Q: Dr. Yushkovsky, when lamenting the fate of Yiddish in the 20th century, they say that Hitler killed the readers and Stalin killed the writers...It's true, but don't you think that these two executioners only accelerated the process? The real killers of Yiddish as a language were modernization and assimilation. After all, back in the 1930s, Soviet Jews preferred to send their children to Russian schools despite the availability of hundreds of Jewish ones, with teaching in Yiddish. Also, during those years GOSET [Moscow State Jewish Theater, translator's note] tour failed in Leningrad. The Jews held off visiting the Yiddish theater, giving their preference to Russian drama. American Jewry experienced the very same processes. Forverts, the oldest daily newspaper in Yiddish, once counted 200 thousand (!) subscribers and today there are hardly two thousand. And in the United States there was neither Holocaust nor Stalin, who shot the elite of Jewish literature.
A: Throughout thousands of years of exile the Jews have developed two tools—language and traditions—allowing them to survive as a people. As long as the Jews took care of these tools, they remained Jews, but as soon as they discarded them, the community disappeared. Back at the beginning of the last century Sholem Aleichem prophesied that after forgetting Yiddish Jews wouldn't be Jews any more. And we witness this today both here in the CIS, and in the United States. You're right, a hundred years ago New York was the empire of Yiddish. In 1928 on Second Avenue alone there were 23 Jewish repertory theaters, apart from seven Jewish theaters on Broadway. By 1949, out of these thirty theaters, only one was left...Out of hundreds of Yiddish newspapers and magazines very few survived. So? If in the 1980s there were six million American Jews, today there are about five, and notably only 1.5 million identify themselves with the Jewish community. The situation is similar in Ukraine. They say that in Kyiv, not according to the census but to origin, there are about 80,000 Jews. How many of them participate in Jewish life? Two thousand, five, seven?
Q: Theoretically, was it possible to stop this sad trend?
A: Let us be self-critical: it all depends on the people. Apparently, Jews didn't seem to cherish their values. In Russia, they wanted to be Russians, in Germany Germans, and in the United States Americans. They largely succeeded, but they stopped being Jews. When you leave Yiddish behind, it's not just about the language; it's about your own identity. So today we find people with the surnames Cohen and Levi who are clueless about their origin. Either way, the Yiddish language preserved Yiddishkeit [Jewishness, translator's note]!
Q: But our identity was also defined by other markers. For example, state anti-Semitism. A Soviet Jew could barely know a word in Yiddish, yet still being discriminated against according to the "fifth paragraph" [this refers to the 5th paragraph of internal passports in the Soviet Union that identified the ethnicity of the passport holder. The expression is widely used figuratively, translator's note]...
A: It's too bad that we feel Jewish only when we are hated. A person who belonged to the Yiddish culture usually carried their Jewishness proudly, and the one who felt himself a Jew just because he was reminded about that all the time, carried it with shame.
Q: I remember the beginning of the 1990—the romantic period of Jewish revival—when Yiddish then had a chance, but an interest in the language was killed...
A: It's true, and we must ask ourselves who was the killer? In the late 1980s, I worked on the editorial board of Sovetish Heymland. It was the only legal Jewish literary periodical in the USSR. While the entire country was covered with a network of ulpans [Hebrew classes, then illegal and underground, translator's note], and when Nativ and the Jewish Agency brought tens or even hundreds of thousands of books in Hebrew, those willing to learn Yiddish had nothing but lessons on the last pages of our magazine. People who wanted to find themselves turned to me. Yiddish for them was the only bridge to their Jewishness. It was a generation whose parents had forgotten the way to the synagogue. Then I realized very clearly that for the Russian Jews that language was the only bridge that could lead them back to their roots.
Q: Back to where? Many associated Yiddish with a humiliated, powerless, and deeply provincial community of the shtetl, in contrast with Hebrew—the language of proud Israelis, a new breed of Jews who are able both to play violin and to defend themselves.
A: For some reason, in Ukraine and in the former Soviet Union, the shtetl has negative connotations, but I wish we could go back to the values on which it rested, to the moral code of the collective consciousness, expressed in the only phrase that I repeated every day in seminars: es past nisht—this is inappropriate. This is an unwritten code, an inner boundary a person would have never crossed. The shtetl was an autonomous institution of Jewish life where it was the community's prerogative to esteem particular acts. For this reason, Yiddish abounds in extinct concepts. For example, how will I look into people's faces? What will the town say? And so on. This doesn't exist now; the border of shame has disappeared together with Yiddish. When in Israel yet another scandal erupts, everybody starts saying: we lost the shame. In fact, we are talking about the loss of es past nisht, that inner component which once served as the natural moral boundary of human actions.
