Cape Town (Feb. 5)
There is a Yiddish Literary Society in Johannesburg, which has brought up a new controversy in South Africa. The controversy is this: does South Africa require a Yiddish Secular School? The Yiddish Literary Society is so convinced of the necessity of such a school, that it has already opened one in Yeoville. The hours are from four to six for four days a week, and a club, working in conjunction with the school, will be open one day a week.
Now why should South African Jews be agitated about this movement? Briefly the answer may be summed up in the fact that there are various sections opposed to the idea from different standpoints. There are Zionists who are opposed to it because the Yiddish folk school provides primarily for the teaching of Yiddish and leaves the teaching of Hebrew only for the later stages. They fear that if they deliver their children into the hands of the Yiddishists, the love of Hebrew and the cult of Hebrew will die out here.
Many parents are against it, because they fear that the school will take up too much of the time of their children, who already are burdened with a compulsory five hours a day at school, followed by private lessons in dancing, elocution and music, and the necessity for practising for all of these.
Some educationists are opposed to it on the ground that the claim of the Yiddish Literary Society for the school as being secular is unfounded. They say that obviously the Society cannot intend to keep religious teaching outside the curriculum. As there already are in South Africa two official languages, English and Afrikaans, both of which must be mastered completely by all citizens of this country, the systematic teaching of a third or possibly a fourth language (for few would discard Hebrew in favor of Yiddish) must be viewed with deliberation.
One of the arguments used by the Society in favor of their school as against the old-fashioned Talmud Torahs is that the latter were inadequate, both in the direction of fostering a love and loyalty to the Jewish people, and of teaching a language.
Here the Yiddish Literary Society has a good deal of justification on its side. Hebrew is not properly taught in most Talmud Torahs here. The mere reciting of prayers in Hebrew by people who do not understand them is indeed of no value. When a foreign child comes to South Africa it generally knows no Afrikaans or English. Yet modern methods are such that within a short time the child can converse in its new language and can read such books as are suitable for its age. He does not require an English book or an Afrikaans book with the Yiddish version next to it. (Continued on Page 4)
Our children go to synagogue on Festival days. The girls come in with their prayer books, but generally they cannot find the place, nor are they able to understand the Hebrew of the Cantor. A child who has learned Afrikaans can go into the Dutch Reformed Church and follow the service. A child who has learned French can enter a room and understand the conversation. But a child who has learned Hebrew?
That there is still a good deal of sentimental attachment to Yiddish traditions and Yiddish customs, South African Jews would be the last to deny, for the majority of them are of Lithuanian origin and Yiddish-speaking. Though Yiddish is gradually dying out in each second and third generation, there is a constant influx of Lithuanian and Russian immigrants which keeps the sentiment alive. Thus a large number of South African Jews can and do sympathize with the spirit, if not with the methods, of the movement, and would be the last people to advocate the breaking down of any sentimental links, with any phase, however small, of our history.
But that sentiment, it is urged, is not universal. It attaches to only a small section of our people. It is homely; it is individual. It is a delicate thing, bound to be crushed in the weary grind of children tired out after a long school-day. It is essentially something that ought to be taught not in the school, but in the home.
So the controversy continues. Yiddish or Hebrew, sentiment or utility; clannishness or pride in the race which will win? In the meantime the school has opened. Whether it will prosper or not; whether it will be tolerated or actively opposed by the Talmud Torah and others, remains to be seen.