April 17, 2024
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April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part II

Aaron Lansky’s center and other similar archives of all things Yiddish appeal to more than hasidic Jews. Digitized books, articles, lectures and interviews serve secular Jews and non-Jews, including scholars and college students everywhere. It’s heartening to realize how many universities offer Yiddish studies. The surprise is that non-Jews are engaging in this discipline. And why not? Although Yiddish literature encompassed only a relatively short period, it was born in a time of great flux, when the world was entering modernity; when both publishing and readership was burgeoning; when literacy was growing and lending libraries were ubiquitous. It was common for drugstores in America to have a lending library, and local bookstores would later sell inexpensive paperbacks from rotating wire shelves. Nowadays, when Amazon’s popularity threatens the demise of bookstores, one can buy Yiddish books through the internet or download digitized versions.

Ironically, the catastrophe that destroyed the majority of Yiddish writers and readers also spurred respect and interest in Yiddish continuity, in part because of the growth of Holocaust scholarship. Yiddish fluency is a boon to Holocaust scholars especially when coupled with knowledge of German, Hebrew and Slavic languages. Not only did countless diarists write their eyewitness accounts in Yiddish, it was the language that poets and lyricists used; the language of the Yizkor Books and Pinkuses that were later written to account for who and how individual communities lived and what was lost in the war. Yiddish is also extremely valuable to general and literary historians, sociologists, musicologists and musicians. One of the finest interpreters of songs written and sung during the Shoah is Maria Krupoves, a Lithuanian musicologist who learned Yiddish from the eminent writer and lecturer Dovid Katz. Brooklyn-born, yeshiva educated, the son of Yiddish poet Menke Katz, he studied at Columbia University and earned a PhD at London University before heading the Department of Jewish Studies at Vilnius University. He currently divides his time between Wales and Vilnius (Vilna). The author of “Words on Fire” is actively engaged in opposing Holocaust revisionism, an extremely sinister form of Holocaust denial.

Yiddish theatre suffered after the war. Not only were there far fewer Jews who knew Yiddish, the advent of television and movies now kept audiences more affordably entertained. For theatre fans, Yiddish theatre was unable to compete with Broadway, which had become home to many English-speaking Jewish performers and their offspring. Moreover, audiences lost patience with older actors being cast as bright young things. The Yiddish Actors Union was highly responsible for this. Not only did they put strict limitations for entry into the union, they insisted that only members be cast in plum roles. It was an untenable situation given the givens. Yiddish theatre companies were forced to close.

It would take both genius and modern technology to make Yiddish theatre appealing to new audiences. Joseph Papp, who got his start in Yiddish theatre, had both and started a renaissance in Yiddish plays. The Brooklyn-born son of immigrants from Russia, he founded The Public Theatre in the former Astor Library Building. He also created free performances of Shakespeare in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, and as a producer and director was responsible for many hits, most notably “A Chorus Line.” In the 1980s he produced a musical comedy, “Songs of Paradise,” at the Public. Based on songs of prominent poet and playwright Itzik Manger, it relied on supertitles to make the musical accessible to non-Yiddish speakers. The productions received excellent reviews and had a good run, but nearly two decades would pass before other producers followed suit. During those decades, Jewish studies departments in universities were instituted. These would begin to foster an interest in Yiddish, as would entities such as YIVO.

It’s hugely satisfying, even redemptive, when small theatres companies like the New Yiddish Rep and the Folksbiene successfully stage Yiddish plays, substituting expensive production values for simplicity buttressed by tremendous talent. The Rep’s Yiddish productions of “Waiting for Godot” and “The Death of a Salesman” received great acclaim. As for the Folksbiene, not only was their “De Goldene Callah” (The Golden Bride) a huge hit, their recent production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish has, well, gone through the roof. Scheduled for a brief run of just a few weeks, it’s been playing sold-out performances since it opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It has been extended several times and is also scheduled to tour other cities. Since success breeds success, we can expect that these plays will arouse increased interest in and appreciation for the richness of a language that too many denigrated and considered dead.

Who in 1930-1940s Europe, or later in America, imagined that Isaac Bashevis Singer would ever be awarded a Nobel Prize? But the man was not only an entertaining story-teller and novelist, he was something of a prophet. It behooves us to remember his words when he accepted the award (his lecture is on the internet). The Nobel Laureate concluded by saying, “There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Kabbalists—rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity…..”

By Barbara Wind


Barbara Wind is the director of the Holocaust Center of Greater MetroWest.

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