The Wheels of Jewish Language in the New Netflix Show "Rough Diamonds"

One of the show’s main pleasures has to do with which of the four languages spoken by its main characters—Yiddish, Flemish, French, and English—they use with whom.

May 10 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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After Israeli television’s Shtisel and Netflix’s Unorthodox, we now have, already rising in the rating charts, another Netflix production, Rough Diamonds. The vogue of highly professional, well-acted and -directed films about ḥaredi Jews and their communities continues. What is it about the Ḥaredim that so fascinates everyone? The exoticism, intriguing to some, off-putting to others, of their dress and manners? The suspicion that perhaps, beneath the black hats, long jackets, yarmulkes, shtreimels, and sheitls, lies a fund of collective wisdom that it behooves us to know more about? The hope that, on the contrary, this surmise will turn out to be false, so that anti-ḥaredi prejudices can be justified? Or is it just the question of whether people whose looks, speech, and behavior make them seem so different really are so different or are at bottom very much like the rest of us?

Rough Diamonds, a newly premiered, eight-part Israeli-Belgian co-production set in Antwerp, for centuries a center of diamond trading and polishing in which Jews have always played a major role, comes down on the “very much like the rest of us” side of things. Its main protagonists, the Wolfsons, a family of diamond dealers trapped in a melodramatic but convincingly portrayed cycle of events that spins their lives out of control, are driven by the same kind of needs, ambitions, hopes, and fears that motivate most of us. Like us, they live the conflict between the demands of self-interest and the duties of loyalty and love. And like us, they are not always guided in the decisions they make by the values they profess to believe in.

Rough Diamonds is about decisions, mostly bad ones, and about how, once made, they have irrevocable consequences. Yet one of the pleasures of watching it has to do with decisions that are less consequential and in a way not even decisions, since they are made continually and unconsciously on a daily basis: the choice of which of the four languages spoken by the show’s main characters—Yiddish, Flemish, French, and English—they use with whom. This linguistic interplay, which forms no small part of the show’s intricacy, is unfortunately lost to some American viewers, who, I hear, have to watch Rough Diamonds in a version dubbed in English. (I myself saw it in an Israeli version with the original voices and Hebrew subtitles.) If you are one of these viewers, this column may help you to appreciate what you have missed.

Yiddish is the “official” language of Antwerp’s ḥasidic community to which the Wolfsons belong, a badge of distinctiveness that sets it apart from its surroundings no less than do its religious practices and dress codes. Although the Wolfsons do not identifiably belong to any one of Antwerp’s many ḥasidic groups, such as the Belzer Ḥasidim, the Satmar Ḥasidim, the Klausenberg Ḥasidim, and so on, their Yiddish is of the “Hungarian” or Transcarpathian variety that is predominant in today’s ḥasidic world. Ezra and Sarah Wolfson, the family’s elderly father and mother, speak it exclusively between themselves and with their children, and use Flemish, the Dutch spoken in Antwerp and northern Belgium, only when conversing with outsiders. (I should mention in this respect that while I understood an occasional Flemish word or phrase in Rough Diamonds, and sometimes a whole sentence with the help of the subtitles, I couldn’t tell whether Ezra and Sarah spoke the language with a Yiddish accent—that is, whether we are supposed to understand that they were born and/or raised in Antwerp or that they settled there as adults.)

Ezra and Sarah’s children Eli, Adina, and Noyekh, on the other hand, the first two of whom have remained in the ḥasidic fold, prefer to speak Flemish when alone and with others of their generation, and switch to Yiddish mostly in the presence of their parents and elders. Flemish is the language they appear to feel more their real selves in. Although Eli and Adina are far closer in their way of life to their parents than to Noyekh, a religious renegade returned from a long absence for the funeral of his younger brother Yanki (whose suicide, caused by a large gambling debt that must be paid immediately sets the show in motion), the three of them, and especially Adina and Noyekh, feel a bond as siblings that Flemish expresses better than Yiddish. (Here, too, however, one must state a caveat: the actors who play the three are non-Jewish Belgians who had to learn their Yiddish parts by rote, and it may be that the show’s directors, though they clearly made a great effort to get the details of ḥasidic life right, chose to have the three converse in a language they understood, even though in real life the characters they portray might have used Yiddish more.)

