Yiddish Is Dead. Long Live Yiddish!

Programs for Yiddish-lovers are proliferating both inside and outside the academic world in Israel, despite many having written off the language.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Gudrun Mattes' interest in studying Yiddish was sparked by a rather random conversation held more than 20 years ago. At the time, she was working as a nanny in the United States and happened to be attending a birthday party. The mostly Jewish guests were naturally stunned when the young Roman-Catholic German woman began belting out that all-time Yiddish favorite "Ba Mir Bistu Shein" - a song she had learned for a school play back in Germany.

"A Jewish lady came up to me and told me that she was really moved that a German would actually sing this song in Yiddish," recounted Mattes, age 42, who works as a software specialist in Germany today. "I remember her telling me that 85 percent of the victims of the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. That day I promised myself that one day I would learn Yiddish properly, to give some of those millions who had died a voice by reading their books, poems, letters and songs."

Two years ago, Mattes took her first Yiddish-language class in Hamburg, and next month, she plans to take part in an intensive 10-day course in the subject in Jerusalem at the Beit Ben Yehuda guesthouse. She is one of 15 participants already signed up for the program, now in its second year, organized in collaboration with the Yiddish department of the Hebrew University and the YUNG YiDiSH cultural center in Jerusalem. The majority, like Mattes, will be coming from overseas, many of them from Germany.

Heinke Lehmann, a retired language teacher from Germany, says it's her interest in Yiddish literature that convinced her to enroll in the course. "Since I've stopped working, I've become very interested in the Yiddish literary works written at the time of the Russian Revolution," said the 69-year-old.

Peter Freund, a retired math teacher who was born in Poland and raised in Germany by Christian parents who spoke a bit of Yiddish, said he became interested in the language of Eastern European Jewry while reading Yiddish writers translated into German.

"I decided that when I retired I would learn Yiddish so that I could read this very rich literature in its original language," said the 70 year-old, who will also be spending part of next month in Jerusalem.

Added to the growing list of Yiddish-language offerings here is a new and first of its kind two-year master's degree program in Yiddish language, literature and culture, inaugurated this year and run jointly by Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. The dozen or so students currently enrolled in the program, established with a grant from the Rothschild Foundation, are all Israeli, but the intention is to open it up to foreign students within a few years.

According to Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher, director of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University, the growing number of students interested in Yiddish language and culture today fall into several different categories.

"You have the bona-fide full-time students, mainly graduate students, who come because they need Yiddish for their research, whether in theater, linguistics, literature or history," she said. "Then you have those who come because it's part of their heritage - it's the language their grandparents spoke at home. Another category is people who are not academics but need Yiddish for their work. These include translators, editors, librarians and high-school teachers."

For the past seven years, Tel Aviv University, in conjunction with the Beth Shalom Aleichem cultural center in Tel Aviv, has been running an international Yiddish summer program, which draws between 100 and 130 students each year from both Israel and abroad, and provides 80 hours of language instruction.

Among some of the well-known names participating in this program in recent years are the Israeli actor Natan Datner, who was interested in brushing up on his Yiddish to prepare for his role as Tevye the milkman in a Cameri Theater production of "Fiddler on the Roof," and author Matan Hermoni, shortlisted for the Sapir Literary Prize this year for his debut book, "The Hebrew Publishing Company," about Jewish life in the Lower East Side of New York a century ago.

"We've had a Protestant minister from Basel, Switzerland, at our summer program who was already quite fluent in Yiddish and Hebrew," said Wirth-Nesher. "We've had a member of a rock band interested in expanding his Klezmer repertoire, and we've also had a few Judaic studies students from Japan."

Many of the foreign, non-Jewish students, particularly those from Poland and Germany, "come here to study Yiddish out of a deep feeling of commitment to the Jewish people," she added.

The Yiddish revival among Israelis, in her view, can be explained by the fact that "the language wars in Israel are over and Hebrew has won - so no one feels threatened by Yiddish anymore."

This year, Bar-Ilan University struck gold with a new course on the history of Yiddish-language theater - taught by actor Shmuel Atzmon, founder and director of Tel Aviv's Yiddishpiel Theater - that has become wildly popular. According to Dr. Ber Kotlerman, the academic director of the university's Rena Costa Center for Yiddish Studies, more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students are currently enrolled in Yiddish language courses at Bar-Ilan, among them, rather surprisingly, dozens of Arab students.

"My first encounter with Yiddish came years ago, when I used to work in Bnei Brak," said Yusef Elakeli, a 50-year-old graduate student in literature from the Israeli-Arab town Kfar Qasem, who plans to take Atzmon's course next year. "I loved the musical sound of it. Until I heard Yiddish, I had thought French was the most intimate language in the world."

When Beth Shalom Aleichem offered its first course in Yiddish 14 years ago, 80 students (mostly adults ) enrolled. Today, according to the institute's director, Prof. Avraham Novershtern, who also heads the Yiddish language program at the Hebrew University, there are more than 300, in 16 different classes, studying at all levels. "If I could branch in-to other cities outside of Tel Aviv, I know I'd even have many more students," he said.

Nor is Novershtern surprised by the number of foreign students flocking to Israel to study the Eastern European Jewish language.

"If Jews want to study Chinese, why shouldn't the Chinese want to study Yiddish?" he asks.

Participants in the Tel Aviv University-Beth Shalom Aleichem program last summer.Credit: Noa Ben-Shalom

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