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Yiddish spoken here

The traditional language of Eastern European Jews is making some noise in America

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

By Rachel Sobel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Aaron Sacks couldn't believe the find that lay before him: A full set of Shakespeare's plays, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" -- all in Yiddish.

  Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration

Sacks is a zamler, which means collector in Yiddish, and to a zamler what he discovered two years ago with the closing of a Jewish library in Squirrel Hill was indeed cause for celebration.

He rescues unwanted Yiddish materials and sends them to the National Yiddish Book Center, founded in 1980, in Amherst, Mass. There, they are cataloged and shipped to libraries or people who will use them.

In four years, Sacks has gathered more than 5,000 Yiddish books, records, newspapers and song sheets from Pittsburgh. He has traipsed to retirement homes for relics, made house calls for goods and even schlepped to Beth Shalom cemetery to retrieve 200 books stored there.

Sacks, of Squirrel Hill, and 278 zamlers nationwide are preserving the language and culture of Ashkenazi Jews -- those Jews of Eastern and Central European descent. And they are not alone.

Local groups and academic institutions, along with the ultra-orthodox community, have ensured that Yiddishkeit -- all that springs from Yiddish culture and language -- will not die.

As renowned Jewish folk singer Theodore Bikel performs tomorrow night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, his Yiddish songs will resonate deeply with the Pittsburgh community. They'll kindle memories of yore but will also strengthen the momentum of Yiddishkeit in Pittsburgh.

"I'll try to bring them an echo of the world that they have forgotten," says Bikel, of his upcoming trip to Pittsburgh. "For the non-Jews, it will give a glimpse of another world."

Bikel learned the Yiddish language and songs "at his father's knee," growing up in Vienna and what was then Palestine. He can sing in 21 languages and enjoys bringing his audiences into familiar and unfamiliar territory. Tomorrow he will perform songs in Yiddish, French, Spanish, Flemish and Hebrew, among others.

    Music preview

Noted Jewish folk singer Theodore Bikel thrives on diversity


Yiddish, which is written with the Hebrew alphabet, emerged about a thousand years ago in the Rhine region. It's predominantly influenced by German but sprinkled with Hebrew, Slavic and Romance elements.

In the early 20th century in America, Yiddish language and culture flourished. The Yiddish Forward, a national newspaper from New York, reached a daily circulation of 206,000 in 1919. Other papers, Philadelphia's Yidishe Welt (Jewish World) and Los Angeles' Yidishe Stimme (Jewish Voice), began publication during World War I.

Yiddish literature thrived as writers like Abraham Reisen and Sholom Aleichem penned stories in the Yiddish press about the Old World and New World. Yiddish theater was vibrant, too. New York City, the center of such theater, offered Shakespeare and Goethe in Yiddish as well as plays originally in Yiddish. The Folksbiene Yiddish Theater of New York, started in 1915, still puts on plays today.

In 1939, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. But the numbers quickly dwindled. Half were killed in the Holocaust. Many other speakers, immigrants to America, chose to mainstream their children and have them learn English. Later, children and grandchildren of immigrants would realize that the richness of Yiddish language and culture was too precious to let fade.

Mary Marks grew up in the Hill District in a Yiddish-speaking home, with her mother and father from Lithuania. She learned English in schools and spoke Yiddish with her family. After she left home, she hardly spoke Yiddish. About 10 years ago, it all came back.

Her friend started a Yiddish class at the Jewish Community Center, and currently Marks leads it. The group, more than 20 people, is fluent in Yiddish and meets every Tuesday morning for an hour throughout the year, except during Jewish holidays.

They come to connect with their past, to remember their days growing up, through schmoozing, stories, and joke-telling in Yiddish.

Last Tuesday, the group, ranging from ages 70 to 89, read five humorous short stories. One was about a soldier who pointed his gun in the air. Another soldier told him to point it exactly in front of the enemy's face. The soldier responded, "Why? That's where the people are walking."

At the end of the story, the whole room fills with chuckles. But in English, Marks explains, these stories lose their tam, or taste. Translation forfeits meaning.

For a year and a half, Esther Falk has taught another Yiddish class through the JCC for beginners, covering grammar, conversation, songs, and idiomatic expressions. The class, which won't meet this fall, was a hit.

"Oh my goodness, we had such a good time," says Shirley Katz, 55, of Squirrel Hill, who took the class and its sequel with her husband, Owen.

The students were a mixed bag -- a retired engineer, a teacher, a graduate student and a director of a retirement home, among others. They attended for intellectual purposes as well as sentimental reasons.

"Yiddish reflects a dormant culture and they want to keep it from vanishing," says Falk.

Henry Shapiro, 44, of Swissvale, took the class to learn about his musical roots in klezmer. This traditional Jewish music, which is part of Yiddish culture, is a hybrid of Eastern European folk tunes and synagogue melodies, often accompanied by Yiddish lyrics and sometimes fused with American jazz.

In Falk's class, Shapiro picked up several Yiddish songs, such as "Yidl Mitn Fidl," ("Yidl With a Fiddle") that he regularly performs with his group the Steel City Klezmorim, formed seven years ago. They play festivals, clubs, weddings, and bar-mitzvahs, typically with fiddle, clarinet, cimbalon, accordion, guitar, and upright bass.

Pittsburgh sustains not one, but two, klezmer groups. The Hot Matzohs also toot around town, from educational concerts to benefits to Pittsburgh's First Night, which they play this year.

