Yiddish: The secret history

Why has a Japanese PhD student travelled from Brooklyn to Poland to Tel Aviv to study the language of pre-WWII Jewish Europe?

October 11, 2007 08:54
satoko metro 88 224

satoko metro 88 224. (photo credit: Ilana Teitelbaum)

If I could choose my life again, I'd want to be a wandering Jew," Satoko Kamoshida, a young PhD student from the University of Tokyo, reveals with surprising ease. A cynic could observe that Kamoshida, being Japanese, might therefore be unaware of the ramifications of her words; but the sleek-haired young woman, whose love affair with the Yiddish language has led her to Israel after four years of study in Europe, has heard many harrowing tales of the Holocaust from survivors. Kamoshida goes on to explain that she feels a kinship with the concept of the "wandering Jew" because Yiddish programs are nonexistent in Japan, with the result that Kamoshida must "wander in order to study Yiddish."

Kamoshida is one of several non-Jewish international students who attended the Yiddish summer school at Tel Aviv University, a collaborative program between the university's Goldreich Institute and Beth Shalom Aleichem. A language that has met with a chilly reception in Israel - regarded as the dialect of defeat and passive marching to the slaughter - has been revived in a program that has attracted students from around the globe.

A casual observer might assume that the students from Holocaust-bloodied Eastern Europe are interested in Yiddish as a result of some form of collective guilt; that they study Jewish culture as a means of reparation. As it turns out, the truth is far more nuanced and contains surprises for Jews who have imbibed Fiddler on the Roof along with their mother's milk.

"The March of the Living is not only for Jews," says Rafal Witkowski, an imposing professor of Jewish Studies from Poznan, Poland. "Poles also want to remember." Witkowski recounts that many Poles have been joining Jewish marchers in the March of the Living in recent years. The reason for this, he says, is that Yiddish and Judaism are so intertwined in the history of Eastern Europe that for a Pole to want to study them is "absolutely natural. Not for fun, not because it's trendy - it's natural because of the intensity of the relationship between Poles and Jews."

Witkowski, whose steely blue eyes betrayed a lack of patience with the whole line of inquiry, expressed annoyance with the curiosity that he and the other Eastern European students of the Yiddish summer school have encountered regarding their study of Yiddish. The image of Jews huddling fearfully in ghettos utterly separate from the surrounding peoples is anathema to the Polish professor, who maintains that ghettos - or in his preferred term, "Jewish quarters" - were a phenomenon that existed only in certain parts of Poland, and that in other parts of the country Jews and Poles mingled freely. "There were no ghettos in Poznan," he maintains with visible pride.

Witkowski and other Polish students expressed regret that Jews who visit Poland so often limit their tours to the death camps. "There is so much more of Jewish Poland to be seen - the shuls, the places they lived," he explains.

Witkowski fully acknowledges the ravages of European anti-Semitism; the picture he presents is complex, with Jews and Poles interacting in a myriad of ways, weaving together a joint tapestry of culture that was torn abruptly by World War II. Jewish history, he insists, is so deeply ingrained in Polish history as to be inseparable from it. "We have accounts of a Jewish merchant in Poland in the year 965," he elaborates. "That's almost 1,000 years of common history."

Anna Gulinska, a young graduate student in Jewish Studies at the University of Cracow, confessed to a desire to translate works of Yiddish literature into her native language of Polish so that it can be enjoyed widely. "[Yiddish literature] is beautiful and rich, and strongly connected with Poland," she explains. "I love seeing the Polish influences."

Many people think of Yiddish as a Germanic language, but the Polish and Russian students revealed that there are many words and phrases from Russian and Polish within the Yiddish language - a result of hundreds of years of cultural influence. The students smiled as they told of an American professor who began to teach them a Yiddish song, only to be surprised when the students informed her that the same song exists in Russian and Polish versions.

"Yiddish is a German language with a Slavic soul," comments Gulinska.

While the Eastern European students perceive Yiddish as a language with deep roots in their own countries, Kamoshida has a wholly different perspective of the language. She explains that what initially drew her to Yiddish was interest in a language that belonged to nowhere - a sharp contrast to Japanese, which belongs to a people whose culture developed for thousands of years in one place. Kamoshida is fascinated with the tension that Jews experienced as a result of being unable to fully integrate into their surrounding cultures. "[Yiddish-speakers] had to change their language… until it was forgotten," she explains.

Kamoshida also says that she feels a strong emotional connection with the Jews who shared their stories of the Holocaust with her. Unlike the Eastern European students, for Kamoshida the inherent tragedy of Yiddish is more pronounced than the living history. "Everyone has their drama," she says of the survivors who have spoken with her. "I sometimes cry from hearing their stories."

Like the European students, Kamoshida separates Jewish culture from the Jewish religion, taking a much greater interest in the former. She does, however, enjoy studying religious Yiddish, which she encountered upon visiting Boro Park in New York. She relates that because religious Yiddish is a spoken language, it lacks the formality of academic Yiddish. "Religious Yiddish is cute," she says with a laugh. "They write about real things, like how to build a succa or make a streimel."

It is, she relates, a striking contrast to the Yiddish studied in academia, which is more correct but also less alive.

Kamoshida admits that her parents are not pleased by her decision to study in the Middle East. With a laugh she confirms, "It's kind of mishugene to be in Israel."

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