TEL AVIV – Past the vendors hawking cheap knapsacks, phone cards, plastic toys and greasy falafels, up the ramp beyond the STD clinic and the school for remedial driving, and around the corner from a Filipina-Israeli matchmaking agency and a kindergarten for African migrant workers’ children, is a dark corridor filled with nothing.
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Welcome to Tel Aviv’s massive and much maligned central bus station, where hapless commuters shuffle alongside foreign workers, asylum-seekers, drug addicts, prostitutes and the homeless alike, all riding up and down the escalators leading to abandoned floors, searching for the Egged buses out of here.
Into this mix add one Mendy Cahan, the Belgian-born Orthodox yeshiva boy-turned bohemian Israeli; a Yiddish performer, book collector and all-around Yiddish enthusiast, who can be found, most afternoons, chain-smoking away in his office at the end of the dark corridor.
“Welcome to Yung YIDdish,” says the 48-year-old Cahan, absentmindedly shoving away a clutter of papers and unpaid bills from his desk as he gets up to put on an old tin kettle for mint tea. He sways ever so slightly back and forth as he talks, a relic, perhaps, from his early Antwerp yeshiva days. In any case, with his bushy eyebrows, sparkly blue eyes and receding mane of gray hair, he certainly cuts a striking figure in the already surreal south Tel Aviv scene.
And then, as the rumbling of the buses above shakes the furniture, Cahan turns to the back of the office and opens up a bisselleh door – and one stumbles, as if down Alice’s rabbit hole, into a wonderland.
It is a land of Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish, right here amidst the Tigrinya signs, the Filipino chatter and the Hebrew announcements about when the 394 bus leaves for Eilat.
Some 40,000 books, periodicals and magazines fill the cavernous space behind the office: They are lined up on shelves, propped up against the walls and piled high on the ground. There are health magazines from Warsaw circa 1924, joke books out of 1930s Vilna and beautifully illustrated children’s books from New York in the 1940s. There are novels by Shloyme Etinger and Chaim Grada, poems by Mani Leib, and translations of everything from Pushkin to Hemingway and Cervantes – all of them in Yiddish.
Everything here was once privately owned and then donated to Cahan and his Yung YIDdish center. Some might call it a Yiddish graveyard, but far better, suggests Cahan, would be to call it a library. A cultural center, even, where these books live on.
Typically, says Cahan, looking for his cigarettes and mobile phone, then thinking of a better plan and looking for his glasses first, he will get a call from someone who, following the death of a relative, doesn’t know what to do with the books left behind. More often than not, the younger generation cannot read Yiddish, says Cahan, and need the books like a loch in kop – but they are uncomfortable just throwing them away.
So people schlep over with boxes or plastic bags filled with the books. Sometimes, if the center is closed, books are left on the doorstep. Once in a while, an elderly Yiddish speaker will call and ask to personally donate their books, worried, perhaps, that otherwise they will be lost or thrown away. “I have had many people tell me: ‘My kids and grandkids don’t understand how precious these books are, but you do,’” says Cahan.
If someone can't make it in, Cahan will go pick up the donation himself. “It’s more than a pickup,” he explains. “It’s like a ritual. I sit down with them. We get into vus machs da. I listen to their stories.”
Handling these books, Cahan explains, one can almost conjure up their owners lovingly leafing through them, and considering them important enough to take along when they fled their countries all those years ago. Sometimes, a little napkin might fall out from between pages. Often, there are dedications handwritten on the inside cover. “Sometimes I will open and just smell a book … and be transported to a different time and place,” says the collector, closing his eyes.
Before World War II, there were some 15 million people who spoke and read Yiddish – an amalgam of German, Hebrew, and Aramaic written in Hebrew characters – in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That world was destroyed in the Holocaust.
In Israel, where it was seen by many as a competition to the revival of Hebrew, Yiddish was long neglected, or even derided. There are stories of Yiddish movies being boycotted and kiosks selling Yiddish papers attacked in the 1930s and 40s.
