Yiddish reforms

July 16, 2019 21:50
Yiddish reforms

The reading room of the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem. (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

Even though interest in Yiddish is growing in Israel and around the world, some Yiddish institutions are falling by the wayside or are being incorporated into other institutions. One such example in Israel is the Arbeiter Ring on Kalischer Street, Tel Aviv.

The Arbeiter Ring, or the Workman’s Circle – a Bundist socialist-orientated organization dedicated to the promotion of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, Jewish community education with an emphasis on Yiddish studies – was initially founded in New York in 1900 by Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe as a mutual aid and cultural society that for a long time grew in scope and activities until a few years ago, when it began to shrink. Over the years, branches opened in other parts of the world, including Tel Aviv, where regulars were mainly Holocaust survivors.

New life was breathed into the organization with the inclusion of many Yiddish-speakers among the massive immigrant intake from the former Soviet Union. But now most of the regulars are elderly and not in good health, which has resulted in a major falling off in attendance. This has created financial difficulties in the upkeep of the premises, and the Arbeiter Ring is therefore being incorporated into Beth Shalom Aleichem on Berkowitz Street, adjacent to the Museum Tower.

The Arbeiter Ring’s extensive Yiddish library, along with its portrait gallery, is also moving to Beth Shalom Aleichem, as is its indefatigable director, Bella Bryks-Klein, who has an ongoing relationship with almost every Yiddish organization and institution in the country.

In New York, the Workers Circle formed the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, which still exists, and was also involved in The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, which was originally published in Yiddish under the banner head of Forverts and later branched into English. Founded in 1897, the paper launched its English edition in 1990, and introduced its digital version in 2016. The Yiddish edition, which suffered a decline in readership, became more infrequent. From a daily, it was reduced to a weekly, then biweekly, then monthly, till finally it dispensed with its print edition, and was available solely online.

Now there’s a new change. In a letter to readers, Yiddish editor Rukhl Schaechter explains that over the next two weeks, the Yiddish website will be transitioning to the platform of the English Forward website with the aim of reaching a wider audience. Aware that many people who can speak or at least understand Yiddish are unable to read it, the new format will include Yiddish videos subtitled in English. The old Yiddish Forward site will be maintained as an archive for all the articles and videos produced in Yiddish over the past decade.

■ WHEN THERE are 11 siblings in a family, their descendants tend to grow apart. But in many cases, such large families have a newsletter or genealogy chart, which helps them to keep track of each other, even though some of them may never actually meet each other.

At the recent reunion in Efrat of the descendants of Yechiel Gordon, a native son of Lithuania, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, several of the descendants of his 11 children met for the first time. Back in the 1880s, when he wanted to leave his hometown of Shaat and take his family to the United States, his wife, Henna Rasha, demurred, because she wanted to live in Palestine. But the oldest of the Gordon children had already migrated to America, and Yechiel convinced his wife that the whole family should live in the same country.

So, traveling backward and forward by steamship, Yechiel eventually brought his whole family to New York, where they lived in a tenement building on Essex Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When Yechiel became old and frail and no longer able to walk to synagogue, his children arranged a Shabbat service for him in his home and bought him a Torah scroll of his own. When he died in 1919, it was passed down through the generations to various of his descendants in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Worcester, Massachusetts, St. Louis and currently in Efrat, at the synagogue frequented by one of his great-grandchildren, Allan Schuman, who has numerous cousins also living in Israel.

He discussed the idea of reunion with some of them, primarily former Pelech High School principal Shira Gordon Breuer. The upshot was that on June 28, some 220 family members gathered in a Jerusalem school, mingled and listened to presentations and viewed videos on family history. Ten relatives flew in from the US for the event. The highlight was a 200-voice Koolulam of “Al Kol Eleh” in three-part harmony, conducted by the Elon siblings, Tamar, Tzvi and Raaya.

The first family pioneers to come on aliyah were Sonia Simon Cohen and her husband, Herbie, who moved to Beersheba in 1950. Irwin and Shifra Gordon followed in 1961. Irwin, also named Yechiel, was the executive director of Ezrat Nashim Hospital, now known as Herzog Memorial Hospital. The architect Zalman Deutsch and his wife, Rika, followed in 1970, and Rabbi Alan and Judy Odess to Petah Tikva in 1975. Since then, many more families descended from Yechiel and Hanna Rasha Gordon have made aliyah. They and their progeny include several accomplished citizens in the fields of education, medicine, law, hi-tech, construction, theater and more, as well as many IDF soldiers and even three pilots.

