Rabbi Dr Barbara Borts reflects on the expansion of Yiddish.
The Yiddish language and I have dated over the years. I was raised with the sonic background of Yiddish. My father’s parents, Bobie and Zeidie, spoke Yiddish to each other. My parents spoke some Yiddish to each other but more importantly, my father peppered his life with delicious expressions he had heard and, I like to imagine, perhaps created. A tasty meal was a ‘taam genedem’, a taste of the garden of Eden; when he was full, he would stuff the last bits in, saying it was ‘beser az di boykh zol plotsn, az esn avek tzu warfn’, better to burst one’s belly than throw food away. He never told me no to something he knew I needed – it was always, ‘breyr hob ikh?’, do I have a choice? My mother had her expressions, usually culminating in ‘hak mir nit keyn chinik’, stop banging me a tea kettle.
I live up in the northeast of England, in a land of few Jews, and even fewer Yiddish speakers, and when I moved up here from the south, I left my meagre Yiddish connections behind, the classes I took with my dear friend Barry Davis, z’’l, and occasional Yiddish films or theatre. I did find the Arbiter Ring, the Worker’s Circle, and, all showered and pajamaed, and in a darkened room so as not to disturb the dogs, I logged on at 23:30 of a Wednesday, to spend 1½ hours with the marvellous Nikolai Borodulin, learning and speaking with people from all over the world, from the USA to Eastern Europe, where it was even later, to Japan, where the class saw our fellow student drinking her morning coffee.
But something remarkable happened during this past 1 ½ years – Yiddish has come to thrive in a way that would not have been possible before this terrible pandemic. Local classes became international, conversation groups in specific cities were open to people from other countries, concerts and singing sessions went online, educational offerings moved to ZOOM. Sundays, I have been known to go to the Yiddish Open Mic Café, where those of us in the UK are joined by people from Argentina, Mexico, Australia, the USA, and Europe, and then move to Milwaukee and a reading circle of Russian, French, Italian, Israeli, British, Swedish, and American participants, to California, for a lecture or a concert, or sessions in acting in Yiddish. Mondays, Oxford, for another reading circle, then to NYC, for a lecture, sponsored by YIVO. Tuesdays, I might go back to the States for a conversation group, Wednesdays, a reading and discussion group with people from Canada and all points in the USA. Thursdays often find me in Paris, with French participants but also an Israeli, and perhaps that evening, with Dovid Katz in Vilnius.
I have done a dramatic turn in Yiddish – a scene from The Dybbuk – written a melody to a Yiddish poem, discussed conspiracy theories in Yiddish, read literature about the lynching of black Americans in Yiddish, and listened into the yeshivas of my grandmother, my Bobie’s, hometown of Vilna. I have met Yiddish poets and scholars, gazed at Yiddish paintings, explored the works of many and varied writers, conversed with creators of new Yiddish dictionaries and sung songs discovered by those working in archives. I translated a play of a well-known Yiddish writer from Israel. All of this! Last summer, I ‘attended’ the YIVO summer course, long a dream of mine, studying from 14:00 until 21:30 or even 22:30 for 6 weeks, plus homework. This year, I have opted to attend a 3-week course ‘in’ Paris, through Maison de la Culture Yiddish.
Yiddish has also exploded on Facebook, where I now belong to 25 (!) different groups involved in one or another aspect of Yiddish – and there are many more available. In contrast, I found very few dedicated to Ladino, which is also undergoing some kind of renaissance, and only private lessons in that language. And then there are the YouTube videos, the journals, the websites…
Yiddishists and Yiddish libhobers, loves of Yiddish, fall into a variety of categories. One is the group known as the heritage group, of which I guess I am a part. This is those who had Yiddish, as I did, either as a murmured family language or who may have even been raised speaking it. My Bobie-Zeidie, that is, my grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, various older cousins, spoke it as their day to day language, and I heard it. My father in particular only ever said certain things in Yiddish, and, like others, we sang songs in Yiddish. There are others in various groups who were even fairly fluent as children and want to recapture their mameloshn, their mother tongue. And many who can speak, but never really learned to write or read Yiddish.
Another group involves scholars, academics, Jewish in the main but not solely, who become interested in a particular period of history, or a poet, or a body of literature, or the Shoah, and want to learn the language of the creators of such rich culture. Many of them continue to become noted experts, like our own Heather Valencia from Scotland, or the Newcastle University lecturer in whose module I teach, Ian Biddle, who, in turn, teaches students the beginnings of Yiddish so they can themselves conduct research in the original language.
