Marking the 100th anniversary of Yiddish professor Gershon Winer - "Mr. Yiddish"

Updated: May 9

Mordehay Yushkovsky

The Yiddish poet Mendl Lifshitz wrote:

And a multitude of papers soulfully

The uncomplicated plot is kept inside:

If you come in, shut the door,

If thou leave, then humbly blow out the candle.

And I would give the right to another idea.

Think with me differently:

When you come in, open the door wider,

When you leave, you must light the flame more.

There are probably not many people in this world who are destined to kindle a flame in the souls of their friends and followers, to leave a spiritual light in the hearts of their students, to excite the memory and consciousness, even many years after they have gone into eternity. Undoubtedly, one such impressive figure was my "mori ve-rabbi" (teacher and mentor), Professor Gershon Winer, whose 100th birthday is in April 2022.

I have thought several times: I have had many teachers in my life, from whom I have learned "mit teler un mit lefl" (with plate and spoon), and whose names I remember with gratitude. But Gershon Winer was the only one I remember day after day, the one I do not stop quoting at every step, the one whose image lives in my heart forever, the one whose voice rings in my ears, not only his voice, but even his intonation. It raises the question: what is it about him that has got my interest? The answer to this question is complex and controversial because Winer himself consisted of many contradictions that strangely lived together in him. In the Jewish world, he had many devoted friends but just as many sworn enemies, many supporters but also many detractors, but one thing was certain: his companionship left no one indifferent. He attracted people like a magnet, impressing them with his sharp mind and insight, even if they disagreed with him.

My acquaintance with Gershon Winer happened not in person. I remember the date well: 10 May 1989. At the time, I was working in the editorial office of the Moscow Yiddish magazine "Sovietsch Heymland". "Perestroika" was in progress, and young Jews from various provincial towns often came to the editorial office, which was located in the heart of Moscow. Each of them told us that a group of young people had formed in his town who wanted to study Yiddish and, using Yiddish, to get closer to their national spiritual roots. At a time when the entire country was overflowing with Hebrew textbooks and illegal and semi-legal ulpans where Hebrew was actively taught at every turn, people determined to learn Yiddish felt orphaned. Attempts were made to establish contacts with foreign organizations concerned with Yiddish culture in order to obtain study materials, music cassettes and reading materials from them.

At this time, the editorial office was also visited by Jews from abroad who came to Moscow. On 6 April 1989, for example, Dov Lieberman, a committed Yiddishist from Brussels and a member of the World Council for Yiddish Culture, came there. After a scandal broke out between him and Aron Vergelis, the irreplaceable editor-in-chief of "Sovietsch Heymland" (a very common occurrence in such cases), I arranged a meeting with Dov Lieberman on the evening of the same day. During the conversation, I described to him the difficult situation faced by young people wanting to learn Yiddish language and culture, to which Dov replied: "I know someone who can help you. It's Professor Gershon Winer, head of the Yiddish department at Bar-Ilan University. Write down his telephone number."

About a month later, on 10 May, I called a number I remember to this day. It was Independence Day in Israel. When I heard a man's voice on the line from Jerusalem, I said in one breath:

- Professor Winer, I am calling from Moscow, hag sameach (happy holiday )!

After a pained stifled silence that lasted a few seconds, I received a strange reply:

- Are you sure you're speaking from Moscow? And you were not afraid to congratulate me on an Israeli holiday?

- Yes, I'm sure... I speak on a number of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young Jews from all over the Soviet Union. We are in a sense "orphans" ... because, unlike those who study Hebrew, we do not have the slightest support from anyone. If you find an opportunity to come here to Moscow, we will gather dozens of potential Yiddish teachers from different cities and hold the first seminar for Yiddish teachers in the Soviet Union in half a century.

- How many of these teachers can you gather? - Winer asked in a calm businesslike tone.

- I think about fifty, I answered, looking in my notebook with the addresses and telephone numbers of Yiddish teachers from all over the country.

