Where has the Yiddish gone?

Reflections on Holocaust remembrance.

Isaac Bashevis Singer  (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Isaac Bashevis Singer
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
A few weeks ago, two monumental events took place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The first was at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the second was at the Auschwitz Camp Memorial in Poland. Both events hosted many world leaders and dignitaries in addition to dozens of Holocaust survivors.
As a survivor of the Holocaust who continues his efforts to promote the revival and dissemination of the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture in Israel and abroad, I was a guest in both of these events. I sat there overcome with emotion, goosebumps shivering over my skin, not only because of the holiness of this world-wide ingathering marking this historic date, but more so because of the total absence of Yiddish in both ceremonies.
Distinguished speakers ascended the stage, each one speaking in his language or in English with simultaneous translation. One language was completely absent at both events: Yiddish, the language of millions of Jews, of their newspapers and theaters and cabarets, the tongue in which Bible and Talmud had been taught for centuries, the language of many schools and of Yiddishist schools. Yiddish, in which the greatest Jewish authors of the 19th and 20th centuries spoke and created their works, people like Mendele Mocher Sforim, Shalom Aleichem, IL Peretz, Itzhak Katzenelson, Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was the language of poems and songs and movies, the language millions dreamed in.
This is the language in which Jews – men, women and children – shouted or whispered their final words at the entrance to the gas chambers, seconds before the death taps choked them: “Oy Mameh, Oy Tateh,” “Gevald!”, words that were an intrinsic part of Jewish life for centuries. In both ceremonies that were broadcast world-wide, there was not an echo or hint of the beauty, wit and power of the Yiddish language, the intricacies of its wonderful humor.
I sat frozen in my seat, holding myself back from standing and verbally protesting this injustice. Only at the end of the ceremony in Auschwitz was I able to make my protest public, when the Chabad representative in Poland invited me to pray. I wrapped myself in a tallit and tefillin and recited in Yiddish Itzhak Katzenelson’s Poem of the Murdered Jewish People.
Slowly, participants from the ceremony gathered around me to create a quiet expression of solidarity for my plea not to forget and not to erase from memory the touching and heart-rending Yiddishist corpus.
LET’S NOT forget that in the first years of the new Jewish state following World War II, there were efforts made to prevent the use of the rich and inspirational Yiddish language in Israeli culture and stages in order to make place for the revival of Hebrew. Theaters that performed in Yiddish were forced to stop their activities and pay heavy fines, enforced by the police in accordance with regulations passed in the courts and government led by David Ben-Gurion.
Thus the curtain fell on the yearnings of the new immigrants who had just escaped the inferno and wished to cling to the remnants of destroyed works of art and collect the shattered pieces. They longed to hear the language of their parents spoken on the stages of theater.
The situation is very different today. Throughout the world there is a renaissance of the Yiddish language. Young people learn Yiddish in universities, high schools teach Yiddish poetry. A crowning achievement has been the establishment of the Yiddishpiel Theater 30 years ago – the first Yiddish repertoire theater in Israel, which has performed until today hundreds of Yiddish plays in full theater houses in Israel and represented Israel in 30 international festivals world-wide.
The Institute for the Promotion of Jewish Theater that was established 15 years by Moti Sandak and under his direction, (of which I have served actively as chairman for the past five years), created the Online Museum of Jewish Theater, which makes hundreds of Yiddish plays and playwrights accessible to the public.
Haim Nahman Bialik said, “Language is the spiritual embodiment of a nation.” Albert Einstein wrote, “Supporting cultural life is a primary necessity for the Jewish nation. We would not be a nation without this ongoing activity of preserving and teaching culture.” Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote, “I consider Yiddish to be one of the most interesting phenomena in life.... I know that for millions of Jews, this is their mamaloshen – their mother tongue in the deepest sense of the word.”
The continued existence of the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture within the fabric of Israeli culture will ensure the continued existence of the memory of the Holocaust in the world.
The writer is the chairman of the Institute for Jewish Theater, the founder and director of the Yiddishpiel Theater for the past 25 years, an actor and stage director, and recipient of the Education Minister’s Prize for Jewish Culture in 2019.
Translated from Hebrew by Marilyn Cohen.