Then there are the actors and singers, some not Jewish, who are captivated by Yiddish melodies, Yiddish songs, klezmer, the theatrical works, and dive deeply into Yiddish so as to reproduce it with integrity. The director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, Shane Baker, is one of the contemporary world’s greatest exponents of Yiddish theatre, who learned at the feet of the former great stars of Yiddish theatre in New York. He isn’t Jewish.
Radical Jews, too, have found a welcoming home in Yiddishland. There were already Jews who sought in Yiddish the locus of their Jewish identity, an alternative to the blandness of much of modern Jewish life, and to the emphasis on Zionism and Hebrew. They kept alive the Bund, and socialist and Marxist narratives and perspectives, and duikhkayt, the belief that one is at home where one lives, and, in connection to the past, and to the struggles of the people for a more just and equal world, they speak Yiddish and sing its many protest songs.
A burgeoning interest has been awakened in gay and lesbian, trans and fluid Jews, who have developed an international connection with each other, in projects of social justice and in fashioning new language structures in Yiddish, to support their developing ideas about identity and to support each other, and search out material, or create material, that expresses their Jewish lives.
There are the native speakers, a few of whom are secular Jews raising children to speak Yiddish, but most of whom are Chassidic, and now the subject of great interest as ‘authentic’ Yiddishists. Yiddish has also created ba’alei teshuvah, Jews who ‘return’ to traditional Jewish life and find the link between the observant Jews of the pre-Holocaust shtetls of Eastern Europe, who were their grandparents and great-grandparents, and the current Yiddish-speaking Jews of places like Stamford Hill a kosher connection. It is not unheard of for secular Jews to find their way back to Jewish study and practise, through Yiddish, for so much of the earlier literature and so many of the poems refer to Jewish life and rituals. This was a path for me, as well, to the greater observance of Judaism. I well remember how the late Sheila Shulman cried when in shul for Yom Kippur, listening to me singing the well-known Mark Warshawsky song Afn Pripetshik, a poem about children learning their alef-beys, their alphabet, to carry with them through their lives as their guide and their core. She held a Torah in her arms for the first time, and the rest, as we know, is history.
I do worry sometimes, that in some circles, as connections are forged between Chassidim and Yiddishists, the progressive Jewish world is subtly dismissed as inauthentic, lacking a link back to the shtetlakh of Eastern Europe.
An alt-neu Jewish world is being forged online. I think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, z’’l, and his masterpiece The Sabbath. He notes that Judaism hallows time, not space and place. Most languages are autochthonous, born in and nurtured in a place, in a space, and as you move from one place to another, you change your language. But Yiddish, perhaps like Latin once upon a time, was never solely embedded in one land and one country. It was always supranational, and portable. Even the hegemonic influence of English nowadays is about an attraction to, and pervasive influence from, the USA in particular. But not Yiddish. There is no actual Yiddish land. Yiddish was always constructed in time, over continents, adding words to its diverse palette of medieval Germanic and Hebrew from Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Roma. And over those continents, it creates a different kind of land, a Heschelian Yiddishland in time, based not in any one place, but inhabiting lives wherever it is allowed to enter.
There are many people studying this phenomenon, interviewing people, adding personal perspectives. Why did this happen to this degree? Is it to do with the upsurge in antisemitism that has swept all countries? Or about increased time for exploration? Or was it about an intense need for connection? The local was, for many people, the world they inhabited during the lock-downs, but the local can often exclude the Jew, and, in my case, opportunities to be with Jews were curtailed. Online relationships transported me away from the situational lack and, in fact, gave me so much more than I had had before this pandemic. Opportunity met desire and it exploded. Suddenly, I could journey out of my very non-Jewish surroundings, and meet with others who are, simply, much more like me.
What is the future of all of this? I am anxious. My twice-monthly Paris group will, going forward, meet once a month in person and once a month online. I don’t know if the courses will continue in such a proliferation, but I hope so. For now, it is summer, and things are a bit quieter, but, as people return to their local lives, will they continue to nurture and celebrate and connect with this international Yiddish world they have experience?
What did I do through the pandemic? Ikh hob zikh geyidisht, I Yiddished.