July 20, 2024
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Preserving and Transmitting Yiddish Culture in Israel, From a Tel Aviv Bus Station

Less than a century ago, Yiddish, referred to as “mame loshen” (mother tongue), was spoken and understood as a primary language by an estimated 11 million Jews. Yiddish literature, music and theater, thrived. However, due in large part to factors such as assimilation and the Shoah, Yiddish and Yiddish culture suffered unfathomable losses and was considered by many on its way to extinction. The good news though, is that it has not ceased being a used vernacular in many Jewish communities and circles, and that Yiddish and Yiddish culture are experiencing a resurgence, bringing a reconnection with our Jewish heritage, our past and our present.

One nonprofit association, Yung Yidish Library and Cultural Center in Israel, is keeping the mother tongue alive in big ways. The purpose of the organization is the preservation and transmission of Yiddish culture as well as encouraging contemporary Yiddish creativity in its various forms. The organization has a stated twofold goal: “to preserve and instill traditional Yiddish culture and to encourage original work and contemporary Yiddish cultural activity.” Yung Yidish activities include the collecting and preserving of Yiddish books, magazines, photos, paintings, sheet music, records, letters, games and postcards, as well as conducting a wide variety of exhibits, transfers, lectures and trainings. Yung Yidish also offers classes, courses, tours, exhibitions and varied cultural performances and events.

The organization was established in 1993 by Mendy Cahan. “I founded Yung Yidish in Israel to raise awareness about the extent, depth and versatility of the Yiddish culture and literature,” he said. “It’s important, after all the terrible hardships and silencing that Yiddish went through, to help keep Yiddish in the public realm and conversation. Safeguarding the books for future generations is obviously important—-we need yet to acknowledge much of their value and influence—but it was also important from the beginning to have a space to experience, interact and experiment with Yiddish in a lively contemporary way: a stage where all aspects of Yiddish creativity may find their expression. Yiddish likes to live under the bridge between the spoken word and text.”

Cahan, the son of Holocaust survivors and for whom Yiddish was his mother tongue, is originally from Antwerp. He left the Orthodox community where he grew up to go to Jerusalem. He is an actor, singer, teacher and collector of books, all in Yiddish, of which over 90,000 are stored at Yung Yidish’s Tel Aviv location.

His acting credits include the movies the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” (2015), for which he was also the Yiddish coach; the Austrian film “Murer: Anatomy of a Trial” (2018); “Haya O Lo Haya” (2003); and “Longing” (1998). Cahan performs on Yiddish stages around the world. He is currently appearing in “The Dybbuk” at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv, and will soon appear in the Netflix series “Diamonds.” He lectures about Yiddish literature at Alma College and is active as a volunteer for Yung Yidish. He has degrees in philosophy and in Yiddish literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And he continues to be the driving force behind Yung Yidish, where all ranges of people, Haradim, ultra-Orthodox, completely secular and LGBTQ people are opened up to Yiddish, not academically or as something of the past, but rather in a lively, coming-to-life and present, living entity.

In 2006, Yung Yidish Tel Aviv was established in the unlikely location of the 5th floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Yung Yidish Central Station, Levinsky Street 108 Studio 5008. This is where the bulk of the book treasure is displayed. Here too, administration and the living Yiddish museum is found.

But sadly, the closing date of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station for public transport is set to happen at the end of 2023. And that leaves an uncertain fate for Yung Yidish. “This will probably not impact us for the better,” said Cahan. “We have not found a decent plan B yet; we are frantically looking, raising awareness of our plight where we can. What became obvious is that Yung Yidish is a public treasure to protect and grow. We, of course, need all the support we can gather to lead the Yung Yidish boat over those upcoming waves. In the meantime, we valiantly continue our Sunday klezmer events and other concerts. We continue to receive groups and classes, collect books, etc., with only our force of volunteers.”

Yung Yidish is now asking for support to cover basic expenses entailed in keeping Yiddish cultural projects going in order to keep our 1,000-year-old story of Yiddish alive.

For more information about how to support Yung Yidish and about how to become a member, donor, supporter or volunteer, write to: [email protected] SMS +972 52 2904779. For donations: https://yiddish.co.il/en/support-yung-Yidish/

On Sunday, October 23 at 2 p.m., Cahan will be the guest for YIVO’s Yiddish Club’s Zoom session “Contemporary Yiddish Creativity in Israel.” To register for the free event,visit https://www.yivo.org/YiddishClub13


Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.

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