Yiddish: Alive and well, but for how long?

Cautious optimism about the revitalization of the language dealt a lethal blow by the Holocaust.

Yiddishspiel’s (Tel Aviv Yiddish theater) production of ‘Gypsy Soul’ (photo credit: COURTESY YIDDISHSPIEL)
Yiddishspiel’s (Tel Aviv Yiddish theater) production of ‘Gypsy Soul’
PEOPLE HAVE been either prophesying or dreading the death of Yiddish for over 100 years. And often with just cause.
Throughout Europe, by the end of World War II, millions of Yiddish speakers were murdered – both religious and secular – annihilating the living breathing culture of a people and its language on an entire continent. In the US and what became the State of Israel, Jews from Europe fought for social and existential rights, and in that struggle, sacrificed the language of their parents and grandparents while forming new identities.
Some of those who survived these major historical events – the catastrophes, the miracles and the turn in fortunes – retained their Yiddish and tried to keep its memory alive. The artists, poets and writers among them, mainly in Israel and the US, but some also in Europe, continued producing works in Yiddish, maintaining echoes of the thriving Yiddish culture that Europe had seen in the years leading up to the war.
A few of these survivors passed their love and dedication to Yiddish on to the postwar generation. People such as Ruth Wisse, Cynthia Ozik, Rachel Ertel ‒ to name just a few of dozens – became scholars, writers and translators who kept Yiddish alive in the collective conscience when the language and its treasures seemed remote, old-fashioned and irrelevant. They discussed its riches in academic and artistic terms that could at least convey an aspect of that language’s essentiality to the Jewish life and culture that came out of Europe.
But, as the years passed and such cultural figures began to see the horizons of their own careers, a kind of anxiety about the generation to come set in for some of them – asking whether enough had been done to keep the love and knowledge alive for another 30 or 50 years of preserving Yiddish culture.
At the same time, as intensive summer university programs became more popular across the humanities, Yiddish-language programs began to develop, too. From the single Yiddish summer program at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research – which, being established in 1968, was the oldest of its kind in the world – an entire network of summer programs began to develop across the US, Europe and Israel.
Among these programs, the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program at Tel Aviv University, now in its 10th year, is the largest worldwide with more than 100 students from about 18 countries. The program is co-directed by Prof. Avraham Novershtern of the Hebrew University, who is also director of Beth Shalom Aleichem, and Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher, founding director of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University, through which the summer program is administered.
While many of its participants come to learn out of personal interest, the program also helps nurture young scholars and cultural producers who are not only working to preserve Yiddish culture but helping to bring it into popular culture through original projects.
In fact, the two types of participants are essential to each other because, as the general public hears and learns more about Yiddish, the audience grows for Yiddish art and culture and an ecosystem grows in which those who produce art can meet the interests of those who appreciate their works.
“Creative work in Israel is taking place in two generations,” Wirth-Nesher tells The Jerusalem Report. One, she explains, includes those older Israelis who know Yiddish or heard it spoken at home. The other is a younger generation that had no exposure to Yiddish but learned it at university or in language programs.
As an example of the earlier generation Wirth-Nesher gives Yiddishspiel’s (the Tel Aviv Yiddish theater) current production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, directed and translated into Yiddish by acclaimed playwright Joshua Sobol.
“This is a generation for whom Yiddish is there in their hearts and minds,” she explains, “but for ideological and practical reasons they didn’t use Yiddish. [The production] creates something new that really relates to the Yiddish language – in an existential or metaphorical way – and brings this to Beckett.”
As an example of the later generation, she gives Matan Hermoni, a native-born Israeli who studied Yiddish, completed a doctorate on American-Yiddish literature, and went on to write a novel called “The Hebrew Publishing Company” (2011) about Yiddish life on the Lower East Side of New York, which won the Bernstein Award and was shortlisted for the Sapir Prize. The novel was written in a Hebrew inflected with Yiddish and describes the milieu of Yiddish writing and literature in the early part of the 20th century.
Another example of Yiddish culture on the contemporary literary scene is tּhe recent publication of “Black Beads: An Imaginary Autobiography” (2015), Benny Mer’s translation of poetry and prose by the legendary Avraham Sutzkever – a Jewish fighter during the Holocaust who, after the war, immigrated to Palestine and, in 1949, just after the founding of the State of Israel, himself founded the literary quarterly Di Goldene Keyt, one of the most significant Yiddish journals to be published in the second half of the 20th century.
