Saturday, May 20, 2006

Against the odds, devotees fight to save Yiddish

Itche Goldberg and Jason Rubin are separated in age by 82 years, but they're linked by a common passion for an ancient Jewish language that threatens to slip into obscurity.

The life of 102-year-old Goldberg spans the recent decline of Yiddish to its heyday early last century when about 13 million Jews _ or some 70 percent of Jews worldwide _ spoke the lilting language that gave English words like "chutzpah" and "schmo."

Rubin, a 20-year-old student of Yiddish, embodies the hope that somehow, some way, the language can survive now that there are fewer than 2 million speakers.

"You can't possibly see a future Jewish life with the disappearance of a 1,000-year-old language and with it a 1,000-year-old culture," says Goldberg, a top Yiddish scholar since the 1930s, by phone from his New York home. "Somehow it has to be there."

Ensuring the language and culture Jews brought from Eastern Europe is there for posterity is the goal of devotees across the nation, some of whom hold summer camps while others stage theatrical shows in a bid to turn people on to Yiddish.

Revival bands perform traditional Yiddish klezmer music _ a kind of Jewish jazz _ with the same aim. And one New York group trying to pique interest among children recently published "Di Kats Der Payats" _ better known as Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat."

Others, like Rubin, contribute to the cause by putting in hard hours to learn the hybrid of German and Hebrew. After two years studying it at the University of Chicago, Rubin, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, is now close to fluent.

"I almost felt I was cheated by not knowing Yiddish growing up," says Rubin, who squeezes in Yiddish studies between premed classes. "My appreciation of Jewish culture has increased tenfold by learning it."

Preserving Yiddish in its full glory will be a mammoth task. So much is already lost.

From his downtown office atop the Board of Trade building, Jake Morowitz can see what's been lost in Chicago, which once boasted 200,000 Yiddish speakers.

In clear view to the southwest is Maxwell Street _ once the hub of Chicago's bustling Jewish district. Until 40 years ago, shoppers still haggled in Yiddish over unfixed prices in the street's open-air market.

Today, there's virtually nothing left of the old Maxwell Street. Most original Jewish families have long since moved to the suburbs, and large swaths of the district were bulldozed in the 1960s to make room for a new University of Illinois campus.

No more than 5,000 Jews still speak Yiddish in and around Chicago today, says Morowitz, head of the YIVO Society, which promotes Yiddish in the area.

Yiddish has lost ground in New York, too. After World War II, several hundred thousand people spoke Yiddish in the city, the de facto capital of Yiddish in North America. Now, around 100,000 do.

New York's Yiddish-language Forward newspaper reflects the decline. Its circulation was around 275,000 before the war; today, it's around 3,000.

And where there were scores of Yiddish theaters in New York, just one is left _ the Folksbiene. These days, it displays subtitles in English at most performances.

One last bastion of Yiddish is the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community, which employs the language to insulate members from outside influences and hedge against assimilation.

So numerous are the ultra-orthodox in parts of Brooklyn that some ATMs offer the option of conducting transactions in Yiddish.

"In our world, Yiddish is flourishing," says the dean of a Yiddish-language Hasidic school in Chicago, Rabbi Moshe Unger _ dressed in black garb, a wide-brimmed felt hat at his side.

But there's a catch to Hasidics' love of Yiddish: Since they shun the secular world, their affection doesn't extend to Yiddish literature, theater and music.

"We don't have time for that," Unger says, adding flatly that "the loss of Yiddish outside the orthodox community is not a concern of ours."

For many, though, maintaining the rich secular traditions of Yiddish is vital.

Goldberg has devoted his adult life to secular Yiddish culture, editing a Yiddish literary magazine well past his 100th birthday.

Most of Goldberg's contemporaries have long since died.

"We see before our eyes (the number of Yiddish masters) go from ten to five, from five to one and on to approach zero," leading Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz said in an e-mail. "This explains why we take the death of even 90-year-olds so badly."

Still, some young people are starting to take up the Yiddish banner, according to Morowitz.

Yiddish was once associated with bitter memories of the Holocaust, whose victims were mostly Yiddish speakers, he said. Israel's decision to adopt Hebrew as its state language also caused many Jews to shirk from Yiddish.

"When Jewish immigrants came here, they wanted to put that old ghetto life behind them," Morowitz says. "But young Jews today are no longer embarrassed by the language. There is a new influx of Jews wanting to learn Yiddish."

Morowitz, despite his optimism, strikes a realistic note about the future of Yiddish.

"We don't have any illusions about Jewish people starting to speak Yiddish to each other again," he says. "But young Jews can learn something of the language and learn to appreciate it more, and so appreciate why we are who we are."

Asked what he'd say to young Jews who haven't embraced Yiddish as wholeheartedly as Rubin _ who says he intends to teach his own children Yiddish one day _ Goldberg's answer is part plea, part admonishment.

There's also a hint of sadness in his voice.

"I would probably look at them and say, `Go back, look at your heritage,"' he says. "`It's your own, it's inside you. You can't leave it behind."'


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