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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good News in the Yiddish World: Part 1

I’m ashamed to have to admit that I failed at my seemingly simple goal of writing a new blog entry at least once a week.  And seeing as I haven’t written anything here in more than a month, one could say that I’ve failed four times over.  Considering that I’ve failed to write for more than a month twice now, one could even say that I’ve failed eight times over.  All the same.  It’s not like anyone’s actually paying that much attention, right? 
The good news is that I’ve kept up with my most important goal which has been to write well thought out non-schoolwork related pieces consistently on a weekly basis. So where is everything that I’ve written?  Well, it turns out that I’ve been on a bit of a hot streak as of late and everything I’ve written and/or outlined in the past month has been of high enough quality that I’ve felt it deserving of being worked into a full length article.  So now instead of eight blog posts I have four articles on Yiddish culture written and ready to be submitted for publication, along with twelve articles on a variety of other topics outlined.  Since material put on a blog cannot be republished in a “real” magazine or website, none of this stuff will see the light of day until someone decides to publish it.  And that could, scratch that, will be a while. 
In any case, I want to keep up with the blog and I will begin by going over some “good news in the Yiddish world.”  When I began this blog I decided not to write about Yiddish projects I was working on and that such material would be more appropriate elsewhere.  Because I’m on the board of Yugntruf I also won’t talk too much about what that organization is doing either other than occasionally post event notices.  This leaves good news coming from the work of everyone in the Yiddish world not involved with Yugntruf.  And in recent months there has been plenty of it.  Here are (a lot) of highlights:
1.  When I went to Israel in April this year one of the main things I did was go on a tour of the Yiddish institutions.  As usually happens with me in the small Yiddish world, I was warmly welcomed by many of the leading figures and other fellow travelers and learned a lot about the community(ies).  Much is happening with Yiddish in Israel.  While the Yiddish circle around Yugntruf is stoking the flames of a (very) small language revival (in that families that weren’t Yiddish speaking for generations speak the language at home with their kids again), what is happening in Israel could better be termed a cultural renaissance, in that people are returning to the language as a part of their Jewish culture and identity but for the most part not attempting to speak it as a vernacular in the home.  (This is of course excepting some beautifully stubborn Haredi communities in Meah Shearim and Bnei-Barak, with whom I had a couple fascinating encounters and was also received warmly).  The fantastically talented composer Daniel Galay, a longtime Facebook friend and the chairman of the association of Yiddish writers and journalists in Israel Leyvik-hoyz, ended up sitting next to me at the same theater featured in this report (Yidishshpiel).  Strangely enough we didn’t recognize each other and he was surprised to find a young man who didn’t understand Hebrew (there are supertitles like an opera for the majority of the audience which doesn't understand Yiddish) and said in Yiddish “maybe you understand Yiddish?”  Then we both figured out who the other was.   
The next day I was off first thing in the morning to the Tel Nordau elementary public school where his daughter in law Hannah Polin Galay teaches Yiddish to elementary school students.  I served as a foreign Yiddish speaking guest for the students who were both amazed and motivated by encountering a young person who spoke fluent Yiddish but no Hebrew (they realized very early on that my inability to understand them in anything but Yiddish wasn’t an act).  I was particularly interested in learning about Hannah’s pedagogical methods because I had never seen Yiddish (or any language for that matter) taught to young kids.  And her short class was truly fascinating.  One important thing to note is that just like Israel and especially Tel Aviv Hannah’s students represented a melting pot.  Some of the kids were clearly not of Ashkenazi descent. Many were of mixed heritage. Some were from the former USSR and had Russian accents; some stemmed from families who been in Israel for generations.  A few were the children of Americans and four or five were not Jewish at all but Filipino.  One Filipino girl who knew some English made the amazingly astute observation that the words feder (feather, pen) and feather were cognates!  All the kids in the classes I visited learned Yiddish just like they learned English, math, Hebrew literature/reading skills or anything else for that matter.  While Yiddish was mandatory for some of the lower grades, many older kids (those featured in this CNN report) attend optional classes in the afternoon.  Interestingly enough many of these students are also not of Ashkenazi descent. 
2.  I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Aviv Luban at one of Yugntruf’s Yiddish Breaks at Brandeis a while back.  He and I think similarly about a couple of key issues relating to Yiddish culture and Jewish identity more broadly.  In January I wrote an article.  After putting it aside for a few days I decided that it was too emotional and didn’t hold together well and went on to other things.  Then, in April, Aviv published a much better but nearly identically argued article in the Jerusalem Post as an opinion piece.  I’ll let Aviv’s wonderful article stand on its own merits without further comment.
3.  Here is an update in the form of a short video report from Emory University about their Yiddish program. 
4.  Yiddish power ballads?  My reaction when I first heard that one was “that’s going to be ridiculous.”  And it kind of is.  But a few of the songs recorded by the group Yiddish Princess work shockingly well, especially Avrum Sutzkever’s poem “ver vet blaybn” (who will remain), the lead song on their Myspace page.  The group is first rate musically; no surprise considering the musicians who compose its members (Sarah Gordon, the daughter of Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper, Avi Fox Rosen, and Michael Winongrad among others).  You can hear about the evolution of the group in this interview.


