A master of disguise

Through creative and alternative methods, Yiddish is being revived and reinserted into Jewish culture.

Judit Solel: Yiddish needs to be made more relevant for young people (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Judit Solel: Yiddish needs to be made more relevant for young people
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
When a child refuses to eat his vegetables, what is a distraught parent to do? Many parenting books advocate the sneaky approach – for example, hiding little bits of broccoli in cheese lasagna – so the child gets the nutrients it needs In many ways, advocates of reinvigorating Yiddish culture have adapted this approach by carefully weaving in elements of Yiddish literature, history and folklore into social and academic activities in order to nourish the Jewish soul.
Before the Holocaust, some 11 million Ashkenazi Jews spoke the language. While exact figures are not available, today experts say that number has dwindled to 1-3 million around the world.
“The Holocaust simply eradicated Yiddish speakers,” one of the only remaining highschool Yiddish teachers in Israel, Shoshana Dominsky, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Ironically, the birth of Israel – and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s vision for it – succeeded in turning more people away from the language. His decree that Hebrew, not Yiddish, be the language of the burgeoning country and the laws that reinforced this decision relegated Yiddish to the shadows and to a language of shame spoken quietly behind closed doors.
“Yiddish theater even got fined by the police.
Everything related to Yiddish culture in those times was banned,” Dominsky says.
The stigma against Yiddish and the laws against it reinforced the shame and guilt Holocaust survivors felt when speaking their mother tongue thus preventing second-generation Holocaust survivors from picking up the gauntlet and ushering Yiddish into the rest of the 20th century.
“There was always this idea that Hebrew was the wife, and Yiddish was the mistress.
It had a stigma even before WWII, but after the war, when my father arrived, he came defeated, robbed of a culture,” Benny Mer, a son of European immigrants, and a translator of dozens of texts from Yiddish to Hebrew, explains.
Dr. Mordehay Yushkovsky, a renowned lecturer of Yiddish culture, who addresses Yiddish students and educators worldwide, found one common thread in most of his students, especially the Israeli ones.
“The people who come to my seminars - the tsabarim, the native Israelis - were taught that they needed to be embarrassed by Yiddish,” he explains. “My pupils tell me, ‘When my parents spoke Yiddish in the house, I was embarrassed to bring friends over.’ “Today, they regret this so much and they want to learn it – but there is nobody to ask,” Yushkovsky laments.
However, the Ukrainian immigrant who obtained his masters in Yiddish at Bar Ilan University in 1990 is not interested in dwelling on the past.
“LISTEN, WE know all the reasons Yiddish disappeared, but we need to focus on what to do moving forward. Of course there’s a stigma, and negative connotations, but that doesn’t interest me,” he says.
As such, Yushkovsky has dedicated the majority of his adult life to reviving the language. After leaving the Education Ministry where he was the head of the Yiddish department, he has ventured off on his own to open a network of courses and currently speaks annually to 2,500 students worldwide.
Over the years, Yushkovsky discovered that the key to success lies outside the traditional academic framework.
“The more people say Yiddish is dying, the more our numbers are growing incrementally,” he boasts, citing a class he teaches at the University of Haifa as an example. Three years ago, that 200-seat capacity class had a waiting list. Due to demand, it is now offered in a larger venue at the city’s Rappaport Art and Culture Center, which seats 550 pupils.
Those hoping to enroll immediately are out of luck, as the class is fully booked until June.
“The same thing is happening at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, at the Herzl Museum in Tel Aviv. On average, every year we are looking at 2,500 pupils in Israel. This number can only grow, but a lack of knowledgeable instructors is holding us back,” he says.
"Currently, Yushkovsky is working with the World Jewish Congress as academic director of the International Yiddish Center it opened in Vilnius, Lithuania."
That center alone reaches 800 people worldwide (including Israelis), with seminars also being taught in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. In keeping with the theme of subtly inserting Yiddish into various disciplines, the courses teach Yiddish educators – of both formal and informal backgrounds - how to make Yiddish culture applicable to a variety of disciplines.
“We want every teacher, it doesn’t matter in what field – history, art, politics – to find a way to incorporate Yiddish into his or her field of expertise, “Yushkovsky explains.
Students come out of the seminars with a clear message: Forgetting Yiddish means abandoning over 1,000 years of Jewish intellectualism and culture. Specifically, Yushkovsky believes it is secular Jews who can benefit the most from incorporating Yiddish into their life.
“My personal motto over the years is to A MASTER OF DISGUISE Through creative and alternative methods, Yiddish is being revived and reinserted into Jewish culture and the students of this quiet renaissance are often caught by surprise by the emotional magnitude of its impact W A Yiddish Revival, January 2016 7 show that Yiddish is a tool that gives a secular person the ability to feel Jewish. For a religious person, he has other tools at his disposal – he has his Torah texts, his religious learning, synagogue and traditions. What does the modern world offer a secular Jew?” Yushkovsky asks rhetorically.
“I see people at these lectures and they break down in tears. They tell me, ‘I heard that expression from my mother 30 years ago. I heard that song from my grandmother 50 years ago,’” he says.