The Wolfsons also speak excellent French. They need to because of their commercial dealings with Belgians from Brussels and the country’s south, where French prevails, and even with some of the non-ḥasidic Jewish diamond dealers of Antwerp. Although times have changed, French traditionally enjoyed hegemonic status in Belgium and many Antwerp Jews spoke it as their first language. Indeed, until Antwerp’s post-World War II influx of Ḥasidim, for whom Flemish was an easier language than French to master because it is more like Yiddish, the city’s Jews were largely French-speaking.

Finally, all the Wolfsons speak a good English, the international language of diamond dealers that has become even more so in recent years as the trade has been increasingly dominated by Indian exports and merchants. This development figures prominently in Rough Diamonds’s third episode, a brief synopsis of which conveys how language works in the series to help create a changing kaleidoscope of events by which the characters are whirled too rapidly to have time for rational consideration of what they are about to do:

Episode 3, scene 5, in Flemish: Noyekh talks with his old friend Sammy, a ḥasidic butcher, who tells him how outside competition has made life difficult for Antwerp’s diamond dealers.

Scene 6, in Flemish: Noyekh sketches a plan for Eli and Adina of how they can quickly get the money to pay off Yanki’s debt by selling diamonds for upfront cash to an Albanian mafia that operates in Antwerp.

Scene 7, in Yiddish: a matchmaker visits the Wolfsons to discuss a remarriage for Yanki’s widow Gila, whom Noyekh was engaged to before he deserted her and the community, which then married her off to his younger brother.

Scene 8, in French: Adina, Eli, and Noyekh go to see Fogel, a non-ḥasidic Jewish diamond dealer, and ask him to advance them the diamonds for the Albanians. Fogel, though he knows nothing about the mafia deal, refuses because, so he tells them condescendingly, the diamond trade is based on trust and they are no longer a trustworthy family.

Scene 9, in Yiddish: Ezra Wolfson talks with friends about the upcoming, closely contested election for president of the Diamond Bourse, in which a Jewish candidate, Speyer, is running against the Indian Chatur.

Scene 12, in French: Gila meets a widower from Brussels in an awkward encounter arranged by the matchmaker.

Scene 13, in English: Adina goes to see Chatur. When he, too, turns down her request for an advance of diamonds, she gets him to change his mind by offering secretly to cast her and her brother Eli’s ballots for him, the non-Jewish candidate, in the election.

Scene 16, in Flemish: Noyekh flirts with Maria, a pretty young Belgian neighbor and the office manager of a diamond-mining company from whose safe, in Episode 7, he will steal the diamonds that cannot be gotten in any other way.

Scene 17, in English: The election results are announced at a meeting of the Bourse. Chatur wins on the strength of Adina and Eli’s votes.

Scene 19, in Yiddish: Speyer, who has discovered how Adina and Eli voted, curses Ezra, who was unaware of it, for his family’s treachery.

Scene 20, in Yiddish: in an emotional confrontation, Noyekh visits the bedside of his father, who has been hospitalized after a heart attack brought on by Speyer’s tirade.

And so Rough Diamonds goes: from episode to episode, from Yiddish to Flemish to French to English, wheel within wheel, as it were, with Yiddish the inner wheel of the ḥasidic community of Antwerp, English the outermost wheel of the wide world, and Flemish and French in between. The Wolfsons spin with these wheels, turning and being turned by them. Rough Diamonds demonstrates how language serves equally as identity and as means of communication, and how it is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both. Not, though, when it’s dubbed.

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