UNESCO's international symposium regarding the Permanence of Yiddish was held in
Paris on November 12 and 13 and brought together an eclectic group of
internationals. Over the course of five round-table sessions, academics,
journalists, teachers, artists, and UNESCO representatives presented their
unique contributions to the preservation and promotion of usage and awareness of
Some of the attendees and speakers were Yiddishists that learned
the language later in life, some lucky enough to call Yiddish their mamme-loshn
(mother tongue), and others lacked the words to speak in Yiddish, but
nonetheless feel an attachment to the rich Yiddish culture that once was. Irene
Ores, a member of the B'nai B'rith Representation to UNESCO, opened the
symposium with a question, rhetorical perhaps, "Why are we here? Why a
conference on Yiddish at UNESCO?" The answer, "I want to start to reconstruct
something, with all my heart, but maybe not logic."
The symposium presented an
important opportunity to delve into the vitality of the Yiddish language and
understand that Yiddish is still a relevant language. Dan Mariaschin, Executive
VP of B'nai B'rith International, told the audience, "A connection with Yiddish
honors the past, and speaking it connects it to the future."
Both the Israeli
and US Ambassadors to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan and David Killion respectively, were
present at the symposium. Barkan expressed his sincere gratitude to the
organizers of the symposium, "It is important to recreate the Yiddish world, the
Nazi's have failed if we resuscitate Yiddish." He said that despite the fact
that Hebrew is his mother tongue, his speech is marked with Yiddish idioms. He
is committed to the memory of the shtetl world and the need for said memory to
remain with us.
Killion responded by stating, "The US is proud to join
with Israel in protecting our shared values. Yiddish bonds Jewish immigrants of
different origins, and in protecting Yiddish, Jewish identity is safeguarded.” Rachel Ertel, professor, author and honorary president of Paris
Yiddish Center, added, "It is important not to make the conference about politics, we
all support Israel here, but this is about Yiddish."
New creative expressions of
Yiddish are how it is to be projected into the future. An invaluable
characteristic of the language is in its flexibility, to mold with the times. It
is a language that was spoken by a people without a country, a people that
moved, and therefore a people with the ability to adapt - its language was no
exception. Ertel said that, "Yiddish will not come back as folkshprakh, but it
will come back through melody, translation, etc."
Translation came up time and
time again as an important vehicle for passing Yiddish culture on to the younger
generations. Even if many no longer speak Yiddish, reading Yiddish literature in
other languages gives Jews and non-Jews alike the opportunity to interact with
the Yiddish language and culture if even indirectly.
Speaking Yiddish is
of great importance, as it is the only way to truly transmit the culture that it
carries, and representatives from communities around the world where Yiddish is
spoken came to share; such as Yankl-Peretz Blum, from Yugntruf in New York. In
1978 the organization inaugurated Yiddish Vokh, a week that would take place
annually where Yiddish speakers from the world over would come together to live
in Yiddish. It started with few participants and now over 500 people can be seen
at this summer retreat - singles, couples, families with children who pledge to
speak and live in Yiddish while in attendance.
Mendy Cahan, founder of
Yung Yidish, a Yiddish library in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that acts as well as a
Yiddish culture house, and advocate for all things Yiddish, spoke on behalf of
Yiddish song and its role today. He said, "Literature can separate the religious
and secular, but music binds us and creates common ground." And continued,
"Yiddish must continue to live in spite of the Shoah; we were born again and
have the power to stand up." Music allows people to connect directly with their
heritage, to sing the songs of their ancestors and to hear the silence of what
Benny Mer, Editor of Davke, a magazine in Hebrew about
Yiddish culture, said, "It is hard to overcome negative biases, but we should
highlight the normality of Yiddish, and Israel should contribute to Yiddish
Overall, the symposium was a call to action, Ores pressed "I hope
that you will advocate for Yiddish." Ralph Hofmann, the President of B'nai
B'rith Europe, urged that, "To preserve Yiddish is a big mitzvah, we must
preserve the Yiddish."
New creative expression in Yiddish is
vital and there is much to be said regarding what is going on in Yiddish
in Tel Aviv. Next week I will focus on publishing in Yiddish and give
you an inside look at Tel Aviv's only active Yiddish publishing house, Beit Leyvik
Try it at home: di tzayt, time!
Vifl iz der zeyger, what time is it?
Es iz drai
a zeyger, it is three o’clock
Es iz halb nokh ziben, it is half past seven
fertl nokh nayn, it is a quarter past nine
Ven lernstu zikh yiddish, when do you
In der fri, in the morning
Nokh mitog, in the afternoon
in the evening
Nota bene: many Yiddish sayings involve time! Have a go at the
Der seykhl iz a krikher, understanding grows at a snail's
Di tsayt iz der bester dokter, time is the best
Afile der raykhster zeyger hot nit mer vi zekhtsik minut, even
the most expensive clock has no more than sixty minutes.