Mama’s language: The survival and revival of Yiddish in the 21st Century

New Zoom event featuring a panel discussion and the world premiere screening of an emotive and entertaining documentary called Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin.

CANTOR IVOR JOFFE and Caely-Jo Levy starred in the Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival in Cape Town (photo credit: screenshot)
CANTOR IVOR JOFFE and Caely-Jo Levy starred in the Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival in Cape Town
(photo credit: screenshot)
Years ago I came across a book with an alluring – albeit long-winded – title that went something along the lines of “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Enjoy Jewish Humor, But It Helps.” My memory may be playing tricks on me, but that mouthful sentiment came to mind a few days ago when I corresponded with Shane Baker.
Baker is a leading New York-based Yiddish theater actor and also serves as director of the Congress for Jewish Culture in the Big Apple. He has starred internationally as Vladimir in his own Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, of which The New Yorker said that the play had “finally found its native tongue.” Not a bad plaudit at all, possibly made all the more noteworthy given that Baker is not Jewish. Then again, referring back to the above yesteryear tome, perhaps one’s ethnic backdrop is irrelevant.
That should come across on Sunday, when The Survival and Revival of Yiddish in the 21st Century, two-hour Zoom event takes place. Baker will join a bunch of leading Yiddishists in a panel discussion that features the likes of celebrated Hollywood Reporter columnist and interviewer Scott Feinberg, Helen Beer, who is a senior lecturer in Yiddish at University College London, and Arun Viswanath.
The latter’s surname doesn’t ring too much of a Jewish bell, but, in fact, Viswanath is of the faith and grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home.
The 30-year-old New Yorker not only speaks the language fluently, he is also sufficiently immersed in the mamaloshen [mother tongue] to have taken on an audacious project. Earlier this year, he released a Yiddish translation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the seven-part series about the young magician, his pals and the adventures they get up to. He says he will probably give the second and third installments in the series the same treatment but, in all likelihood, will stop there.
Sunday’s program, which kicks off at 8 p.m. Israel time, also takes in the world premiere screening of an emotive and entertaining documentary called Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin, which recounts the story of Cape Town’s Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which ran for 10 years, from 2001, and is said to have “revived interest in Yiddish language and music in South Africa.”
The virtual global gathering has a twofold objective. In addition to spreading the Yiddish word – and song – it is designed as a fund-raising vehicle, with proceeds from the event going to the Cape Jewish Seniors Association and Jewish Care Cape, and to provide a much-needed monetary injection for COVID-19 emergency funding.
FITTINGLY, IT was comedy that drew Kansas City-born Baker to the Yiddish language and culture.
“My earliest exposure [was] via Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, when he sings ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer! Did someone call me schnorrer?’ and the audience laughed,” he recalls.
That appreciation was more subliminal than conscious, and it was literature that helped to enhance and deepen Baker’s cerebral grasp on the Jewish mindset.
“I think my first witting exposure was in Bernard Malamud’s novels and stories,” he muses. “But as one interested in theater and comedy, I was well aware of the two-pronged Yiddish influence on US culture, not only in the humor but also via high art, as when Stella Adler helped bring Stanislavsky’s method to the acting world. She was Yiddish theater royalty and even better known on the Yiddish stage than on the US English-language stage.”
Baker jokingly refers to himself as “a nice Jewish goy,” and I wondered whether he approaches the language and culture differently from someone who was born into it. He feels there is a downside and benefits to that.
“I have a lot more to learn, so I’m at a slight disadvantage compared to someone ‘to the manner born,’” he notes. “Conversely, there’s a serious disconnect with Jewish tradition among American Jews, so I’m not all that far behind some others.”
Philip Todres hopes the Zoom gathering will address that “disconnect” across the world, as was the case with the music festival he founded and held annually in Cape Town, named after his late Lithuanian-born mother.
“Eighty percent, or more, of the Yiddish-speaking population was murdered in the Holocaust,” he says. “Before the [Second World] War there were more people around the world speaking Yiddish than Greek or Dutch. Yiddish was never the language of a country. It was a global language.”
Naturally, there are nuances and dialects to that linguistic spread, a fact that was deftly interwoven, by Viswanath, into the substratum of his Harry Potter offering.
