Monday, December 19, 2005

Yiddish Culture Made Easy

At the one-day Yiddish Experience I went to December 18 as I walked out of the classroom, I spoke with my conversation partner who asked where my people came from. I replied, "Near Minsk in White Russia in a little shtetl (little Jewish village)." She said she recently went to White Russia for a visit and suggested I go. I asked her, "What was it like?" She said, "Like 200 years ago." I said, "No cars." She said, "Right." I had visions of horse and carts like some shtetl stories I've read. When I stood in line for lunch when asked a question, I'd say "yo" or "neny" or "a denk" (yes, no or thank you).

During lunch my mom and I shared a table with one of the Yiddish teachers who looked about 40 and who spoke all through lunch in Yiddish with two of his students who were young women in their early twenties. That's the first Yiddish conversation I've heard in many decades. It was just fascinating to hear people talk and talk and talk and talk in Yiddish! On the other side of my mother was a friendly looking woman so I asked her, "Vi heyst ir?" (What's your name?) Already, a Yiddish conversation!

After lunch we went downstairs to the chapel to hear Janet Hadda, Professor Emerita of Yiddish Language and Literature at UCLA spoke about I.B. Singer and his heroes. He seemd to have a lot of heroes: his brother Israel Joshua who was a successful Yiddish writer long before I.B. Singer was; his mother Basheva; and his rabbi father. Hadda said at first many Yiddishists (lovers of Yiddish) didn't like I.B. Singer because they didn't like his openess about sexuality. Many of his male characters have multiple wives like Herman Broder in the novel Enemies, a Love Story. But the current generation of Yiddishists seems not to be put off by Singer's treatment of sexuality in his novels.

The last event of the day was a workshop by Theodore Bikel, a great singer. He was accompanied by Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer as he gave a workshop about Morechai Gerbirtig, one of the greatest songwriters in Yiddish. Bikel would tell us a little about Gerbirtig's life, sing a song, and then talk a little more.

Gerbirtig was born in Kracow, Poland, in 1877 to a poor family, and became a carpenter. In his spare time he wrote wonderful poems and songs, but never recorded. Luckily, another Jew in Krawcow wrote down Gerbirtig's poems and songs in two manuscripts, and these two manuscripts miracleously survived the Holocaust: one copy wascarried to Israel while the second copy survived in YIVO, the Yiddish archive in New York. Gerbirtig himself was killed by the Nazis in 1942, but Bikel reminded us his music survived the Shoah.

Bikel sang us Gerbirtig's song "Yankele,": a mother sings to her son Yankele to go to sleep, hoping he will grow to become a great scholar but she knows it will cost her much hard work "and many tears to make a man out of you." In "Motele" there is a father-son dialogue with the father berating the son for fighting in kheder (religious school), chasing after doves, and breaking windows. The son defends himself by saying that grandfather told him that the father also liked to chase after doves and the teacher whipped the father, but dad turned out all right and so will he.

Besides these songs, Bikel also sang us two love songs: in one a non-Jewish goatherd tries a woo a Jewish girl who says that any romance in impossible because of their different religions. The final song was a spirited pro-worker march that Gerbirtig wrote. Bikel's singing was mesmerizing while the musicians who accompanied him were wonderful. I could have sat there hours more listening to Bikel who has immense knowledge of Yiddish song as well as being a captivating performer.

All in all I was inspired by my one-day Yiddish extensive to try for a whole week! Next year, a week of Yiddish language and culture.

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