Sunday, April 06, 2014

"The Book Thief" distorts Yiddish

Last weekend I finally watched the movie "The Book Thief" and was deeply dismayed. Frankly, it was a weak film, and as for a comparison to the book, well, I've only just skimmed the novel, which seems to be -- as is usually the case -- considerably better.

I won't repeat the plot here, as there are so many synopses available online, and the film has many weaknesses, but it was one scene in particular that disturbed me. Max Vandenberg, the character who is sheltered by Liesel's protectors, 'mama' and 'papa', hands Liesel a gift of a book. It's his copy of "Mein Kampf" but each page of text has been carefully painted in white, so he is in fact offering Liesel a newly-minted (of sorts) blank notebook in which she's encouraged (by Max) to write down her own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It's a diary.

But Max, who has struck up a friendship with the young protagonist of the movie, has inscribed something on the first page of this diary, which bears the inscription in Hebrew letters "kis-vee" -- which translates as write." As blogger Margaret Perry writes:

"Max gives Liesel a diary for Christmas, in which he writes the Hebrew script for "write." He explains that words are the secret to life." 

So what's wrong with this picture? I contend that it's highly unlikely that Max, a German-Jew sheltered from Germany's post-Kristalnacht era onward, would have used a Hebrew word at all. It's far more likely that a young Jew in Germany during the 1930s and 40s would have used "shreib" the Yiddish word for "write."The word "shreib" is close to the German word for 'write'; virtually identical, in fact.

My problem with this is that it is a wholesale rewriting of history -- and one that uses this film as a political educational tool of sorts. It becomes less of a film and more of a vehicle of indoctrination.

The political state of Israel was established in 1948 -- three years after the end of World War II -- and although Hebrew was used by Jews who established themselves in Palestine in the period between the 1880s and the 1920s, it is a rewrite of history to imagine that all but a few ardent Zionists, likely already in Palestine by this time, would have used a Hebrew word in everyday usage. There would have been some Zionists 'stuck' in Germany, perhaps, but Max's inscription belies belief. In short, Max would have used the Yiddish, not the Hebrew, form.

I can't confirm this, but I suspect that somebody lobbied the filmmakers of "The Book Thief" and pressed the point that this scene -- which is not featured in the book -- (1) must be included; and/or (2) must feature the historically inaccurate usage of a modern Hebrew, not Yiddish, inscription.

As authors like Dovid Katz, and Shlomo Sand tell us, it wasn't Nazis who killed off the Yiddish language; it was murdered by pro-Zionist Jews who wanted to establish a connection to the land of Palestine, in order to make a case for the establishment of a Jewish state. This would have been considered blasphemous, as Yakov Rabkin, has recounted numerous times (although most thoroughly in his book "A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism").

In the book Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi writes: "The Hebrew language has played a crucial role in creating an Israeli identity. The first generation of natives, in the 1880s, was educated in Hebrew as a matter of course. The new identity of Zionists Jews in Palestine was first proclaimed around 1900, and it was labelled Hebrew. … The terms ‘Hebrew’, which appears in the Bible, was never used by Diaspora Jews for labeling themselves. It designed the separate identity for Palestine Jews and appeared in thousands of names and expressions. When Jews in Palestine demonstrated against the British, the cry was always for a ‘Hebrew state’ (Beit-Hallahmi, 1992: 126)."

I contend that the Yiddish language did not – as is widely believed – simply perish in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, but was in fact systematically and deliberately eliminated via the use of state regulatory procedures, intimidation and acts of gang violence against publishers, printers, journalists, writers, academics and theatre operators, among others. I contend that the proponents of 19th century Zionism and their present-day successors were and remain ideologically wedded to the path to establishing and maintaining a national-Jewish state that bears less resemblance to historical Judaism than one would assume. 

The modern Zionist State – Israel – was established at the expense of those peoples who occupied the territory of British Mandate Palestine, as well as key cultural and political elements of Judaism, including the Yiddish language.

According to both Rabkin (2006) and Beit Hallahemi (1992), this post-Holocaust nationalist fervor was aimed at the creation of a vastly different Jew; one which could not be rejected by ‘other’ nations, and one in which the Jew would no longer be viewed as meekly accepting their fate.[1] In their attempt to remake the supposedly-meek Jew, Zionist ideology (as characterized by Jabotinsky, below) was aimed at remaking a stronger, more manual-labour-capable, less-bookish, more nationalistic and more militaristic Jew; a Jew who was capable of fending off enemies with force, for the purpose of retaining a piece of territory.

In other words, a Jew who would be aggressive, militaristic, ruthless -- and more like the German troops who fought for the National Socialists than we might imagine. Looking at the Israeli Defense Force of today, it's not hard to imagine Jabotinsky's vision at all. 

[1] For ample evidence to demonstrate that Jews were over-characterized as meek, see Beit-Hallahemi (1992); Atzman (2011); Finkelstein (2005); or Rabkin (2006). This myth was aimed at fostering support for the State of Israel.