Years later, describing that telephone conversation in a book of his memoirs, Professor Winer wrote: "At that moment I remembered my father's saying: they say fifty, they mean thirty, but if it's ten, is that bad?"

The way the seminar was organized and conducted is an interesting topic for a separate article, but after that phone conversation, Professor Winer made a calculation of the event I proposed, took the phone, called seven patrons from around the world and infected them with his enthusiasm and sense of being part of something historically important. In an hour's time, he managed to raise a considerable amount of money for the holding of this seminar.

On 10 July 1989, he and three other teachers from the Yiddish department of Bar-Ilan University arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. A couple of hours later, they entered the classroom of an ordinary Moscow high school illegally rented for this event, where fifty-six prospective Yiddish teachers from eighteen cities - from Vilnius and Balti to Chelyabinsk and Novosibirsk - were waiting for them. Professor Winer straightened to his full height and said in a trembling voice: "Brothers and sisters, let us bless "Shehachiyanu"..." It was one of the most touching episodes of my life. At that moment, there was not a dry eye left in the class. For the first time in the center of Moscow, an Israeli professor speaking Yiddish addressed the hearts of those who, despite all the difficulties, were reaching for the Jewish word and felt an avid desire to absorb everything connected to Jewish culture. Even many years later, the participants of that event well remembered this amazing moment. Thus began the first Jewish seminar in the Soviet Union after almost half a century of stagnation in the field of Jewish education and culture. The seminar lasted a whole month.

For tomorrow, Professor Winer offered to arrange for him to give a public lecture in Yiddish to a wide audience for the first time after decades of Jewish silence. By unbelievable means, the members of Igud ha-morim le-Ivrit (Hebrew Teachers Association) , managed to get a cinema hall in the Burevestnik cinema in the center of Moscow for a couple of hours. As far as I remember, the cinema hall was designed for about four hundred seats. It is still unclear how the news spread around Moscow with lightning speed, and twice as many people crammed into the hall as there were seats. Not only was there nowhere to sit, but standing was also cramped. Professor Winer came on stage and solemnly said in Yiddish: "Brothers and sisters from Moscow, I bring you greetings from Jerusalem..." After these words, the auditorium erupted in a flurry of applause that did not stop for a long time. In memoirs, Winer remarked in his typical joking manner: "Never in my life have I received such applause after a lecture as I did then, in Moscow, before the lecture". The theme of his public lecture was "Longing for Zion in Yiddish Literature".

Before the seminar ended, Gershon Winer gathered about ten young Yiddish students and offered them: "If you come to Israel, come to our department in Bar-Ilan and promise not to do anything else but fully consecrate yourselves to academic study, I will undertake to provide you with scholarships that allow you to study in peace and not have to worry about side earnings”.

Twenty days after this conversation, on 31 August 1989, I arrived in Israel, and on 3 September I arrived at Bar-Ilan, where the first cheque with the promised scholarship was waiting for me. It should be noted that of all the promises I had received on the eve of my aliyah, this was the only one that came true. And it was only thanks to this scholarship that I was able to study in the Yiddish department, right up to the awarding of my doctoral degree.

In February 1990, Professor Winer took me on a trip to Miami, where the annual forum of friends and patrons of the Bar-Ilan Yiddish Department was taking place. There I spoke at length about the seminar held in Moscow six months earlier and about the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union in general. After this event, Winer and I were invited to dinner by a pleasant couple, Shmuel-Abba and Sisel Klurman. Abba Klurman, born in Wolyn, was a committed revisionist, one of the leaders of the Betar[1] movement in his youth, fought in a partisan unit during the Second World War and later in the regular army. As a young man he received a Hebrew Zionist education. That evening he asked me in his rich Wolyn Yiddish:

- I listened with interest to your speech, but one point is not quite clear to me. Now that the gates of the Soviet Union have finally opened and thousands of Jews can make aliyah, learn and speak Hebrew, why should you encourage them to learn Yiddish?

