April 10, 2024
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April 10, 2024
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I grew up in a mixed marriage. My mother came from a religious Zionist home and my father from a secularist Bundist family. I spoke Yiddish with my father and learned Hebrew at school; my family kept Shabbes and kosher, and still attended klezmer and Yiddish folk arts festivals. Camp Ramah, KlezKamp, Young Israel synagogues and a Chabad cheder day camp were all part of my childhood milieu. I only realized that this was somewhat of a cultural anomaly when I learned the classic refrain, a remark that seemed to be ingrained in Jewish consciousness that, “Yiddish was a dead or dying language.”

This phrase didn’t faze me, though. Sure, I was probably the only kid at Kiddush huddled over the pickled herring while my friends gravitated towards the sweets, but I didn’t mind. I knew I was raised in a home immersed in the celebration and perpetuation of Yiddish culture. The Yiddish and Yiddishkeit I experienced was a vibrant and living thing. I cherished how colorful my Jewish experiences were growing up. My relationship to both the secular world of Yiddish culture and my religious roots helped me appreciate the plurality of Judaism and the oneness of the Jewish people. I only wondered why my extended family and friends were missing out.

Yiddish permeates; it enters your kishkas and knows no ideological bias. The haredim and the heretics both claim it as their honored heritage. For the yeshivishe thinkers, Yiddish magazines like Dos Yiddish Vort which died with its editor, Yosl Friedenson, hold histories, halachic decisions and paint a picture of what it was like to be a Jew living lives of rigor and intensity in the old and new world. For the social justice activists, Edelshtat and Rosenfeld capture the plight of immigrant workers in their protest poems and songs. The humor of Sholem Aleychem, the insight of Peretz, the critique of Grade, the homey warmth of Warshavsky the sharpness of Bashevis Singer, the characters of Gebirtig all bring Judaism to life. The Kotsker and other chassidishe rebbes often wrote their seforim in Yiddish.

When I began to study for smicha, Yiddish opened up a whole new world for me as well. The fiery words of the Piacezner rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto came to life as I read his impassioned wartime speeches. The inspiring charges and innovations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe became relevant as well. Prominent rabbis and teachers from Heschel to Soloveitchik evoked a refreshing religious consciousness when read in Mameloshen. And of course, Yiddish is still very much the lingua franca of the chassidishe world—even if its badly fractured and Yinglish. Quicker than a Metrocard swipe, speaking a Yiddish word grants one access to the celebratory tishes/tables and Purim skits, breaking down cultural and religious divisions.

Ben Gurion and others considered Yiddish the language of victims, of the homeless and helpless Yid. We forget that Yiddish was the language of the partisan and poet during our people’s darkest hour.

“This song was written with blood and not with lead,” writes Hirsh Glik, in the Partisan Hymn, a ballad sung in battle, in camps, in ghettos and forest and among some of the first fighters for Israeli Independence in 1948. Today, we are 70 years removed from the liberation of Auschwitz. We are 70 years distant from the streets of Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz and Cracow.

We know that our children and grandchildren will not know the distinct sounds of the voices of survivors themselves. History will move on. And where will that leave us? In order for Holocaust education and commemoration to be relevant for future generations, our emphasis cannot solely be on how Jews died, but on how Jews lived. Yiddish language and culture is the key to opening this world.

Interest in Yiddish studies is prevalent across college campuses in the States, allowing students with little or extensive background in their Judaism, an alternate entry point to Yiddishkeit. Yiddish culture and music is alive and well, with klezmer festivals attracting thousands of young listeners in Cracow, Toronto and elsewhere. This year the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene (NYTF—Folksbiene is Yiddish for The People’s Stage), celebrates their centennial, 100 consecutive years of sustaining Yiddish culture. And for the first time, the world’s major Jewish arts organizations are coming together in one city, New York (top candidate for the most Yiddish city in the world today), at the same time. The NYTF will be hosting KulturFest in June 2015, an international Jewish performing arts festival, with eight jam-packed days of plays, concerts, films, lectures, exhibits, cabarets and workshops.

You might even say that at NYTF, it’s always Purim, a time where we acknowledge a unique episode in our people’s history when Jews were active members of a vibrant secular society, overcoming a foe who sought our people’s destruction. Today, when the many different ways to express one’s Yiddishkeit are vast and wide, do yourself a toyve, and celebrate Yiddish.

By Avram Mlotek

Rabbinical student at YCT

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