As a former ultra-orthodox Jew, Binyamin Hunyadi, who is currently working on a doctorate in Yiddish Studies at Hebrew University, tends to agree with that assessment.
“I decided to become less religious as I became an adult, but Yiddish stayed with me,” Hunyadi says, explaining how he came to dedicate his professional life to Yiddish. “I found it a way to maintain my Jewish identity, but also be secular.”
“I wanted to remain connected to Jewish culture, and I suppose I was looking for a middle of the road approach to do that. Yiddish seemed to provide that for me,” he adds.
Mer too, is adept at making people more Yiddish savvy, with his audience being none the wiser. Through his prolific translations, he has become a master of disguise when it comes to reviving Yiddish culture.
Of his work translating Yiddish to Hebrew he says, “It’s like I’m disguising myself as someone who says, ‘Okay, I’ll bring you Yiddish in Hebrew, but I hope that by serving you the food, the appetite for it will follow naturally.’ “I matured and had greater awareness and appreciation for my roots,” Mer says, explaining why he chose to delve into Yiddish.
“I was interested in sifting through the trunk of knowledge that consisted of my father's and my grandfather’s history - that we were forced to abandon. We lost out on a lot with this monolithic culture we currently have. I felt there this was a language that would be lost for generations in my family if I did not set out to study it,” he adds.
As for Dominsky, she believes there is nothing more uniquely Jewish than Yiddish.
“Without this, there’s no Israel. Our ability to survive, to endure the most challenging circumstances, the ability to stare death in the face and carry on - this is what Yiddish stands for, this is Jewish culture,” she asserts.
In another example of subtly showing students what Yiddish has to offer, Dominsky often takes her students to plays at the Yiddishpiel, the only Yiddish theater in Israel.
The theater, established in 1987, aims to restore Yiddish theater to its former glory.
Often, she witnesses the powerful impact hearing the language performed has on her pupils. “They are not listening to you at that moment, suddenly they’re listening to Yitzik Manger, and they understand that it is no less respectable than listening to other plays in Hebrew,” she says.
In addition to lectures, translated texts and robust seminars, there are many more organizations fighting to make sure Yiddish remains relevant even in the millennial generation.
Yiddish culture and language programs have been launched at several universities in Israel and around the world and are becoming ever more popular.
On the government side, The National Authority for Yiddish Culture was established to preserve Yiddish culture and encourage new creativity. The Authority’s board brings together members from diverse disciplines including academia, theater, the media and the educational system.
THE AUTHORITY supports a wide range of projects, including the work of writers, artists and musicians. It also sponsors cultural programs at community centers throughout the country and encourages academic studies in the field of Yiddish by awarding scholarships to students at universities nationwide. The Authority recently participated in a successful book exhibit at the Jerusalem Book Fair and also takes pride in forging lasting partnerships with Yiddish institutions of its kind.
“We commemorate special anniversaries pertaining to Yiddish culture and history and sponsor Yiddish clubs throughout the country,” explains Judit Solel, the Authority’s Director. “For example, one of these is the Arbiter Ring (Worker’s Circle), which organizes cultural activities every two weeks in Tel Aviv and publishes a newsletter titled “Vos?Ven?Vu?” (What?When?Where?) listing Yiddish activities in Israel.”
In terms of cultural offerings, those willing to brave the intricate maze that is the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station can enjoy live musical performances at the YUNG YiDDiSH non-profit aiming at preserving Yiddish culture. Their space takes the visitor back to the shtetel where there are musical and theater performances. They also have a library with 30,000 Yiddish books, many of which would have been discarded had YUNG YiDDiSH not striven to recover them.
There is also Leyvik House – a three-story building in Tel Aviv which houses the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists, a writer’s club and Israel’s only active Yiddish publishing house.
Beit Shalom Aleichem too, is a popular destination for those looking to discover the rich tapestry of Yiddish literature. The center, located in Tel Aviv, teaches roughly 300 students each year and offers a summer program in Yiddish Studies at Tel Aviv University.
When it comes to the next generation, Yushkovsky remains optimistic, “Yiddish is not dying, it’s blooming, but in unexpected ways such as the Klezmer festivals that attract people who are not even Jewish,” he says .
“When I go to Moscow or Kazan, I see young people, who through Yiddish, feel like they’re returning home to their grandparents even if they don’t fully understand the language,” he marvels.
Solel, however, points out that if a true renaissance is to occur, the Ministry of Education must intervene. “Something must be done to make Yiddish more relevant to the next generations. This is a rich 1000-yearold culture and at the Authority we’d like to introduce Yiddish to pupils at a much younger age.”
“In my opinion, there is not enough being done in Israel to support this Yiddish renaissance,” she laments. “You hear a lot about it, but at the end of the day, it’s only classes for retirees who are nostalgic for their childhood homes where Yiddish was spoken.”
The study of Yiddish though doesn’t have to be a choice between Hebrew and Yiddish.
Mer, for example, understands that contending with Hebrew is a losing battle, however, this is not a game of either/or.
“Well I hope they eat the lasagna and the broccoli,” Mer chuckles. “Vegetables and pasta are both wonderful! This is not a competition.
The full magazine about the Yiddish revival can be found in January's Jerusalem Report.