Mer is himself books editor of the Haaretz newspaper and founding editor of the Hebrew-language journal Davka: The Land of Yiddish and Its Culture.
“As long as I’ve been dealing with Yiddish, the project was to translate,” Mer, who published his translation of Shalom Aleichem 10 years ago, tells The Report. “I wanted to bring it to Hebrew for readers who weren’t already exposed to Yiddish – people who were young and not necessarily Ashkenazi.”
He suggests that Yiddish should be freed of preconceptions and prejudices – the “added values” that suggest it’s only good for humor, is purely Diaspora, or has the sound and taste of nostalgia.
Yiddish has to be thought of no differently than Estonian, he says, with an objective culture of its own rather than a sectarian subculture.
This way, he adds, it can reach a wider audience.
After recognizing that Yiddish is a language of its own, it’s possible to speak of its value as a Jewish language, a Diaspora language, an alternative and complement to Hebrew, and its wider political implications as being a language without a nation. The first step toward this is translation and cultural production in Hebrew – which gives Yiddish a “sexy” presence and perhaps makes people want to get to know Yiddish.
“For now I’m satisfied with translating Yiddish,” says Mer. “But the broader goal is really for people to be interested in Yiddish itself – to learn the language.”
He admits that Yiddish might not necessarily turn into a widespread spoken language overnight – but he does believe the raw material for creativity is there. “The technique of Yiddish, which creates a kind of impure alloy, can be used to ‘dirty’ the Hebrew, which obviously only enriches the language. Hebrew always did this – but it also denied this.
In some cases, Israeli cultural producers also work together – as in the Hebrew edition of previously unavailable Yiddish literature titled “America: The New World in Yiddish and Hebrew” (2013), edited by Hermoni with translations by Mer and Roy Greenwald, who teaches Yiddish at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University.
Again, Wirth-Nesher points out that all these translators are native-born Israelis who learned Yiddish. But, more importantly, she says, they’re cultural producers and not just preservers. Yet, in order to create such cultural content, infrastructure needs to exist for such creative individuals to learn the language.
“We obviously need preservation, too,” she says. “Without Yiddish programs, these people wouldn’t have known Yiddish.”
In all, she continues, there are five central institutions or hubs of Yiddish culture outside the universities in Israel. These include Yiddishspiel, which organizes Yiddish instruction, lectures, events and publications; Beit Leyvik, a writer’s club and Tel Aviv’s only active Yiddish publishing house; Yung Yiddish, a Yiddish club and library in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv founded by singer and performer Mendy Cahan; and the Arbiter Ring (Worker’s Circle), which publishes a newsletter called Vos? Ven? Vu? (What? When? Where?) listing activities in and about Yiddish taking place in Israel.
Another actor within Yiddish life in Israel is the National Authority for Yiddish Culture, whose efforts have been reinvigorated under the direction of Judit Solel. The authority, which receives its budget from the Culture Ministry, includes a wide-ranging board with members from academia, theater, radio and other media, and the educational system. Its funds go to support a wide range of projects such as a recently successful book exhibit at the Jerusalem Book Fair or special Yiddish events at community centers throughout the country.
Among their various activities, the authority supports high school Yiddish programs, organized and run by Shoshana Duminsky, which include teaching the language and exposing students to Yiddish culture through plays and concerts.
“School budgets are geared toward mathematics and English,” Duminsky, explains to The Report. “But, if you have someone who’s paid to bring Yiddish, then the school is happy to have this – because, otherwise, they focus on other priorities in education.”
Without the authority’s support, Duminsky suggests, Yiddish wouldn’t be present in schools, such as the Givatayim High School for the Arts where she leads a workshops on Yiddish songs. “Instead of singing Bach or Mati Caspi,” says Duminsky, “the students sing in Yiddish.”
Duminsky holds a doctorate in Yiddish literature from the Hebrew University and is also the main force behind the iddish.co.il Internet site – an extremely rich Yiddish working tool that includes a digital dictionary, educational materials, prose and poetry by Yiddish authors and much more. The project started from there being little or no access to these texts. Duminsky felt that she was becoming a translator instead of a teacher. The students needed to prepare for their studies and she understood they needed a tool to help them.