After the Friday reunion, 80 relatives descended upon Efrat for Shabbat. They were hosted by Rav Rafi Kadosh and the members of the Bracha Veshalom synagogue, who opened their homes to host the visitors, who enjoyed three catered Shabbat meals together and several family sessions, where many shared their favorite stories. Seven members of the family were called to read a portion from the Torah that, more than a century ago, was read from by their great- and great-great-grandfather.

■ THREE REUNIONS on a somewhat smaller scale were held by alumni of the Maimonides School which was founded in 1937 in Brookline, Massachusetts, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, generally referred to as the Rav. Close to 400 of the school’s alumni live in Israel. During the past month three sisters, Phyllis Weiner Miller, of Teaneck, New Jersey, and Efrat; Debra Weiner Solomont, of Jerusalem; and Beth Weiner Saar of Ra’anana, celebrated their 50th, 45th and 40th reunions, respectively, with former classmates in Israel. The sisters and one brother, the late Dr. Mark Weiner, were raised in a Zionist home. Their father, Dr. Myer “Mike” Weiner, a close friend of the Rav, was a member of the Maimonides School Committee for many years.

The class of 1969 had been planning their 50th reunion for more than a year. Twelve of its alumni live in Israel. Another four specifically came to Israel with their spouses for the reunion. They spent a weekend reminiscing and reconnecting, and on Shabbat attended services at the Nitzanim Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. Rabbi Yosef Blau and Rabbi David Shapiro, both former principals of Maimonides, joined in the celebrations. Blau explained the reason behind the Rav’s curriculum – the importance of having the students understand the difference between minhag (custom) and Halacha (Jewish law). Shapiro was hired as assistant principal the year after the class of 1969 graduated. He spoke about the continuum of leadership and of the Rav’s mission for the school.

The excitement of Phyllis and her classmates was infectious and led to Debra’s and Beth’s decisions to organize their own class reunions. Coincidentally, both had classmates coming to Israel, which as always was a good excuse to get together. Debra and her husband, Jay Solomont, also from the class of 1974, hosted six of their classmates. The yearbook was passed around over bagels and lox, and memories were shared.

Beth and her close friend Rena Gopin Wolf, class of 1979, have quite a few classmates who live in Israel. They hosted a get-together in Ra’anana with more than a dozen classmates living in Israel. Some of the classmates who had lived in the small town of Malden, Massachusetts, which was a one-hour commute to school, recalled how the late Rabbi Charles Weinberg, the rabbi of the community and Hebrew principal of the elementary school, instilled a love of learning and Zionism in each of them.

■ THE ISSUE of gender equality in Israel is particularly worrying to Michal Gera Margaliot, the CEO of the Israel Women’s Network, who points out that 29 women were elected to the Knesset in the April elections, whereas in the previous Knesset there had been 35 female legislators. Even then, one could hardly call it equality, considering that 35 is nowhere near half of the 120 legislators who make up the Knesset plenum. Gera Margaliot laments the fact that impressive legislators such as Tzipi Livni, Merav Michaeli, Aliza Lavie, Rachel Azaria, Orly Levy-Abecassis, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli and, of course, Ayelet Shaked either bowed out in advance or didn’t score well enough in the last elections, and says that voices such as theirs are sorely needed in the Knesset.

■ ACCORDING TO the Talmud, the gift of prophecy was taken from the prophets following the destruction of the Temple and given instead to fools and children. This, of course, does not prevent adults from predicting the future. Political pundits do it several times a day and are often wrong. Just look at the predictions made for Moshe Feiglin and Levy-Abecassis before the April elections. Yet neither crossed the threshold.

Leaving themselves wide open to future criticism at best and derision at worst, biblical comedian Gil Kopatch, broadcaster and former Shas MK Yigal Gueta, Dr. Lia Ettinger from the Heschel Center for Sustainability, journalist and author Tuvia Tannenbaum, Dr. Tomer Shadmi of the Hebrew University Law Faculty and Jerusalem tour guide Eran Tzidkiyahu will predict the future on a variety of subjects at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai on Thursday, July 25.