5.  When I started my Youtube account two years ago, it was the only Youtube channel with original content in Yiddish with English subtitles.  Thankfully, higher quality channels have joined it, among them the official channel of the venerable Yiddish language Forward newspaper.  The Forward has been releasing a half dozen different eight to twelve minute shows in biweekly series.  Among them are Ross (Shmuel) Perlin’s reports from China, “a New York Jew in China.” I first met Ross in Vilnius in 2008 and we share a passion for endangered languages.  Ross is a bit braver than I am, so while I’m living comfortably in the states he’s over in a rural village in southwestern China (days away from paved roads!) doing a groundbreaking detailed grammatical survey of the Trung language (a distant cousin of Tibetan).  Here’s a report on his work in Yiddish with English subtitles. 
6. Many people, especially Hasidic Jews who grew up speaking Yiddish but have no exposure to its non-religious scholarly culture, have asked me what an academic lecture (referat) in Yiddish is like.  Well here’s a great one.  Even better, a full English translation is given for those of you who don’t understand the language or know Yiddish but can’t make heads or tails of Yiddish literary terms.  The speaker is the incomparable Argentinean born French Yiddish linguist and teacher Yitskhok Niborski.  The lecture was delivered at Stamford’s Hillel as a program of the National Yiddish Book Center.  The subject of the lecture is the poet Avrum Sutzkever (1913-2010).  One thing that caught my attention watching this were the many unexpected similarities in culture, diction, and word choice between this style of high level Yiddish academic lecture and the traditional religious lessons delivered in Yiddish known as Shiurim.

7.  “A pop-culture introduction to the Mama-Loshn.”  When I got that in my inbox I thought “this one is going to be really painful!”  Instead, I stumbled upon what are probably the cleverest (and least conventional) Yiddish lessons ever.  A “Yidisher Pop” is done as an online gossip column that teaches Yiddish.  It even has spray-painted celebrity photos af idish! like a certain gossip columnist I won't degrade myself by mentioning.  Designed by Adina Cimet and Alyssa Quint, these unique lessons in both the Hebrew alphabet and transliteration teach basic vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.  See for yourself.
 8.  The president of the US and much of Congress were treated to a wonderful rendition of the Partisan Song at the US capitol rotunda as part of the Holocaust Museum’s days of remembrance. 
9.  The second Yiddish-Japanese Japanese Yiddish dictionary was recently published in Japan.  The book was actually advertised in newspapers and is being sold for a whopping 700 dollars.  In addition to the two dictionaries there are also Yiddish textbooks in Japanese. 
10.  There are several Yiddish metal bands but the one that’s caught my attention the most recently has been the group Dibbukim out of Sweden.  Although not native speakers, you can hear that the two singers know the language fluently unlike singers in the other metal bands.  The music itself is also very interesting and clever.  Here’s an interview with singer Niklas Olniansky from the Polish Yiddish language radio show “naye khavlyes”, as well as their first music video. 

Need more good news from the Yiddish world?  I'll be writing the second half of this post in the coming weeks and I'll write a similar post in Yiddish highlighting stories and resources about current events in the Yiddish world that are only accessible to Yiddish speakers.   

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