International Yiddish Conference & Retreat

Chabad Lubavitch: Yiddish in Antwerp, Belgium

Daniel Weinberger of Chabad Lubavitch in  Antwerp, Belgium submitted this for the Conference via Rebbetzin & Educational Director, Chabad Lubavitch of Lakeland, FL.   Chabad Lubavitch

Yiddish has always been the spoken language in Antwerp. There have been Jews here since the 4th century. Antwerp is in the part of Belgium where Flemish is spoken, but until after the second world war, “better people’, doctors etc. spoke French. Flemish/Dutch became the common language for everybody in this part of the country after WW2.

Flemish/Dutch is very close to German. After WW2 the Jews chose to speak French because they were traumatized by the Nazi mass murders (their name should be erased forever). But the religious Jews kept speaking Yiddish, the common language of a great part of the Jewish community until today. In recent years, more and more young Jewish youth have married people from England and America so English has become more prevalent in Jewish homes. But Yiddish has stayed the common language. It lives here and is nowhere near being shoved aside as a ‘museum’ or dead language.

Dutch/Flemish is like German and German is similar to Yiddish. This makes it easier for people to speak it. And German is one for the three languages of Belgium.

Yiddish is a combination of German and Lashon Kodesh (the holy language of Hebrew) which mixes together with the language of the land where Jews lived or live. So Russian Jews mixed Russian and Polish Jews merged Polish into their Yiddish, just like the Sfaradish Jews spoke (speak?) Ladino which is a potpourri of Spanish mixed with Lashon Kodesh and probably the Arabic language from where they came. In America, Yiddish is combined with English, just like here in Antwerp it’s blended with Flemish.

But what’s really funny because it’s the opposite is how much Yiddish snuck into Dutch. This came about because of the Jews from the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, who associated with the non-Jews in the period before WW2. (Dutch, the language of the Netherlands, is the same as Flemish.) Words like, nasjen (nashen), sores (tzores-troubles), gappen, (chap-stealing), smoes (shmooze), tof (tov), kapsones (ga’avsonus-pretentious) and many more, are Yiddish/ Lashon kodesh words which are used quite normally in Dutch. And even stranger, at the same time my daughter asked me to write about Yiddish in Antwerp, I realized that we have  a Reader’s Digest in Dutch about this topic!! In this WordPower article is also mentioned mazzel (mazal), bajes (from the Hebrew word bayis-house, refers to jail), gabber (chaver-friend), smeris, (shmira-watch, referring to agent), koter (from the Hebrew word koten-small one), schnorrer (begger), goj (goy, non-Jew), gozer (from chosen-groom, means a guy), heibel (from hevel, Hebrew for emptiness meaning rumors or fighting about nothingness), ponem (panim-face), and ballaboos (based on baal habyis-used to describe someone who is very gifted in something).

Children who go to cheder in Antwerp speak a Polish Yiddish with the accent on the “ee” sound. It’s not unusual here, for a woman for instance from France who sends her children to cheder, to become completely comfortable in Yiddish. Her children speak Yiddish to each other, the correspondence and home work is in Yiddish and Lashon kodesh, and she needs to be able to communicate with her childrens’ teachers. My children, both the boys and girls, went to schools where Yiddish was the main language. I’m happy that my married children who live in America speak only Yiddish with their children, and by doing it, help keep it alive.

Sadly, Hebrew is slowly seeping in, bringing with it the danger that Yiddish will lose it’s place. I think that in Israel Hebrew is spoken more than Yiddish. But here in Antwerp, Yiddish is still the fashionable choice.