A bisl Yiddish: UNESCO & the permanence of Yiddish

Exploring the role of Yiddish in Israel to bring you a weekly dose of Yiddishkayt.

unesco (photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
(photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
UNESCO's international symposium regarding the Permanence of Yiddish was held in Paris on November 12 and 13 and brought together an eclectic group of internationals. Over the course of five round-table sessions, academics, journalists, teachers, artists, and UNESCO representatives presented their unique contributions to the preservation and promotion of usage and awareness of Yiddish.
Some of the attendees and speakers were Yiddishists that learned the language later in life, some lucky enough to call Yiddish their mamme-loshn (mother tongue), and others lacked the words to speak in Yiddish, but nonetheless feel an attachment to the rich Yiddish culture that once was. Irene Ores, a member of the B'nai B'rith Representation to UNESCO, opened the symposium with a question, rhetorical perhaps, "Why are we here? Why a conference on Yiddish at UNESCO?" The answer, "I want to start to reconstruct something, with all my heart, but maybe not logic."
The symposium presented an important opportunity to delve into the vitality of the Yiddish language and understand that Yiddish is still a relevant language. Dan Mariaschin, Executive VP of B'nai B'rith International, told the audience, "A connection with Yiddish honors the past, and speaking it connects it to the future."
Both the Israeli and US Ambassadors to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan and David Killion respectively, were present at the symposium. Barkan expressed his sincere gratitude to the organizers of the symposium, "It is important to recreate the Yiddish world, the Nazi's have failed if we resuscitate Yiddish." He said that despite the fact that Hebrew is his mother tongue, his speech is marked with Yiddish idioms. He is committed to the memory of the shtetl world and the need for said memory to remain with us.
Killion responded by stating, "The US is proud to join with Israel in protecting our shared values. Yiddish bonds Jewish immigrants of different origins, and in protecting Yiddish, Jewish identity is safeguarded.” Rachel Ertel, professor, author and honorary president of Paris Yiddish Center, added, "It is important not to make the conference about politics, we all support Israel here, but this is about Yiddish."
New creative expressions of Yiddish are how it is to be projected into the future. An invaluable characteristic of the language is in its flexibility, to mold with the times. It is a language that was spoken by a people without a country, a people that moved, and therefore a people with the ability to adapt - its language was no exception. Ertel said that, "Yiddish will not come back as folkshprakh, but it will come back through melody, translation, etc."
Translation came up time and time again as an important vehicle for passing Yiddish culture on to the younger generations. Even if many no longer speak Yiddish, reading Yiddish literature in other languages gives Jews and non-Jews alike the opportunity to interact with the Yiddish language and culture if even indirectly.
Speaking Yiddish is of great importance, as it is the only way to truly transmit the culture that it carries, and representatives from communities around the world where Yiddish is spoken came to share; such as Yankl-Peretz Blum, from Yugntruf in New York. In 1978 the organization inaugurated Yiddish Vokh, a week that would take place annually where Yiddish speakers from the world over would come together to live in Yiddish. It started with few participants and now over 500 people can be seen at this summer retreat - singles, couples, families with children who pledge to speak and live in Yiddish while in attendance.
Mendy Cahan, founder of Yung Yidish, a Yiddish library in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that acts as well as a Yiddish culture house, and advocate for all things Yiddish, spoke on behalf of Yiddish song and its role today. He said, "Literature can separate the religious and secular, but music binds us and creates common ground." And continued, "Yiddish must continue to live in spite of the Shoah; we were born again and have the power to stand up." Music allows people to connect directly with their heritage, to sing the songs of their ancestors and to hear the silence of what is missing.
Benny Mer, Editor of Davke, a magazine in Hebrew about Yiddish culture, said, "It is hard to overcome negative biases, but we should highlight the normality of Yiddish, and Israel should contribute to Yiddish heritage."
Overall, the symposium was a call to action, Ores pressed "I hope that you will advocate for Yiddish." Ralph Hofmann, the President of B'nai B'rith Europe, urged that, "To preserve Yiddish is a big mitzvah, we must preserve the Yiddish."
New creative expression in Yiddish is vital and there is much to be said regarding what is going on in Yiddish in Tel Aviv. Next week I will focus on publishing in Yiddish and give you an inside look at Tel Aviv's only active Yiddish publishing house, Beit Leyvik
Try it at home: di tzayt, time! Vifl iz der zeyger, what time is it? Es iz drai a zeyger, it is three o’clock Es iz halb nokh ziben, it is half past seven Es iz fertl nokh nayn, it is a quarter past nine Ven lernstu zikh yiddish, when do you study Yiddish? In der fri, in the morning Nokh mitog, in the afternoon In ovent, in the evening
Nota bene: many Yiddish sayings involve time! Have a go at the sayings below: Der seykhl iz a krikher, understanding grows at a snail's pace.Di tsayt iz der bester dokter, time is the best doctor.Afile der raykhster zeyger hot nit mer vi zekhtsik minut, even the most expensive clock has no more than sixty minutes.