Klezmer music is gaining enormous popularity, not just in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of klezmer recordings grace the market, whereas 25 years ago, there were only a handful. And now, some big-time musicians are playing and recording klezmer, such as Itzhak Perlman. Word has it that Yo-Yo Ma is trying his hand at klezmer.

Traditional Yiddish folk songs have also recently entered the American pop culture with the voice of Mandy Patinkin, an actor on Chicago Hope. He released Mamaloshen (mother tongue) last year, an album with songs like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "God Bless America" translated into Yiddish, as well as traditional folk songs, like "Rabbi Elimeylekh."

Yiddish has even made the air waves. Since 1994, WUNR 1600 AM, a radio station in Brookline, Mass., features an hour of interviews and songs -- entirely in Yiddish.

The Yiddish revival, however, is not a full-fledged rebirth. Many will venture to Pinskers Judaica Center for a Yiddish dictionary, a Theodore Bikel CD or a Yiddish poetry magnet set. But students won't converse in Yiddish in the hallways at Taylor Allderdice High School. Nor will weary working parents speak the mamaloshen on their way home on the 67H.

Learning the language fluently is indeed another story. It takes years of practice and immersion. While Falk's JCC class was only an introduction to basic Yiddish, other local groups haven't even had enough interest to support informal classes.

The Jewish Education Institute, which offers 14 conversational classes in Hebrew this fall, hasn't listed Yiddish in its catalog since 1993.

"I get many more calls for Hebrew," said Amy Karp, the adult education coordinator of the Institute. "Yiddish is not really a popular language anymore."

Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill offered a Yiddish class a few years ago, but it only lasted for one term because the students weren't interested in formal grammar.

But at about 40 academic institutions across the country, formal Yiddish classes have sprung up. Just like any other foreign language class, teachers conduct the class in Yiddish with paper assignments and language lab requirements.

"Young people are interested in their roots," said Dr. David Neal Miller, associate professor of Yiddish and Ashkenazic Studies at Ohio State University. "There's some missing link, which can explain American Jews to themselves, that can't be found anyplace but Yiddish."

Ohio State's program began in 1980 with six students. Now, about 50 students enlist in Yiddish language classes, and there are 350 enrollees in courses related to Yiddish culture. Signs around school advertise the classes, "From Krakow to Cleveland" or "From Shpeyer to Shaker Heights."

The school also awards a master's degree and doctorate in Yiddish and Ashkenazic Studies. An African-American student is currently writing her dissertation on representations of African-Americans in Yiddish poetry.

The University of Pennsylvania offers four levels of Yiddish language, and a fifth course in Yiddish literature and culture, taught in Yiddish. The University of Michigan, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois-Urbana also teach Yiddish.

Although the University of Pittsburgh offers Irish Gaelic, Swahili, and Serbian, they haven't formally taught Yiddish in more than 10 years because of the lack of student interest.

For one community, though, reviving Yiddish is not necessary at all. In Brooklyn, Yiddish is the everyday tongue of the ultra-orthodox community, the Hasidim. Children speak to each other and their parents in Yiddish. They study at yeshivas in Yiddish. Some don't even know English. These Hasidim don't need to revive Yiddish because they never left it.

In Pittsburgh, some members of the Lubavitch community, a Hasidic group, speak Yiddish. Many adults have come from Brooklyn, where they grew up and learned the language.

At the Yeshiva School in Squirrel Hill, students pick up certain words or phrases that help them understand texts such as sichos, which are insights on the Torah in Yiddish by their late spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. There is also an optional class for learning the Yiddish language that meets after school.

Some youngsters speak Yiddish at home with their parents. Avrohom and Tzivia Itkin, 15 and 17, of Squirrel Hill have grown up with "Yinglish," some combination of Yiddish and English. They'll commonly hear, "Go effn di ter" (Go open the door) or "Come here, yetz" (now) from their parents.

For Tzivia, the Yiddish language is rife with meaning. It not only helps her understand Torah discourses better, but also brings her spiritually closer to the generations before her.

"If I truly want to understand my heritage, if I truly want to talk to my grandparents, I need to learn Yiddish," she said. "To speak Yiddish is a beautifying, unifying thing."

Mordechai Zaetz, 17, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and now goes to yeshiva in France, knew some Yiddish from his parents and the Yeshiva School here. But in France, where students come from 12 different countries to the school, the only language they have in common is Yiddish. Now he is fluent.

The older generation of Yiddish speakers takes pleasure in the preservation and celebration of the language by the younger, even in its new context, the English language.

Rabbi Baruch Poupko, the Dean of the Orthodox Rabbinate of Pittsburgh, used to give sermons in Yiddish in the 1940s at Shaare Torah of Squirrel Hill and wrote a book in 1968 In Shoton Fun Kremlin (In the Shadow of the Kremlin) in Yiddish. Now he kvells when he hears Yiddish words and expressions that have crept into the English language.

"I'm so proud and happy to say that so many Yiddish words have become part of the vocabulary of English," he says.

He was thrilled to read in a Jewish weekly that legal scholars consider Yiddish the new "spice" of legal language, replacing Latin. In fact, Justice Antonin Scalia recently utilized chutzpah in a formal Supreme Court opinion paper.

Even Frau Farbisine, the frowny Austin Powers character, would smile at that.

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