Standing for Yiddish in the land of Hebrew
The YUNG YiDiSH organization aims to preserve and extend Yiddish culture in Israel through performing arts and literature.
"I'll tell the tale in Yiddish because it sounds better. Then if needed, we'll translate," teases Mendy Cahan before launching into an old joke; you know the one about the beautiful girl, philosophy and matzo balls.
His delivery is precise and theatrical, earning spurts of laughter even before he's hit the punch line. When the laughter subsides, Mendy chooses to forgo the translation. Why bother? The way he sees it, Yiddish has the extraordinary ability to pick up where semantics break down. Compared to that, English is bubkas.
Mendy, a slender, nimble man of 46 with icy-blue eyes and a wispy poof of grey hair is the director of YUNG YiDiSH, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve and extend Yiddish culture. Today he is performing at the organization's Tel Aviv location. Tucked away at the end of the main corridor on the fifth floor of the central bus station, the center might be the city's least-known cultural treasure.
Part library, part museum and occasional performing arts center, YUNG YiDiSH Tel Aviv rests uneasily among the Christmas trees and pork vendors of Israel's largest bus station. Steeped in an ethnic potpourri, the curious setting betrays Yiddish's status as a language of exile, even in the Jewish homeland.
Ever since its foundation, Israel has spurned Yiddish and the thousand years of literature, intellectual achievement, music and various other forms of expression that go along with it. Popular sentiment dictated that constructing the "new Jew" meant disavowing the old Jewish identity, of which Yiddish was part and parcel. For many years speaking Yiddish in Israel was deemed socially unacceptable, and resident artists were forbidden from performing in Yiddish (foreign artists were permitted).
In recent years the political attitude has shifted from outright suppression to one of passive neglect. Indeed, Mendy senses "maturation in the public [mindset]," he told Haaretz in an interview, though he is quick to add that "the administration did not mature, and they refuse to mature."
While the survival of Yiddish is more or less assured by renewed interest in academic circles, among European nations and its status as the preferred language of the Hasidic community, few institutions busy themselves with preserving physical texts. Besides the wildly-acclaimed Yiddish theater Yiddispiel, support in Israel for organizations like Mendy's has been hard to come by.
The impetus for Mendy's work is his concern that a failure to unearth and preserve the wide array of Yiddish compositions will take wind out of the Yiddish spirit. To stave off such a fate, Mendy has taken on numerous roles: curator, archivist, librarian, performer and recently, activist.
Two nights before the show, Mendy spent the evening engaging in "a fight for survival" with Tel Aviv city hall. The grand size of the center qualifies for the maximum municipal property tax - a lofty 6,000 NIS - which the organization can scarcely afford. Mendy argued that, as a non-profit museum, YUNG YiDiSH should be exempt from the tax. Tel Aviv municipality deferred their decision to a later date. Their policy amounts to lukewarm approval: They pat Mendy on the back but when he reached for support, they claim that their hands are tied.
Still, Mendy lives to fight another day, embodying Isaac Bashevis Siinger's maxim "Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years, and I'm sure it will go on dying for another thousand." For tonight, the fat lady has not sung, the show must go on, and Mendy has more roles to play.
He leaps onto the stage parading a stack of translations by Kafka, Hemmingway, Kipling and Dostoyevsky. The poet recites a brief stanza by Baudelaire and disappears beside the audience.
Chanteuse Polina Belilovsky, playing a Yiddish Edith Piaf right down to the rose, takes the lead. She beckons to an uninterested lover as Mendy reappears, struts along the stage, rests on one chair and props his feet on another with smug disregard.
Mendy becomes a distressed father, standing over his forlorn son. Then he sits down and transforms into the young man Motel, who cunningly pits his father's sense of paternal duty against eternal familial love.
And with tremors from the buses overhead punctuating the perfomance, he plays the struggling but self-assured culture translator, snapping along to a rendition of Cooley and Davenport's "Fever" and crooning Gershwin's "Summertime."
Then he steps back into his body and argues the need for progress yet again. "These books were alive and kicking 60 years ago. Look how quickly memory changes if you don't take care of it."
Mendy continues, "When I went out to collect these books, there was not a Yiddish book store in Israel. Now there's maybe two or three." Add to that a library of sorts, and a dedicated librarian.
To see Mendy and others perform at YUNG YiDiSH Tel Aviv, check the event calendar at yiddish.co.il