In recent years, though, there has been something of a mini revival of interest in the language and literature here. About 500 high-school students in Israel sat for the Yiddish matriculation exam in 2012, up from 400 the year before, and more universities and colleges are offering Yiddish literature as part of their courses. Tel Aviv’s Yiddishpiel Yiddish theater, which was founded in 1987, runs more than 300 plays a year – mostly in retirement homes – but also in theaters for the wider, and younger public.
Cahan, the son of Holocaust survivors, whose father was in the diamond business, grew up in what he calls a “cosmopolitan Orthodox” family. They summered in Switzerland, and had books in Dutch, French and English in their home. But Cahan’s first language was Yiddish. “I studied Torah in Yiddish, and played football in Yiddish and I bought bread in Yiddish,” he says.
In 1980, he came to study in a yeshiva in Israel, but soon strayed from his Orthodox path, enrolling in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University to study philosophy and literature, and dabbling in physics. On something of a whim, he also decided to take a Yiddish literature course there. That was his “wow” moment, as he calls it, when a whole new world of Yiddish opened up to him, and he went meshuggeneh for it.
“I was like ‘Wow!’ Yiddish literature connected everything for me. It was about being European and about being Jewish,” he says. “And I also said to myself: ‘If I, who spoke Yiddish at home, did not realize we had such a rich Yiddish literature culture, then how can you expect anyone else to know this?” There was no Yiddish section in the Israeli bookseller Steimatzky. There was no public space promoting great Yiddish literature. “And I said, ‘okay, let's go collect some Yiddish,” he says.
Cahan started collecting in 1996, putting out word that he would take care of any Yiddish book anyone wanted to give away and never throw it away. First, he housed the collection in a small apartment in Jerusalem. When it started growing he branched out to Tel Aviv. He called his organization “Yung YIDish,” in an effort to appeal to and draw in a younger generation of Yiddish enthusiasts.
Over the years, Cahan has also become a well-known Yiddish teacher, theater and music performer. He travels the world, from Lithuania and Poland to the Upper West Side of New York City, with his band “Mendy Cahan & Der Yiddish Express,” or with his one-man show featuring Yiddish renditions of such classics as “Summertime,” or a medley of Jacques Brel favorites.
But Yung YIDish is his home base. Once in a while, Cahan might get a volunteer or two to help out in the center, but other days, it’s just him, whiling away the hours with Itzik Manger and Abraham Goldfaden, cataloguing and restoring and humming a little Yiddish niggun to himself.
Orthodox men with long beards pop in to schmooze. New immigrants from Russia meander in to see what’s up. Curious tourists, from everywhere from Argentina to Germany, knock on the door, "looking for some Yiddish geshmakt,” explains Cahan. Students might come around to read Yosef Tunkel or look something up in an Avrom Reyzen poem, and those who don’t know a schlemiel from a shlemazel might show up with a letter from a grandparent they have found and need translated.
At the end of the vast room is a stage, itself crowded with rows and rows of stacked books, on which there are three empty chairs. Upon them sit large sewn dolls of the greats of Yiddish literature – Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and Y.L. Peretz, with a thick moustache.
Several times a month, Cahan organizes events up on this stage, from Yiddish cabarets to alternative Holocaust memorial evenings, to herring and kugel tastings. He also frequently allows young actors working on plays unrelated to Yiddish to use his space to rehearse their shticks.
Cahan is a total shmegegge, he admits, about the whole shnorr thing, and so works on a shoestring budget, pulled together from grants and a few private donations. Cahan makes payment for his events optional, so anyone can attend, and never charges the actors to use his space. “Company brings company,” he says. “I like having people around.”
Working out of the bus station does have his challenges, Cahan will allow, as more buses rumble overhead, but it also all feels strangely right here, amongst the Sudanese and Ethiopian food stands and the fertummelt commuters.
For Yiddish, Cahan concludes, was always an insider language of a community on the outs, and the immigration experience in its blood. “Yiddish is a spirit that travels all over. It always flourished within and alongside other languages and communities,” he says. “This is a good home for us.”