– The situation is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance," I replied, "Those who want to go to Israel and learn Hebrew for practical purposes have no problem with this in the Soviet Union today.

The Nativ and the Sokhnut have filled the entire country with books, there are hundreds of Ulpan`s, and there are enough Hebrew teachers. But one must remember that three generations of Jews have grown up in that country, completely detached from all things national-Jewish. Most of them know absolutely nothing about Jewish tradition, have no idea how to open the door to the synagogue. Culturally and linguistically, they are completely assimilated, and the only thin thread linking them to Jewishness is the few words they have heard in Yiddish: a Yiddish song sung by grandmother, or a Yiddish proverb spoken by mother, the Jewish names of some traditional foods, and that is it... And if we want to find a way to the hearts of Soviet Jews, to their feelings, it is possible mainly through Yiddish.

Abba Klurman listened to me carefully, but stuck to his opinion... A few months later, he and his wife visited Israel and invited Professor Winer and me to dinner again. Klurman said: "Do you remember our conversation in Miami? I remembered well what you told me then and went on a trip around the Soviet Union. I visited several major cities, met with many Jews, and after this trip I was convinced that you were right. So I now want to found the Klurman Institute for Yiddish and Yiddishkeit Studies in Eastern Europe, which will hold annual seminars like the one you did in Moscow”.

Since then, Professor Winer and I have held seventeen such seminars, attended by some 1,300 young people from all over Eastern Europe. Many of them went on to study Yiddish professionally and became Yiddish teachers, researchers, journalists, singers and artists. In subsequent years, seminars were held not only in Moscow, but also in Kyiv, Odessa, Kishinev, Vinnitsa and Warsaw.

* * *

Professor Gershon Winer was a very unique teacher. His methodology was different from the usual academic system of teaching. It was important for him not just to talk about literature, but to study the literature itself, to stick strictly to the text, and to analyse and understand even the smallest nuances in detail. I remember a professor once reproaching him for being a cheider system and not a university system, to which Winer proudly replied: "Surely you must think I am offended by your words? On the contrary, it is the greatest compliment to me. Over the centuries, the Jewish people have developed an amazing method of education that works perfectly. Wake up anyone who used to study in cheider and ask him to quote a verse from the Humesh (Pentateuch) - he will certainly repeat it to you, but if you ask someone who has studied literature at a modern university to quote from some program piece, you are unlikely to get the expected answer".

Gershon Winer was born in 1922 in Vidz (now Belarus) and moved with his family as a child to Toronto, later to New York. He received a smicha (diploma) as a Conservative rabbi and then a Doctorate in Jewish education. It is no coincidence that he was called “Mister Yiddish”. In New York he directed a Jewish teacher's seminary and was not only an active participant in Jewish cultural activities, but also practically carried out many projects for the benefit of Yiddish. For example, he was one of the initiators of the publication of the "Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language" and personally raised a considerable amount of funds for the project. A convinced Zionist, he and his family moved to Israel after the Six-Day War. In 1982 he established the Yiddish department at Bar-Ilan University, and in the 1990s headed the Yiddish teacher training course at the Ministry of Education in Tel-Aviv. In 1994 at the Levinsky College for Teachers in Tel Aviv he opened a course to re-qualify educators - olim from the former Soviet Union - as Yiddish teachers. In 1995 he was elected chairman of the World Council for Yiddish Culture and in that capacity carried out many important projects in the field of Jewish culture and education.

Gershon Winer possessed both a broad religious education and a comprehensive knowledge of secular Jewish culture, and this connection between the two substances led him to the deep conviction that Yiddish is inseparable from Yiddishkeit. It was a crucial principle in his pedagogical and academic work to show that without a thorough knowledge of Jewish tradition one simply cannot understand many things, both in Jewish folklore and in Yiddish literature, that Jewish secularism is closely linked to Jewish tradition and religious outlook. Therefore, each of his lectures on literature was filled with concepts from the Jewish way of life and Jewish Knowledge.

