Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Of Yiddish and Song

Yesterday we saw a film called Mame Loshn-Kinder-Loshn (Mother Tongue-Children’s Tongue) about Yiddish. It was produced by one of our classmates and was quite extraordinary. The documentary addressed the varying reactions to the use of Yiddish over time and was comprised of interviews with many Israeli Yiddish speaking citizens.

At the end of the 19th century there were 12 million Yiddish speakers. Today there are about 1 million. The language developed over 1000 years ago when Jews settled in Germany and integrated German with Semitic language. Later it absorbed elements of Slavic languages. In 1939 90% of Jews spoke Yiddish. It explains how my Polish grandfather was able to connect with my Russian grandmother through a common language. Similarly Fran’s Polish father communicated with her French mother through Yiddish.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the use of Yiddish was quite controversial. One of the quotes in the film was “with Yiddish we went to Treblinka, with Hebrew we went to the Negev”. Yiddish was viewed as the ghetto language. Ben Gurion said “the language grates on my ears”. Even before WWII, Yiddish was increasingly viewed as old world. The early language policy in Israel was to unify the country with the common Hebrew language. To this end, Israel actually forbid staging Yiddish plays in the 1950s and impeded the publishing of Yiddish newspapers.

There has been a resurgence of Yiddish theater in Israel, albeit with subtitles for the non-Yiddish speaking audience. As time has passed there is a nostalgic look at the important role Yiddish has played in the history of Jewish people. The popularity of the Yiddish theater has been enhanced by Russian immigrants. Yiddish classes are also experiencing a come-back.

In one portion of the film they talked about Yiddish as a language for humor. One of my favorite lines was “a Yiddish joke is juicy, zaftig (fleshy, spilling over)." One Yiddish actor said if Hamlet was done in Yiddish, instead of “to be, or not to be” someone from the audience would respond, “So be already, or not be! What’s the deal?”

There was a sadness to the film in that the rich history of literature and songs has largely come to an end. With the exception of Hasidic Jews, Yiddish is no longer a primary language. In our classes we find ourselves resonating with certain Yiddish words because they have associations with family. That experience has largely been extinguished for future generations.

At lunch today one of my classmates asked me why I wanted to learn Yiddish. I explained that it is useful in my genealogy research and as an artist I want to incorporate it into artwork around family history. There is yet another reason. Last year I went to Bad Arolsen, Germany to the International Tracing Service Holocaust records. In the records I found survivors in my family who now live in Paris and Israel. I connected with them and began communicating by e-mail with the daughter of the Paris survivor who is in his late 80s. She told me that her father asked if I spoke Yiddish. I regretfully replied no and it closed off a line of communication. I decided then that I needed to learn the language. While it is unlikely that I will be proficient enough to have a conversation with him, I believe culture is embedded in language and if I want to understand the culture it is important to understand the language. Each path I take leads to other unanticipated paths and I believe this too will take me in new directions. And so I plod through my homework hoping it will magically coalesce in my brain.

Later in the day we attended a musical performance by Efim Chorny and Suzan Gergus. Chorny leads the Jewish Song Theatre in Kishinev. The performance was at the Jewish Community Center which previously housed a Hebrew gymnasium (a high school). As I walked up the worn steps I imagined the young students who once inhabited these hallways. Again we feel the presence of ghosts. Many of our classmates report similar impressions.

The songs were in Yiddish with Klezmer rhythms and were definitely high energy. Chorny is working with the more musical among us to prepare a performance for later in the week. I sat in for the first hour today where we were challenged to learn the Yiddish words and sing them at an extremely rapid tempo. Lacking musical ability I decided to be an appreciative fan of the Friday performance. You can hear his music at http://www.klezmeralliance.com/

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