised that the reward that we get is better than any pleasure in this world.

But there is also a cultural aspect, that I think that Judaism is a beautiful culture, and our society is a beautiful society. Every society has its problems and I am sure there are problems in Jewish culture, but I think by and large our community functions extremely well and it is a shame for someone to reject it when they were born into it.

What would you say if someone is born into a religion that does not speak to them?

It is hard for me to relate to that but I can understand why someone would reject it, because it is not easy as there are lots of rules. I personally understand rationally why people convert from Judaism, but emotionally I do not relate to it; just because if I was in a happy community, my only reason to reject Judaism would be to shake off any accountability and authority, but I have never had a feeling of wanting to find another religion.

I am sure when I was younger I had feelings like I did not want to have this type of responsibility; but as I got older, I adapted to it, and found that this is the way I want to live my life. If people do find that then I could never argue with them that they are wrong, because the culture you prefer individually is obviously subjective.

We are going back to the first point where Judaism sees following the religion as an obligation. It also very much depends on the way the person was born into it; if the person was born into a non-orthodox society, family, etc., then their accountability level is much lower.  One does not expect someone to observe something that they were not educated to; so if someone was born orthodox and they reject it, I would say there is more accountability there. Therefore, I do not think rejecting is right, but I definitely understand it as although I love Judaism, not everyone feels that way. I understand people, the world is very tempting, other cultures are tempting, and we can find meaning in them as well. I could never judge anyone, but I think that it is sad and would like to see it happen less.

Do you find that people treat you differently because of the religion you follow? Have people made comments about it?

Yes, and no. I definitely think anti-Semitism is out there, there has always been a few people here and there shouting in the streets. When I was in school still, I took a group of six year olds to central London as a group leader. One of the things they had to do was get a petition signed and we had to get as many signatures as possible, and when I saw the petition sheets afterwards there were tons of anti-Semitic stuff written on it.

Sometimes a car drives past and they shout like ‘effing Jew’. I think it is basically an ethnic minority which like others come under a lot of abuse. And that is kind of the sad reality of the world.

In general I do not think I felt at university any outright anti-Semitism. I think me in particular, I look very Jewish in the way I dress, but I think I am too self-conscious about it. At the beginning of university, I was very self-conscious about it, because for the last five years I was entrenched in a completely orthodox Jewish environment. So it was a bit of a change for me to be the only Jew around, and I felt a bit self-conscious about it, but people are much more open than I give them credit for. I do not really know how they feel about it; I think they see Orthodox Judaism as different, which we are and that is okay as long as they don’t see it as bad.