Golda Meir once said that the shtetl is not only humiliation, anti-Semitism, and pogroms, but also a system of values, community ethics, mutual aid, courage, and sacrifice. In modern Israel there's a very popular phrase ma ikhpat li?—I don't care [in fact, there does exist a no less popular Hebrew phrase ikhpat li!—I do care, translator's note]. In the shtetl everything was everybody's business, and in every neglected shtetl there functioned a system of mutual social aid, a society that collected a dowry for the poor bride, makhzikey shabes [Sabbath Holders, translator's note] a society that sent delivery men to anonymously place a challah and wine by the doors of poor people before Shabbat, malbish arumim [Clothing the Naked, a quotation from a morning blessing, praising the Lord, translator's note] a society that collected clothes for the poor, etc. The shtetl was home for the virtue that the modern world has lost, and this virtue is immortalized in Yiddish literature.
Q: So are we talking about the revival of Yiddish in any form or still about its preservation, perpetuation, and study?
A: I very well understand that Yiddish will hardly ever become the language of the street, though it remains a living language in the ultra-Orthodox communities worldwide. Today, in many neighborhoods of New York City, Jerusalem, or Bnei Brak there are children who speak Yiddish from birth. As an inspector of the Ministry of Education of Israel I regularly meet these children at Israeli schools.
Q: This is apparently the only way to preserve Yiddish—in a closed, ghettoized community that voluntarily limits contacts with the outer world. But how is it possible to make Yiddish popular within secular (or not necessarily secular) Jews, if they won't be able to read Harry Potter or watch a popular animated film in it?
A: My challenge is to bring secular Jews back to the great culture created in Yiddish. It's time to understand that there can't be decent Jewish education without Yiddish. It's absurd when in a Ukrainian school that is called Jewish, they learn Meir Shalev and David Grossman, but not Shike Driz, David Hofstein, or Hershel Polyanker. Accept it, the works of these authors are much closer to a schoolchild of a local Jewish school by their topics and by their spirit, and this literature is much more likely to get him back both to his family and his national roots.
Q: The question about teaching Yiddish in Jewish schools was raised by local community leaders, all to no avail. This has nothing to do with those who call the shots; it's due to the parents' reluctance...
A: After Israeli emissaries referred to Yiddish as an "abject jargon," what in the world do you expect? They do not realize that they lose great culture together with their identity. Who, let us say, has heard of Sholem Asch? Meanwhile, he is a Jewish Leo Tolstoy, the author of 39 historical novels. Who here knows about the enormous literature accompanying the emigration of 2.5 million European Jews early in the last century? Who remembers today what trakhomene oygn (sore eyes) means? Nearly every Jewish newspaper wrote about that, since trakhomene oygn caused thousands of emigrants who made the difficult journey to Ellis Island to return back to Europe. Who remembers Chaim Grade, a writer of global significance, one of the most outstanding writers in the 20th century, or Joseph Opatoshu, whose epic In Polish Forests represents the whole history and essence of Hasidism? What kind of Jewish education in the Diaspora can we talk about without these names? These specific names have formed the global Jewish culture in the 20th century.
Q: All these belong to the great legacy of our past, but you must admit that a modern language should meet modern challenges...
A: Yiddish has no problems neither with computer technologies, nor with high-tech. Actually, Yiddish today is a tool for a secular person to be a Jew. I have lived in Israel for 25 years, and I adore my country. But every day I see young Israelis, realizing that they have very few Jewish traits. The Hebrew language? They could speak French equally well. The vast majority of them are very far from the Jewish tradition. They did not grow up on Jewish values; they feel equally comfortable in Tel Aviv, New York, Paris, etc. Youth is listening mostly to Western music and is going to restaurants with foreign names. In Tel Aviv today, according to statistics, 85% of such establishments are exactly like that! Are they ashamed to name a restaurant in Hebrew, which has been fought for with such an effort? So what was the aim of Zionism, to create a Jewish state or invent a new ethnic group that only speaks Hebrew and is very far from everything Jewish?
As for the interest towards Yiddish, for instance, about 2,500 people attend my fee-based courses in Israel weekly, a lot more than come to similar lectures in Hebrew literature. We gather in the most prestigious auditoriums of the country—the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the Cinematheque, the Tikotin Museum in Haifa, and others. Each room accommodates up to 200-300 people. Six months ago there was a banner on the Yiddish courses website saying 'no vacancies available,' but people kept ringing and asking for permission to come with their own chair...
