Young Eastern Europeans Flock to Tel Aviv's 'Yiddish Summer Camp'

Most are here to deepen their understanding of the language and further their research in Jewish studies, history.

At Tel Aviv's Levontin 7 club last week there were tourists from Germany and Eastern Europe in their early twenties next to Israeli retirees - definitely not the usual mix at the dimly lit club. On stage, brothers Aviv and Arik Livnat played "Jewish Blues": melancholy music that moves from blues to jazz, touching on rock and with an occasional klezmer twist. The words of the songs, Arik Livnat related, were written at the turn of the 20th century by now-forgotten Yiddish poets.

Some of those in the audience knew the songs, and a few even joined in. They, like Aviv Livnat, are spending July in the classrooms of Tel Aviv University's Dan David Building and filing them with Yiddish. They came from all over the world to attend the Goldrich-Goldreich Families - Beth Shalom Aleichem Yiddish Summer Program, a sort of summer camp that is now in its third year.

In attendance are around 100 graduate students, teachers and scholars, only a few of whom are Israeli. Most are here to deepen their understanding of the language, to help them in their research in Jewish studies, history and related subjects. Some are rank beginners, while other are already analyzing Yiddish literary texts. At night everyone shuts their books and heads out to see Yiddish films, plays and concerts. On Friday nights, there is a tisch (informal gathering with food, anecdotes and singing).

Prof. David Roskies of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, who teaches advanced students in the program, has 30 years of experience teaching Yiddish. From his many years in the field he can attest to a growing interest in Yiddish among young people - not necessarily Jews - throughout the world. Members of the "international community of Yiddish lovers," as Roskies calls them, "are interested in every aspect of the language, not just in speaking it. They want to create in this language, and also to understand the sociology of the people who spoke it, and the culture in which they lived. They travel from place to place, from seminar to seminar, to add to their knowledge, and so they come to Tel Aviv too," Roskies said.

"The motivation behind their study of Yiddish is generally emotional," Roskies added. For Jewish-American college students interest in Yiddish is often a response to assimilation. "We are talking about third-generation immigrants who feel American in every way, who now seek to go back and express their ethnic uniqueness as Jews."

Roskies says that in Europe there are many people, most of them young Germans and Poles, who come to Yiddish mainly because of the Holocaust or their sensitivity to anti-Semitism.

"They are troubled by the knowledge that Jews from their countries were murdered and deported, and that their unique culture disappeared with them, and this makes them want to try to preserve the language by learning it themselves."

Part of Polish culture

"I am disturbed by the fact that around 20 percent of Poland's inhabitants once spoke Yiddish, and now it's gone," said Magdalena Wiecek, 21, from Warsaw, an undergraduate majoring in Jewish studies. "It's part of my culture, I know the words that sneaked into Polish. How can I ignore this?" Wiecek says her mother has worked for nongovernmental organizations that target anti-Semitism. "As children we were aware of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," she related.

Her fellow student, Borias Hornman, 25, of Stuttgart, Germany, is a philosophy student and journalist who is already trying his hand at writing stories in Yiddish. As a German-speaker, he finds that the words of the sister language easily roll off his tongue.

"My father sang to us in Yiddish when we were kids, and that's how I developed a sensitivity to the musicality of the language," Hornman says, but stresses that his interest in Yiddish does not stop at folklore: He is studying the connection between German and Yiddish. Even though he is attending Tel Aviv University, he has still not gone out on the town. "During the day I study a medieval language and am in such a modern city. It's a bit of a conflict, it seems to me," Hornman says.

The Israeli students, according to Roskies, are searching for their literary and cultural roots in the wake of the Zionist ban exemplified by the admonishment, "Jew, speak Hebrew." Aviv Livnat studied Yiddish in order to read letters left behind by his grandfather, the artist Arieh Merzer. The family archive contains extensive correspondence between Merzer and the writer and poet Itzik Manger, among others. Aviv Livnat, who in addition to being a musician is a student at the Goldreich Institute, researching the cultural activity of Jewish artists during the period between the wars and their connection to the Yiddish literary scene. "My search for texts suitable for jazz improvisation led me to Ashkenazi Jewish folk songs," he says. He discovered writers whose work he feels is the embodiment of the avant-garde, and composed music to fit their words.

In the morning hours the Dan David Building, on the university's campus in north Tel Aviv, becomes cosmopolitan, but inside the classrooms only Yiddish is spoken. Miriam Trinh and Eliezer Niborski split the teaching duties in the Yiddish III class. Trinh is Jewish and grew up in Germany. Her last name, as well as her facial structure, came from her Vietnamese father. She discovered Yiddish, and Niborski, when she was a college student. Niborski was raised in a secular Yiddishist household in France.

Trinh and Niborski married, and they speak only Yiddish to their children, aged 4, 6 and 7 - not for ideological reasons, but because it is natural for them to do so. They are one of about a dozen known families throughout the world who are not ultra-Orthodox and are raising their children in Yiddish. Trinh and Niborski are in contact with the other non-Haredi Yiddish-speaking families, via the Internet.

Trinh is cautious in her delight over the revival of Yiddish among young people. "This is not a generation that will build a civilization in Yiddish. It is a bit utopian to think about reviving a cultural milieu that is no more. It would be more appropriate to say there are many young people interested in learning about the past, about the literature and history of the language, and they understand its place as not just a folk culture."

In Trinh's classroom, Regula Tanner of Basel, Switzerland, is happily twisting her tongue into knots. Tanner, 43, is a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church who began studying Hebrew around 20 years ago as part of her theology studies. Today she speaks fluent Hebrew and also teaches it. She discovered Yiddish by chance around two years ago, when one of her Hebrew students got her interested in a research project at the University of Basel about Yiddish printing houses operating in the city in the 16th century. Tanner later decided to write her doctoral thesis on the subject.

Not just for jokes

Until now she had studied Yiddish on her own, with the aim of understanding early text, and has attained a fairly high level of reading comprehension. She evidently has fallen in love with Yiddish, just as she did with Hebrew. "I want to read a detective story in Yiddish," Tanner said enthusiastically, "but I realize there is not a lot of secular, modern literature in Yiddish so most of the texts are rather religious."

What do her colleagues in the church think of her? She admits that there have been some raised eyebrows. "There are people who think I'm no longer much of a Christian. Others think 'another of Regula's crazy ideas. In any case she's always going to hang out in Israel."

Tanner plans to look for a Yiddish-speakers' group when she returns to Basel, in order not to forget what she learned this summer. And here in Israel Aviv Livnat will continue trying to break the mental barrier that Israelis have against the language and to debunk the stereotype that Yiddish is only for telling jokes.

Livnat says the mechanisms of denial and silencing that once prevailed here due to the Zionist desire to create a new "Hebrew culture" are beginning to weaken. "People are always wondering about my interest in the language," he relates. "They say it's a dead language. No one is saying that tomorrow morning we'll all wake up speaking Yiddish. That's not the goal. The dream is to reach the cultural treasures written in the language and to reveal them to the public at large, to open the heart and ears to different voices and to restore the lost dignity of great writers." But Prof. Hana Wirth Nesher, the director of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture, who is, with Prof. Avraham Novershtern, co-director of the summer program's academic program, has a different take. She said the aim is not to revive Yiddish as a spoken language, but rather to give the language its due place in academia as part of the heritage of Jewish culture, even after the last generation of native Yiddish-speakers is gone.