Yiddishland in Tel Aviv

I find myself smack in the middle of a cultural resurgence

yiddish land 88 298 (photo credit: )
yiddish land 88 298
(photo credit: )
As a student of literature, I often find myself feeling like a character in a story. This summer, as I embarked on the study of Yiddish at Tel Aviv University's (TAU) second intensive summer Yiddish course, I had the odd experience of feeling like a cross between Harry Potter, Minnie Mouse, and perhaps most appropriately, a character out of a Shalom Aleichem railway story. Sitting on the Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv train every morning, I've been minding my own business, catching up on my homework, and almost every day my fellow train passengers want to talk to me. What is it that suddenly made me so interesting? Well, actually, I've discovered that just as in a Shalom Aleichem story, Yiddish is a great conversation starter and a good way to connect with one's fellow passengers. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Yiddish. True, some people start out by defensively asking me what on earth I am going to do with Yiddish, but for the most part, these conversations end amicably. One day, a Russian man asked me where he could purchase a book like mine, as he was very anxious to reclaim his heritage. Another day, the young guard at the train station opened my bag, saw my Yiddish books and exclaimed, "Dos iz Yiddish," adding, "Gey gezunt," as he sent me on my way. Perhaps most fascinating to my fellow train passengers is the fact that I am learning Yiddish in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem or even Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, where Yiddish is a spoken language in the Hasidic communities. The truth is, TAU is the perfect venue, for in addition to teaching the Yiddish language, the program immerses its participants in Yiddish culture - with emphasis on Yiddish literature, poetry, music, theater and film. We've enjoyed a masterful performance by the internationally renowned musician Theodore Bikel, a performance by the Yiddishpiel Theater, as well as a series of lectures by leading academics on such subjects as I.L. Peretz, Shakespeare in Yiddish, and the tradition of parody in Jewish literature. One day, after listening to yet another master professor in the field give an animated and rousing lecture about Yiddish-American literature, I bumped into a fellow Yiddish student on the train coming home to Beit Shemesh. "What did you think," she asked. "He's a master," I remarked, adding wistfully, "I tried to speak to him, but he's always surrounded by followers." "Like a rebbe," I added, ironically. And that's when it occurred to us - if not exactly a cult, this Yiddish culture was definitely an alternative Jewish sub-sect of some kind, with its own rebbes, its own followers and even its own dialect (standardized by YIVO in the 1950s). This is when it first began to dawn on me that I was in some sort of parallel world, called Yiddishland. This is also when I began to feel sort of Harry Potter-ish. On the surface, my daily journey into Tel Aviv entails a one-hour train commute. Though seemingly a normal passenger alighting a Tel-Aviv train, I am really pulling a Harry Potter each time I disembark, because to me, the Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv train is really the "Yiddishland Express," leading me to a parallel universe whose existence most of my fellow passengers are unaware of. On the other hand, word must have gotten out for the Hebrew press was present at every event during the first week of the program. After such attention, we understood that we are part of a cultural Yiddish revival - a "phenomenon." Yiddishland is on the map, so to speak. When I mentioned this to my husband, my children overheard and wanted to know if Yiddishland was anything like Disneyland. "Le'havdil!" I shouted back. But then, it dawned on me that, le'havdil, there are similarities (if you'll forgive the comparison). Just as Disneyland is an alternate reality where one suspends one's normal mind frame so that it is perfectly normal to encounter Mickey Mouse or the Little Mermaid walking about, so, too, in Yiddishland, one suspends all notions of reality so that it is perfectly mundane to encounter characters who seem to have stepped out of a Shalom Aleichem story. And, just as in Disneyland where the visitor is made to feel like a welcomed, valued and important guest, so in Yiddishland is the visitor made to feel right at home. In fact, one quickly learns that the main cultural value in Yiddishland is Yiddishkeit. Whether visiting Beit Shalom Aleichem, or a concert with Theodore Bikel, or a tish at the director's house, or even upon entering the classroom - one is greeted at the door as though a long-awaited guest. "Open the gate," we read in two poems by Kadia Molodovsky - to extend a Yiddishe welcome to our guests, and also to usher in a new zeitgeist. My children - surprisingly enough - were suddenly eager to enter the gates into this mythical Yiddishland. In fact, after just two days of teaching them some Yiddish expressions, they stopped asking me if we were going to Disneyland altogether. As the new zeitgeist pervades my own home, Yiddishland has supplanted Disneyland in the consciousness of my children. Now, as soon as I walk through the door, they want to know what I learned. The other day, my daughter called my mother and surprised her with "vos machstu, Bubbe?" "Who is this," my bewildered mother asked, not quite sure what to do with the fact that her seven-year-old granddaughter was speaking to her in the mama-loshen. The intergenerational connection has, understandably, been working backwards as well. On the second day of class, my instructor sang us a Yiddish lullaby and I suddenly remembered my grandfather singing it to me over 30 years ago. I literally felt the gate to my heart open, as long-forgotten memories of poems and songs came flooding back. In fact, as I become more immersed in the sounds of the language and culture of Yiddishland, I find myself understanding more about the world of my grandparents. The language somehow brings me back to my grandmothers' kitchens: The sayings they told me, direct translations of Yiddish aphorisms. I'm also brought back to my grandfather's desk and all the Yiddish print - the poems he wrote, alongside his Bundist newspapers and the incredible passion in his voice as he tried to convey the utter importance of these things to his American granddaughter. So it is that all these years later, I am finally accepting my grandfather's invitation to Yiddishland. My trip has exceeded my expectations. Despite being in the beginner's class, a virtual newcomer to all things Yiddish, I feel completely at home and welcome alongside the veterans. I recommend wholeheartedly to all my fellow travelers: If you have a chance, jump on the Yiddishland Express and take your whole family for a magical, memory-making journey. The Yiddish Program at Tel Aviv University is a joint venture sponsored by the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Tel Aviv University, Beit Shalom Aleichem, and YUNG YiDiSH. For more information about the program, contact: Adina Stern at (03) 640-7805, or Yiddish1@tauex.tau.ac.il.