The Interest in music goes without saying. Yiddish rock and punk bands perform in prestigious clubs. A three-day pass for the Yiddish festival by the Dead Sea costs 3000NIS, and a week after the first announcement there are usually no vacancies.
Nechama Lifshitz's studio of contemporary Jewish song operates in Tel Aviv. There are only young people there. At the Yiddishpiel Theater, most of the audience is young also. And this is not the only Yiddish theater. There is a youth studio in Tel Aviv, where several performances were staged; one of them was about Jewish food, Monologn fun der Kishke [Monologs about Kishke, a Jewish Sabbath dish, translator's note]. They play to a full house.
Q: Who are these people? Describe their social portrait.
A: These are the ones who were brought up in a spirit of rejecting Yiddish and everything dealing with Galut [exile, translator's note] and the shtetl. Today they are returning en masse. It's been eighteen years that I have been guiding literary and folklore tours for Israelis in Ukraine. Some want to see their Grandpa's shtetl, others their Granny's home, and so on. Eventually, they receive an enormous portion of Yiddishkeit here, and through Yiddish they return to the home of their fathers, and back in Israel they start visiting my courses. One might see such a person sitting at a literature class and suddenly burst into tears: I heard this proverb from my Mom 30 years ago, and my grandmother sang this song...
Q: And what is going on in the Diaspora?
A: Yiddish is taught today at more than seventy universities in the world, thousands of young people flock to numerous summer courses in Vilnius, Strasbourg, Paris, New York, and Tel Aviv. This language is more and more attractive, because we are always looking for something that is not here. When Yiddish guttered in the streets, no one paid attention to it. When it was almost gone, people started looking for it. The writer Avrom Karpinowitch, who was my close friend, said that after a while Yiddish would become the aristocratic language of the Jewish people. Similarly to what once Hebrew was. I can already see the grain of the process. So, despite all the arguments about Yiddish being dead, I am witnessing the fact that the demand for it is growing year by year. It is very persistent, this language, however they try to kill it...Itzik Feffer wrote: "Even in its ashes a flame is flickering."
Bashevis Singer remarked in his Nobel speech that "Yiddish has not yet said its last word, for in it lays the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity." I know six languages, but none of them holds as much common human wisdom as Yiddish—in speech patterns, idioms, proverbs, in an authentic ability to sweeten the bitterness with a smile. Yiddish is a bridge between the Jewish and the universal, between Yiddishkeit and menchlekhkayt [humanness, translator's note].
Q: How successful is the experience of reviving dying languages? Manx, Gaelic, Irish... Can I put Yiddish on this list?
A: Today tens of thousands of people come to Yiddish festivals in Warsaw, and Krakow, Amsterdam, and Toronto. For the most part these are non-Jews who realized that together with Yiddish the Europe-wide panorama has lost a very important component. And it must be restored. In Warsaw, a large group of Polish students gets together once a month in the Kasrilevke [the fictional shtetl name in Sholem Aleichem's prose, translator's note] cafe and reads books in Yiddish. I asked one of them: tell me, why do you need that? And the answer was: it's part of my culture—Bashevis and Sholem Asch, Joseph Opatoshu, and Israel Singer for me are Polish writers just like Adam Mickiewicz. They lived and worked on this land, describing the Polish realities—yes in a different language, that's why I'm learning Yiddish to be able to read them in the original.
In a short story by Bashevis Singer I've counted nineteen Warsaw addresses, and during my first time in Warsaw in 2000 I was walking around without a map, recalling the location of a particular street. Furthermore, I remembered that on the corner of Marszalkovska and Szventokrzyzka there was Kotik's dairy restaurant, where the first telephone in the city was located. I was strolling along Krochmalna Street, imagining who lived in which flat, everything thanks to Bashevis. And, closing my eyes, I flew back to the Warsaw of the early last century, filling the new stones with old content.
Q: And how will your current seminar help to pour new wine into old bottles?
A: The World Jewish Congress four months ago created the Center for the Study of Yiddish Language and Culture in Vilnius. And here in Kyiv, with assistance from the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, we gathered coordinators—people studying Yiddish deeply, including those from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Our goal is to provide methodological tools to enable them to bring their students to Vilnius, which, I hope; every year will grow in number.
Interviewed by Michael Gold
Translation: Miriam Feyga Bunimovich
Edited by Peter Bejger