Another important point in Professor Winer's approach to the study of the Yiddish language and culture was his intolerance of excessive academicization of Yiddish. He believed that the entire cultural complex in that language expressed a whole range of feelings. Intellectual analysis was never at odds with the emotional content of a particular work. In his methodology, thought and feeling worked hand in hand and complemented each other. At the same time, everything was spiced up with juicy Jewish humor. Thanks to this teaching style, the students came out of each lesson with a sparkle in their eyes, enthusiasm and a sense of elation in their hearts.

Winer often quoted a phrase from I.-L. Peretz's speech at the Czernowitz Yiddish conference in 1908: "It is not enough to speak Yiddish, you have to have something to say in Yiddish".

In this sentence the ideological basis of his work was laid. In other words: the study of Yiddish language and culture makes sense only if it is based on a system of worldview principles, such as: the unity of secular and religious Yiddishkeit, understanding the role of Yiddish in the self-determination of the modern Jew, emphasizing the essential national values, such as the eternal sacred bond between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel, understanding the mutual responsibility between the individual and the collective (community) in the Jewish tradition.

One such thesis came to Professor Winer through a chance meeting in the street. He lived in Jerusalem and liked to take frequent, long walks around the city. During one of these walks an elderly Jew stopped him and asked:

- Are you Professor Winer from Bar-Ilan University?

- Yes, and who are you?

- Are you the same Gershon Winer who was Dean of the Jewish Teachers' Seminary in New- York and then here in Israel, Secretary of the Hebrew Language Academy?

- Yes, - Winer wondered, - how do you know me so well?

– I am American like you,- said the older man. - So I went to our cemetery, Eretz ha-Chaim (the cemetery of the American Conservative community near Beit-Shemesh), to buy a place for myself. I was curious to know: after one hundred and twenty years, who would be my neighbour? When I asked at the cemetery office, they told me that there is Gershon Winer, a rabbi and professor, and I checked up on you.

– Just checking up on me? - Winer laughed. - What was your purpose?

– Tell me, Professor, - continued the Jew, - when we are there after a hundred and twenty years lying next door, and we have plenty of free time, in what language will we speak with you - English or Hebrew?

- Why not in Yiddish? - Winer asked, quite naturally.

Then the Jew's eyes filled with tears and he literally started shouting:

- Not in Yiddish, no way!!! God doesn't like Yiddish!

- What kind of nonsense are you talking? Why? - Winer asked perplexedly.

- Of course he hates Yiddish. Look what he did to the millions who lived and spoke in Yiddish, - the old man said and walked away.

Professor Winer returned home completely stunned, told his wife about a chance conversation in the street and added: "I want to write an epitaph to be inscribed on my monument. This epitaph should be my answer to this Jew..." He closed himself in his office and after a while came out of there with a piece of paper on which it was written:

Lamad, limed

Ve-kiyem be-ahava

Moreshet avot

Be-lashon a-kodesh

U-ve-lashon a-kdoshim.

Studied, lectured

And embodied with love

The heritage of the ancestors

In a holy language

And in the language of the holy martyrs.

After that meeting, Gershon Winer formulated another important principle of his work, which also served as an answer to all the sceptics who asked, "Why Yiddish? Who needs Yiddish today?"

The answer was: "In memory of them, those millions of Jews who, with Yiddish on their lips, took their last journey, let out their last dying scream before being hit by a Nazi bullet or gassed. Yiddish is the only LIVE thing left of them. It is impossible to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and at the same time forget their language and the treasures it contains.

As mentioned earlier, I quote my teacher Gershon Winer almost daily. I constantly use the Anthology of Yiddish Literature and other study materials he prepared, try to follow in his footsteps in my work, and thank fate day after day for bringing me together with this giant, thinker, blessed teacher, creator, and, most importantly, "a MENSCH" (HUMAN).

[1] BETAR, an acronym for Brit Yosef Trumpeldor - Yosef Trumpeldor Union), a revisionist Zionist youth organisation, founded in Riga in 1923.

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