A word in French from the ‘heim’

The present and future of Yiddish will be a topic at the Kisufim literary conference.

A word in French from the ‘heim’  (photo credit: Courtesy)
A word in French from the ‘heim’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rachel Ertel may not be entirely positive about the chances of Yiddish surviving much longer, but she is certainly doing her best to keep the language and the culture as vibrant as possible for as long as possible. The 73-year-old Yiddish- French translator and teacher is one of the speakers at the upcoming Kisufim literary conference, which will take place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem on February 5 – 8.
Shmulik Atzmon, Yiddishpiel Theater founder and local champion of the language and culture, recently talked about the way Yiddish has acted as a bond among Jews from different parts of the world over the centuries. Ertel is living proof of what Atzmon calls “the world’s first Internet,” as she has taken Yiddish with her across the globe, both as a means of spoken communication and an instant cultural link.
At the conference, Ertel will enlighten her audience about the joys and pitfalls of her main line of work. “I will try to show that everything is, at once, translatable and untranslatable,” she says. “In brief, it means that when you translate between languages, there is both loss and gain on both sides.”
Even so, Ertel believes that when one of the languages involved is Yiddish, an added important historical and cultural element comes into play. “It’s different when you translate from Yiddish, and that is, of course, because of the Shoah, and because it is a dying language. So anyone who translates from Yiddish is not only a translator, but he also mourns for the language and is also a witness of what has been created in the language. And, finally, he is, as [Italian Holocaust survivor and chronicler] Primo Levy said, the only one who is the real witness. He has a kind of mission to speak for those who can no longer speak.”
It is the Holocaust connection, says Ertel, that makes the language so precious and so fragile. “Yiddish is unique. It is the only language that was assassinated in five years in one part of the world. One of the characters in Cynthia Ozick’s short story “Yiddish in America” says, ‘There is no other language that died in five years in one spot of the Earth’”
In fact, Yiddish is only one of several languages in which Ertel is proficient. “I was born three months before the outbreak of World War II in a small town in Poland, and I moved with my family to Kazakhstan to get away from the Nazis,” she explains. “That is actually what saved us because all the other Jews in the town died in the Shoah.”
Ertel was multilingual from the word go. “My first three languages were Yiddish, Russian and Kazakh,” she recalls. “After the war we returned to Poland, so I can speak Polish – badly – and I learned English at university.”
Her command of the latter, not to mention her slightly British accent, is admirable. French became her sixth language when she moved to Paris with her family in 1948.
It was in the French capital as a young girl that Ertel really fell in love with Yiddish and began to realize the importance of preserving it. “We lived in a communal house in Paris with other refugees, mostly intellectuals, writers and artists, all Yiddish speakers. I was nine years old, and we lived there until I was 13. This, in a way, fashioned my whole life. I lived with Yiddish-speaking writers and poets from Eastern Europe, and I met Yiddish writers who came over from the United States. From that time on, I wouldn’t say that Yiddish became a mission, because I don’t like big words, but I feel it is my duty to preserve Yiddish. I am probably among the last native speakers of Yiddish.”
Ertel’s efforts to keep the Yiddish flame burning brightly over the last half century are impressive. In addition to translating important literary works from Yiddish into French, she taught Yiddish and Yiddish literature at a university in Paris for 35 years, although she says she used some trickery to get the language into the university’s curriculum. “I taught American literature and minority American literature, and I proclaimed that Yiddish was one of these minorities, and that’s how I introduced the teaching of Yiddish at the university as a language, culture and literature. That was, as we say in Yiddish, like touching the right ear with the left hand. We have also had to do this kind of trick to have the language survive.”
Ertel was also the driving force behind a series of Yiddish-based cultural events at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1976 and is honorary president of the local Yiddish Cultural Center.
Ertel and Atzmon recently met at a two-day UNESCO symposium on Yiddish in Paris. Ertel gave the opening address at the gathering, and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova declared at the time that Yiddish “stands at the heart of Judaism’s unique social and cultural identity and history in Europe.” Bokova also referenced the devastating impact the Holocaust had on Yiddish, noting that the survival of the language “was threatened by the Holocaust, and Yiddish is listed today on UNESCO’s atlas of endangered languages.”
Official recognition notwithstanding, Ertel still feels that Yiddish will not stand the test of time. “The ultra-Orthodox speak Yiddish on a daily basis, but they are not interested in translations from Yiddish,” she says.
Then again, she says there is an increasing number of Yiddish books available to French speakers. “I have translated 30 books – novels and poetry – from Yiddish into French, and I worked with my students on translations. That helps to let French people know about the beauty of Yiddish.”
No doubt, after Ertel’s session at the Kisufim conference, a few more Israelis will be enlightened about that as well.For more information about the Kisufim conference: (02) 629-2214 and www.mishkenot.org.il