During his October visit to Israel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Australia and New Zealand’s pivotal WWI Battle for Beersheba, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly connected to the Jewish State by using Yiddish and Hebrew in his arrival speech.
Arriving in Israel on October 31, Turnbull came to celebrate the momentous October 31, 1917 battle which paved the way for the end of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land. Turnbull is the first serving Australian prime minister to visit Israel since John Howard in 2000.
Upon his arrival, Turnbull said, “It is a long schlep [from Australia to Israel], but let me say the welcome here…it feels like family, I do feel that we are part of the same mishpacha.”
“Schlep” is a Yiddish word meaning a difficult journey, and “mishpacha” is Hebrew for “family”.
Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, a company which teaches Hebrew language and Biblical studies online, noted to Breaking Israel News that Turnbull’s use of Yiddish and Hebrew has been newsworthy for years.
He has even hinted at his own Jewish roots, though Segal pointed out that “while his use of Hebrew and Yiddish words forms a quick bond to the Jewish people, we cannot assume that he is Jewish based on this.”
In a 2013 interview with the Australian Jewish News, Turnbull stated that he grew up among a large Jewish community in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“There is no doubt that the strong traditions of family and the whole heimishe atmosphere of the Jewish community, which I’m sure some people don’t like, for me – as someone who is a good friend, but not part of it – I find very admirable,” he said.
“Heimishe” is Yiddish for “in the group, homey, and friendly”.
In 2015, Turnbull used Hebrew and Yiddish during a congratulatory speech to the Australian Jewish News. “As you all know, it’s a standard [Jewish] blessing when somebody celebrates a birthday … to say ‘Biz hundert un tsvantsik,’ which means, for those whose Yiddish is not up to scratch, ‘May you live to 120’,” he said.
“My birthday message to the Jewish News today is ‘Biz zvai hundert un fufzik – so that’s 250 years. Kol Hakavod (good job) on this great achievement and I look forward to many, many more issues of the Australian Jewish News.”
Australia’s Central Synagogue Rabbi Levi Wolff told Haaretz concerning Turnbull, “He really does have an understanding and knowledge of Judaism that probably the average congregant doesn’t have. In my shul [house of worship], he’s referred to as Moishe Turnbull”, ‘Moishe’ being the Yiddish name of Moses.
During several interviews, Turnbull, who is a practicing Catholic, has stated that his mother often said that she was Jewish. By Jewish law, a person is considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know,” he said to the Wentworth Courier. “She wasn’t always the most reliable source of information, I’m afraid. And she may not have been sure herself.”
Hebrew is a Semitic Biblical language and Yiddish is of German origin. Yet both languages use the Hebrew alphabet in writing. Yiddish is a dialect, most likely developed in the 18th century, which includes words from the many European countries where Jews lived following their exiles as opposed to Hebrew, which is called “lashon HaKodesh”, “holy tongue”, as it is derived from the Bible.
While Jews all over the world speak Hebrew and Yiddish, many Hebrew and Yiddish words have become common in English vernacular.
For example, “chutzpah”, which means “extreme self-confidence”, as well as “kvetch”, which means “complain” are found in Webster’s Dictionary.
“Megillah” is a Hebrew word which means “scroll” and implies a long story. English speakers regularly use this as in, “I heard the whole megillah.”
“Mazel Tov” is Hebrew for “good luck” and is commonly used by all denominations.
Turnbull’s last visit to Israel was in 2005. He is known as a true friend of the country, admiring its high-tech innovation, which he’s dubbed ‘Silicon Wadi.’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held a working meeting with Turnbull upon his arrival, stated that Turnbull’s visit for only a day and his coming “halfway around the world… signifies that friendship.” Netanyahu also noted that the centennial celebration, with Turnbull’s participation, highlights “the extraordinary friendship between Israel and Australia.”
To learn more about the Hebrew language, please visit here.
This article was written in cooperation with The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies.