Online Lecture on ‘Jewish Diasporism and the Yiddish Culture Movement’ by Isabel Frey

The political ideology of “Jewish diasporism”, as an intellectual tradition and a contemporary social movement, takes the form of a reclamation of diasporic cultural heritage, against the backdrop of Zionism’s “negation of exile” and the systematic erosion of diasporic Jewish cultures through the homogenization of Jewish national identity in Israel. One case of contemporary diasporism is the post-war Yiddish revival movement, which sought to revitalize secular Yiddish culture after the Holocaust and the assimilation of Ashkenazi Jews in North America and Israel. Especially today, Yiddish language, music and culture is witnessing a revival among younger generations of the diaspora, which has been characterized as “postvernacular” – a linguistic mode in which the secondary, symbolic meaning of a language is privileged over its primary usage as a vernacular language (Shandler, 2013). In this mode, art, poetry, instrumental music and song acquire a particular importance to express diasporic Jewish cultural identity. Moreover, the Yiddish revival movement should be considered in the larger context of the complex political dynamics of the Jewish diaspora: While the Yiddish culture movement is not explicitly driven by an opposition to Zionism, Yiddish language and culture has often taken on the function of the alter-ego to Zionist Jewish identity and the linguistic hegemony of modern Hebrew.

In her lecture, Isabel Frey investigated the links between Jewish diasporism and the contemporary Yiddish culture movement, and gave an overview of the academic debate over Jewish diasporism, as well as the use of the term in Jewish media and in social movements. She then examined the history of the Yiddish language and music revival, mapped contemporary “Yiddishland“, and ended with some open questions concerning the relationship between Israel and the diaspora, as well as the past and the future of Yiddish in Israel.

Isabel Frey is a PhD candidate in the structured doctoral program “Music matters”, and a Yiddish singer and cultural activist. She studied social sciences at Amsterdam University College and Medical Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. After returning to her hometown of Vienna, she began performing Yiddish revolutionary songs both in concerts and at political protests, continuing the tradition of Jewish activism for social justice.
Frey regularly writes essays on issues of Jewish identity and Yiddish music. In her research project, she combines her passion for Yiddish music with her background in new-materialist and material-semiotic theory and methodology.
The Willy Brandt Center is looking forward to welcome Isabel Frey for a series of concerts of Revolutionary Yiddish Music in 2021.