Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning Yiddish and Spinning my Reels

Today we began our Yiddish classes with a very colorful teacher, Dov Ber. Dov Ber has a full beard and curly dark hair with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. Dov began by asking us our names and where we were from and then proceeded to write our replies phonetically in Yiddish. The program stresses the importance of getting comfortable with cursive Yiddish and this proved to be good practice in doing so. It also allowed us to add a few more nationalities to the group, Italian, Lithuanian, Finnish and Russian. The Russian language which I’ve studied proved to be a good preparatory experience. Because neither Russian nor Yiddish consists of a Latin alphabet, it forces an extra step in the learning process. First one must transliterate the alphabet, recognizing both its look and sound. After this becomes familiar you realize that you are no longer transliterating it on a conscious level, but seeing it and hearing its sound simultaneously. Had I not gone through that learning process with Russian, I think I might find this more intimidating. Not to say that it is simple, but I realized that I already know more than I had acknowledged and I need to trust the learning process.

We met for an hour and a half with Dov Ber and then had a half hour coffee break. Regrouping, we then spent another hour and half with another professor, Anna, a striking Estonian linguist. Anna drilled us still further in the cursive alphabet. Having three hours of classes each day is a new rhythm to which it will take a while to adjust. In the afternoon there was a lecture in Yiddish about the fate of books during WWII. Fran decided to attend even though she would understand little if any of it. She hoped that hearing the language would enter her brain by osmosis. Another student who understood some Yiddish described the talk as depressing as it described the systematic destruction by the Germans of Yiddish and Hebrew books. I departed to head to the archives and see what I might learn.

The archives are on the other side of town and there was no easy way to get to them. The directions by trolley bus were quite complex so I decided to take a cab on this first day. The cab was costly from the old town and dropped me in front of a rather neglected building in an uninviting area of the town. I entered the archives and asked for Galina, the one English speaking archivist. They directed me to her office at the end of the hall. I began to knock on the door only to realize that it was padded. Knocking apparently is not encouraged. Instead I tried her door only to find it locked. She opened the door shortly after this attempt and I introduced myself. Galina escorted me down the hall where I was given a locker in which to put my coat as well as deposit any carry case big enough to walk out with documents. She then directed me to the reading room. There, people sat at small tables where they reviewed documents. She indicated that they had the original of one of the documents I requested, the 1875 census from Glebokie, but the rest of the documents were on microfilm. Before providing me with the documents they filled out an information card on me.

The 1875 census was quite crumbly with sections cut from it. I’m not sure why that was and Galina was no longer there to ask. It was in columnar format and the Russian script was better than some with which I’ve worked. As a result I was able to recognize a number of first names. I had written out the surnames I was researching in handwritten Cyrillic so I could look for names that might resemble them. Both names were short, Sher and Gold, so I thought they would be easier to locate. When I found names that resembled their initial letters I took a photograph as I wasn’t sure if there might be an ending added to the name which could lengthen it.

Having exhausted the census with some remote possibilities, but no Eureka moment, I then found my way to the microfilm room down the hall. They brought out a tray of microfilm, but only one was on a reel. Apparently those without reels had to be wound by hand. They set me up on a machine that didn’t seem to allow for enlargement of the image. Each time one rotated the reel it blurred for a minute until it came into sharper focus. That made for a slow and unwieldy process. The document was the census from 1834 and unlike the columnar form I had reviewed for 1875, it appeared to contain paragraphs, a format I would not have expected for a census. After winding through one of the reels, I concluded with disappointment that I’d be spinning my wheels and reels to continue down this path.

The archives closed at 4:30 so I decided to find a way to take a trolley car back to the center of town. I soon realized that the stop named for the street which housed the archives wasn’t the correct one as each trolley car passed me by. The Savanoriu stop listed the buses going to Pylimo, a stop from which I could find my way home. As I was dropped across from a large park, I pulled out my map and traced my path through streets that changed names frequently until I found Fran and one of our classmates at a nearby cafĂ©. They had been hard at work on our homework which I now need to catch up on.

I have concluded that unless I can identify someone with more Russian skills to assist me in my research, I will abandon my attempt at archive research. The archivists are no longer available to assist in research and the difficulties in communication proved somewhat daunting. I plan to e-mail a researcher who I had contacted originally and ask at the University if someone might be available to assist me. Otherwise I will have to rely upon our Belarus visit to learn more about that segment of the family.

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