“Books are disappearing and being thrown away,” says Duminsky, explaining her motivation for creating this website. “And storage is expensive. But if you digitize this, then it exists as long as the world exists.”
Duminsky’s high school students helped her with the project – from typing up works as part of their personal responsibility to programming code for the site. “While typing,” she says, “they learn a word here and there.” As for their exposure to Yiddish culture, when they go to the theater, she says their response is often: “Wow, I didn’t know!” Recently, the authority has also begun awarding scholarships to graduate students in Israel through a national competition – including to Noa Tsaushu, a master’s student at Bar-Ilan University’s Literature of the Jewish People Department. Tsaushu is extending the perspective on Yiddish from language to the visual arts, focusing on the interplay between image and text in the early 20th century Jewish avant-garde in Eastern Europe. But for her, such research is not only about understanding the past, but also finding ways to better understand our present.
“After learning the language,” she says, “the challenge is to understand how Yiddish expresses itself in places that aren’t actually textual.”
Tsaushu received her undergraduate degree in fine arts from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and this gives her a wider “holistic” perspective on Yiddish that goes beyond literature alone, seeing it as a visual and plastic language. “For me,” she adds, “Yiddish is a critical tool that lets you check or examine how things happen – then and now. It gives perspective not just on language, but also on culture – on social, political and economic processes. These things happened then but they influenced what happens today.”
The link between cultural events and academic scholarship is not as distant as some people think – at least in the realm of Yiddish culture. Scholars are also translators, writers and editors. In 2016, the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Beth Shalom Aleichem will dedicate a special four-day conference in Israel to mark the centennial of Shalom Aleichem’s death – which, in addition to scholarly talks, will include theater and cultural events.
Wirth-Nesher is herself an example of someone who crosses cultural and scholarly boundaries. During her years at Columbia, where she completed her doctorate in English and Comparative Literature, she took classes at YIVO with legendary Yiddish scholars Dan Miron and Chone Shmeruk. In 1976, upon receiving her doctorate, she promptly enrolled in YIVO’s summer program. In 1984, she made aliya to Israel and began teaching English and American literature at Tel Aviv University. Later she was invited to become the founding director of the Yiddish Department.
Wirth-Nesher says it is always a challenge to continue the current flourishing of the language, because such efforts require constant vigilance and resources. Which is partly why she and colleagues, including Novershtern and Prof. David Roskies, developed an inter- university master’s program in Yiddish at Tel Aviv, Hebrew and Ben-Gurion universities – funded by a grant from the Rothschild Foundation and the Council for Higher Education.
“About 10 years ago,” she recalls, “Roskies, Novershtern and I got together with a feeling of great responsibility. We were all worried.
And we decided to work cooperatively between the universities rather than competitively. We worked in great collegiality to make sure that another generation is in place.”
There’s reason to feel that Yiddish is finding its way into the present.
As Wirth-Nesher points out, the study of culture in general, and literature in particular, is more hospitable now to minority and transnational languages. The intellectual climate is itself ripe for this and influences the general public. When Yiddish is seen as part of World Literature, it is no longer isolated within the confines of Jewish Studies, as evidenced by a recent issue of the scholarly journal Poetics Today edited by Wirth-Nesher – a publication which, for the first time, offered studies focused only on Yiddish literature.
“We see this in Sobol’s adaptation of Beckett,” she suggests, “with two tramps in an existential ground zero, and with Yiddish somehow being the right language for this.” All this, she suggests, makes Yiddish vibrant again. “If it becomes a heritage project alone, then it doesn’t have the same reach.”
Yet, this reach itself reflects the current historical moment, she adds. Yiddish lends itself to a number of compelling ideas now circulating in scholarship ‒ today’s tendencies in humanities and cultural studies tend toward hybridity and universality.
“Yiddish is often embraced for reasons that – if you actually look at the range of its history – can also get distorted. But culture works this way. The Modernists distorted the Victorianists. Yiddish as an underdog fits the current atmosphere. It speaks to ideas that stress the migratory and the marginal.”
In a sense, she says, Yiddish is being revitalized in part because it speaks to these contemporary questions and concepts. But she also knows that this interest shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“It’s not self-evident that if you interview us 10 years from now that we’ll be in the same situation as today. It’s always good to be optimistic – but also cautious.”
This kind of cautious optimism is perhaps part of the essence of Yiddish.