■ A GROWING trend at diplomatic receptions is to refrain from serving food other than beverages till after the speeches by the ambassador and the representative of the government. This practice was introduced well over a decade ago by Asta Skaisgiryte, a former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, who was annoyed by what she witnessed at other diplomatic receptions when guests made a beeline for the buffets and afterward talked so loudly that they drowned out the speeches of the ambassador and the government representative. So she decided that in order to restore a sense of civility, she would not allow food to be served until the speeches were over.

Even before that, Gennady Tarasov, a former Russian ambassador with a strong authoritative voice, had been so disgusted by the noise of his guests and their lack of respect for the government representative, who happened to be prime minister Ehud Olmert, that he completely lost his cool and yelled through the microphone “Be quiet!” It was not exactly a diplomatic ploy, but it worked, and suddenly there was dead silence.

In the past, at Bastille Day receptions hosted at the French residence in Jaffa by Ambassador Hélène Le Gal and her predecessors, the buffets inside the residence as well as in the garden were laden with meat canapés, a large variety of tangy French cheeses, and a wide range of petits fours. This week, the tables were bare till after the speeches, but waiters and waitresses were quick to bring out huge platters of delicacies once the formalities were over.

Speaking in Hebrew, English and French, with the versions changing slightly from one language to the next, Le Gal announced that this was also her farewell before she takes up her next posting in Morocco. This was her second period of service in Israel, though she was not yet an ambassador the first time around. Altogether she said she had spent seven years in Israel and would be taking some very pleasant memories away with her.

It is always a triumphant moment in an ambassador’s career if the head of state or government in the ambassador’s host country pays an official visit to the ambassador’s home country, or if the ambassador’s head of state or government pays an official visit to the host country. Le Gal had it both ways on her watch. Both President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited France, and President Emmanuel Macron came to Israel for the funeral of former president Shimon Peres, whom he knew personally.

In fact, the ageless Yona Bartal – who was deputy director-general of the President’s Office when Peres was president, was his close confidante for close to 30 years and is currently executive director of the Peres Circle, which maintains close contact with friends and supporters of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation – said that all that was missing from Le Gal’s reception was Peres, “who made a point of attending every Bastille Day reception, because he loved France so much.”

Also among the many guests mingling on the lawn and inside the residence was Or Shaked, who has done a splendid job in collecting the biographies of heads of foreign missions in Israel and putting them online. He also took the opportunity for a selfie with Le Gal before she heads for Rabat. Representing the government was Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who said that nothing expressed Le Gal’s love for Israel more than her great Hebrew.

Hotovely also revealed a little-known piece of history. Napoleon, when he was in Acre in March, 1799, had planned to continue on to Jerusalem to announce the creation of a Jewish state. However, this plan did not materialize because the French forces were defeated by the army of the ruling Ottoman Empire. It was not until just under 150 years later that the State of Israel came into being.

Le Gal had mentioned that last year France and Israel celebrated both the 70th anniversary of the state and 70 years of diplomatic relations with numerous cultural and scientific events in both countries. Hotovely told her the Napoleon story as proof that the relationship went much further back.

Hotovely also spoke about the shared strategic interests of the two countries in combating terrorism, fighting antisemitism and cooperating on many levels, including cybersecurity, innovation and space exploration. She thanked the president and government of France for having zero tolerance for antisemitism and for France’s commitment to protect its Jewish citizens. She also thanked Le Gal for her dedicated service.

Usually, the anthems are played before the speeches. This time, they were played afterward. In the case of countries that are members of the European Union, there are three anthems – that of the celebrating nation, “Hatikvah” and the anthem of the EU, which is based on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” There was very joyous singing to both “La Marseillaise” and “Hatikvah.”
Le Gal’s successor, Eric Danon, who has had a distinguished multifaceted career and is known to be an expert on terrorism, met this month with Ambassador to France Aliza Bin-Noun.

■ IN JERUSALEM, French Consul-General Pierre Cochard likewise hosted a Bastille Day reception and took care to provide a separate sumptuous kosher buffet for his Jewish guests. Cochard is also leaving Israel. Among his most recent official acts before concluding his tenure was to attend the launch of a $20.3 million water infrastructure renewable energy project, which will benefit Tubas and Jenin in the West Bank. The project is financed in cooperation with the EU and the French Development Agency. Other Bastille Day events were held in Haifa and at the Herzliya Marina.

■ JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Isaac Herzog is scheduled to attend the 49th National Conference of the South African Zionist Federation in Johannesburg on July 27-28. Other Israelis scheduled to speak there are Gal Lusky of Israeli Flying Aid, who has risked his life to alleviate suffering in Syria; and Daniel Limor, who in the 1980s was sent by the Mossad to Sudan to oversee a daring undercover operation to rescue 7,000 Ethiopian Jews. Herzog is attending not only in his present capacity, but as a former opposition leader and a visionary who has dedicated his life to strengthening Israel’s democracy.

The Herzog family has a long-standing connection to South Africa. Herzog’s mother, Aura, completed her BA in mathematics and physics at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1946. His uncle Abba Eban, who was Israel’s first ambassador to the United Nations and second ambassador to the United States, was born in South Africa.

■ CONTROVERSIAL LAWYER Yoram Sheftel, the son of Holocaust survivors, who successfully defended John Demjanjuk against charges that he had tortured and murdered Jews in the Treblinka death camp, but who was unsuccessful in his defense of Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter for killing an unarmed, incapacitated Palestinian terrorist, is now attacking rather than defending.

As far as is known, he is not a member of Netanyahu’s legal team. Last week, both on radio and in print, Sheftel accused the State Prosecutor’s Office and the police of leaking information from investigations into criminal allegations against Netanyahu for the sole purpose of ruining his image, thereby influencing the public, which in turn would influence the judiciary. Although the judiciary claims not to be influenced by the media or by public opinion, Sheftel strongly disputes this.

He also noted several times, both on air and in print, that the leaking of information obtained by an unauthorized state employee within the context of his or her employment and transferred to an external source is a criminal offense according to article 117 (a) in the Criminal Code. Such offenses carry a penalty of three years in prison.

According to Sheftel, people within the State Prosecutor’s Office and the police have certain media favorites to whom they pass on so-called scoops which are taken out of context, are unconfirmed, and often prove to be untrue. This is the low level to which people who should be upholding the law stoop in order to spread cheap detrimental gossip about Netanyahu, claims Sheftel, but up till now, the law is being ignored and the leaks continue.

He makes the point that while Netanyahu is currently the main target of such leaks, any public figure the State Prosecutor’s Office or the police want to discredit is subjected to similar treatment.

■ ON THE other hand, Doron Brosh, writing in Maariv, the sister publication of The Jerusalem Post, takes the media to task for reporting on every crude, rude, vulgar and insensitive tweet by Yair Netanyahu, and thereby turning him into some kind of celebrity, albeit a negative one. Brosh suggests cutting the prime minister’s elder son down to size by ignoring him. If the traditional media stop reporting on what he writes on Twitter, the general public will forget about him.

When Yair Netanyahu’s parents are asked how they can allow him to behave in such a manner, writes Brosh, the answer is that he’s an adult, who thinks for himself, and they can’t tell him what to do.

■ WHILE IN New York on a family vacation in the Catskill Mountains, and receiving birthday greetings from relatives and friends in the US and many friends in Israel and parts elsewhere, Julie Fisher, the wife of former US ambassador Dan Shapiro, did not forget her good friend Mutasim Ali, who will soon be studying for his master’s degree in law at George Washington University. Fisher knows him through her work in Israel with African refugees and asylum-seekers.

Originally from a village near Khartoum, he was an activist for social justice, was imprisoned three times and tortured for anti-government activity. Ten years ago, he escaped to Israel, where he was the first and only Sudanese to be recognized as a refugee. While in Israel, he spent a year in the Holot detention center for African migrants. Later, he became the voice for all African migrants in Israel, but also kept working long-distance on reforms in his native country. He also studied law at the College of Law and Business, and was the first African asylum-seeker to earn a university degree in Israel. He hopes to use the degree he gets from George Washington University to bring about democracy in Sudan.

People like Ali should inspire Israelis to look at African migrants with a less jaundiced and more empathetic eye.

■  IF HE had encouraged even one professor or student at New York University to voice his or her knowledge or convictions about Israel or to speak against the way Zionism is maligned on some BDS-occupied campuses, he would have considered the Ometz Award the greatest honor of his life, said Israeli-American computer science expert Prof. Judea Pearl at the annual gala dinner hosted by CAMERA in New York last month. In April of this year, Pearl publicly renounced his status of distinguished NYU alumnus following the school’s decision to confer the President’s Service Award on Students for Justice in Palestine. These same students make it their business to disrupt any Jewish- or Israel-themed event on campus.


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