“Hagrid had an accent [in Yiddish] because in the original he had an accent,” Viswanath explains. In an earlier interview the translator noted that he adapted aforementioned outsized character’s original West Country lilt into “a backcountry Polish-Yiddish dialect,” adding that “Filch, Snape, and Minerva McGonagall speak in a particularly Lithuanian register, and Dumbledore’s speech is similar to the well-educated Torah scholar.”
That certainly helps to bring the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry staff members into the fold, and also serves to enlighten us about the various strains of the subcultural layers that comprise a language which the uninitiated may relate to as a uniform means of communication.
The readership of the translated version of the J.K. Rowling’s opener, Viswanath notes, is probably more varied that one might expect. “The organic Yiddish-speaking population of today, the hassidim, are a bit of a wild card. I know there are a lot of hassidim who have bought the book. There is some antipathy to Yiddishist undertakings among hassidim – they say, what is this modern culture? But you’d be surprised how big the fringes of the hassidic community are, and many of these hassidic children are reading Harry Potter in English. I’ve had numerous hassidic parents buying this book for their kids.”
Viswanath is also hopeful that his work may help to lower the average age of Yiddish speakers around the world. “I know that, probably, most of the sales have gone to people who just think that it’s cool or interesting or funny. That’s certainly an attitude towards Yiddish some people have. And there are people buying this translation and learning Yiddish through it. There are many people in my generation – I grew up in the nineties – we were the kids reading Harry Potter, and many of us know the text extremely well, almost by heart. So, when you know a text that well, it’s not a stretch to be able to learn a new language simply from knowing the text.”
MUSIC IS, of course, also an efficient means of bringing the message and, more importantly, the emotion of a language home. That is something which is not lost on Aviva Pelham, a mainstay of the Cape Town music festival who also directed the first show. “When we started [the festival] I thought the older generation would be interested. But music is such a wonderful communicator, and through music you can connect on so many levels.”
That helped bring in the younger crowd, and, as Todres notes, there were over 80 children and youth on the stage when the show was performed a second time.
“There were children’s choirs in the festival, and teenaged groups,” Pelham says, adding that the universality of the thematic material also helped the cause. “The whole spectrum of what the songs represented in terms of subjects and the fact that there is no way better to reflect the soul of our [Jewish] nation and what the language allows you to express.”
Pelham herself grew up in a Yiddish environment, although she says she is not fluent in the language. Then again, she has a one-woman show based on a Yiddish musical repertoire. She notes she did not speak the language to her own children and is keenly aware of the need to pass on the cultural torch, forthwith. “You have to teach Yiddish to children now, and that would generate more interest. Music is a wonderful tool for doing that.”
SEYMA LEDERMAN (center) and her daughter Shosh (left) supported the production of the ‘Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin’ documentary, about Cape Town’s Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, directed by Heather Blumenthal (right). (Seyma Lederman)SEYMA LEDERMAN (center) and her daughter Shosh (left) supported the production of the ‘Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin’ documentary, about Cape Town’s Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, directed by Heather Blumenthal (right). (Seyma Lederman)
Shosh Lederman and her mother, Seyma, have certainly done their bit in that respect. The now-Ra’anana-based Australians – Seyma was actually born in pre-state Palestine and lived Down Under from early childhood before returning here at the age of 85 – sponsored the production of Leah, Teddy & the Mandolin, which Todres says will be made available for download in return for a contribution to the aforesaid Cape Town causes.
Lederman says helping to fund the film was an eye-opener for her on a personal level. “My mother was brought up in a Yiddish-speaking home, but I hadn’t realized how much she loves Yiddish song. I only found that out once the documentary was made and how much this meant to my mother.”
She is similarly appreciative of the forthcoming event, and the effort made by Todres to keep the Yiddish flame burning as brightly as possible, and to endow the younger generation with a love of the culture. “What is really unique about Philip is that he ignited the love [for Yiddish] among the third generation. I knew [the documentary and Todres’s work] was something of high quality and I didn’t want it to be forgotten.”
Todres is a case in point. He says he comes from a family of linguists, but he himself struggled to take in the intricacies of Yiddish. He says he is not fluent in the language and “can’t sing a note.” Still, he feels the language and culture will live on. “It is the mamaloshen. [Nobel Prize for Literature laureate] Isaac Bashevis Singer said that Yiddish is the language of your mother, and a mother is never dead.”
For tickets and more information: