A conversational Yiddish class is held every Monday at the Workmen’s Circle, where about 15 students, most of them age 80 and older, gather. Photo by Tess Cutler

No talking in class! (Unless it’s in Yiddish)

On any given Monday afternoon, the most likely place to find Ben Silver is the Yiddish conversation class at the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish cultural and social justice organization near Robertson and Pico boulevards. He’s easy to spot: At 97, he’s usually the oldest student in the room.

At one recent class, Silver was the first to arrive, wearing a “World War II Veteran” baseball cap and carrying a bag of snacks to share with the class. Silver said he grew up speaking Yiddish, but, after years of not using it, “I lost the language.” That is, until a few years ago, when he first found out about the conversational class.

“There was a yearning in me to go back to my roots and to learn all of the goodness that I learned from my family,” he told the Journal. “This brings back a beautiful time in my life.”

Silver sits in a room with a long wooden table at the center and a green chalkboard at the side. He’s one of about 15 students, most of them age 80 or older whose childhood memories of Yiddish have faded over years and assimilation. The weekly 75-minute sessions, taught by Hadasa Cytrynowicz, 82, become a time capsule, with bookcases of dog-eared Yiddish classics lining the walls.

Cytrynowicz fled Poland with her parents in 1939 when Germany invaded their small town. Later, she lived in the Soviet Union, a German displacement camp, a newly formed Israel, Brazil (where she was the first professor at Sao Paulo University to teach Yiddish), and now Los Angeles. She told the Journal that she’s always felt like an outsider. “But I’m at home in the classroom,” she added.

It’s a “home” for her students, as well.

“My parents were both Yiddish speakers, especially when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about, which I think was very common,” said Irving Lehrer. Born in 1938, he noted, “I’m probably one of the youngest students in this class.”

Ruth Judkowitz, who serves in the volunteer position of “chairmentsch” at Workmen’s Circle, often brings along an accordion for when the class breaks out into Yiddish folksong.

“I’m just here, keeping the doors open,” she said. Judkowitz first heard about the Arbeter Ring in 1990, when she joined the Yiddish chorus (which no longer exists) and has since devoted much of her time to the nonprofit.

“We’ve all become friends because we’re just happy to speak Yiddish and be with each other,” she said.

Workmen’s Circle started in 1900 as a mutual aid society in New York, helping Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe adapt to American society. It operated summer camps, ran credit unions, published books, offered medical services and bought tracts of land for cemeteries. Today, it runs social justice and cultural events and schools throughout the New York metropolitan area and in large cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco.

In Los Angeles, the Circle occupies a modest building, with a splay of overgrown weeds taking over the sidewalk. But inside is a treasure trove. Sure, the fixtures are outdated and the walls could use a fresh coat of paint. Yet this simple edifice is a portal, a snapshot into Los Angeles’ once thriving Yiddishkeit community.

The Yiddish class has an informal layout, open to all Yiddish levels, spurring more discussion than one might expect from a typical language class. For one exercise, Cytrynowicz calls out Yiddish words that students, in turn, use in a sentence.

Chutzpah,” Cytrynowicz called out.

Silver was first to respond, “Ikh hob dos nisht,” meaning, “I don’t have that.” To which, a woman immediately wise-cracked, “He has a lot of chutzpah saying that.”

“There’s a lot of humor that goes on. We learn and make jokes. It’s just a good time,” said Judkowitz.

There’s a robust back-and-forth between teacher and students. Often, current events are discussed in Yinglish, a Yiddish-English hybrid. When a student speaks too much English, Cytrynowicz is quick to reprimand, “Yiddish! Yiddish!”

Speaking Yiddish is not the only reminder of the past. Days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, many in the class found the order an eerie example of history being repeated.

Some discussed the ban with outrage, recalling the MS St. Louis, the shifl (boat) that was turned away by the U.S. in 1939, a decision that bore tragic results when those passengers were sent back to Europe — many to their deaths. “I was a kinder (kid) then,” a woman remembered.

It’s strange to hear about World War II in Yiddish. It’s always the elephant in the room, the reason for the extinction of this language, this voice. When someone mentioned the Third Reich, a student uttered under her breath, “Yimakh shemo” — May his name be erased — turning the room from a Yiddish class to a yahrzeit candle, a flame of something ancient, through their resurrected language, a lost world remembered.

Yiddish: The enduring language

Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes in the opening pages of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (Wayne State University Press: $34.95), the academic study of Yiddish is a fraught subject precisely because it is loaded with memories of suffering and loss.

“To study Yiddish is, it could be said, never neutral…because languages are by their very nature highly charged phenomena even after the best efforts to purge them of their politics,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains. “Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Yiddish studies, in which the language becomes a proxy for its absent speakers.”

“Choosing Yiddish” is not an exercise in nostalgia or pop culture, and its contributors consciously distance themselves from the “kitchen Yiddish” of family usage. Rather, it is an academic colloquy on how Yiddish is studied in colleges and universities as a living language. “Early in the twenty-first century, Yiddish increasingly functions as an important form and forum of exchange in the marketplace of ideas,” the editors insist, “and the revived study of Yiddish language and culture represents one of the most innovative shifts in the academy today.”

One cannot think about Yiddish, of course, without recalling its murdered readers, writers and speakers. Shiri Goren, for example, contributes a kind of literary eulogy on the life and work of David Vogel, a native Yiddish speaker who made a principled decision to publish only in Hebrew but left behind an unpublished Yiddish manuscript when he was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz — “a testimonial narrative,” writes Goren, “created on the verge of catastrophe.”  For Goren, the choice of language is full of meaning.

“Crucially for a writer whose existence was synonymous with in-betweenness, Yiddish also metaphorically functioned here as a mediator between German and Hebrew,” explains Goren, “serving as a medium that allowed Vogel enough distance for distinct artistic creation.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Yiddish found a foothold in America. “Before World War I, no other city in the world hosted a larger Yiddish-speaking intellectual community than New York,” Tony Michels writes in an essay titled “The Lower East Side Meets Greenwich Village.”  And Jeffrey Shandler, in “Prelude to ‘Yiddish Goes Pop,’” points out that the academic study of Yiddish is now such a sober enterprise that “it is a challenge (but also a delight) for scholars today to engage, sometimes to rediscover, Yiddish as vulgar,” by which he means the “raucous Jewish lore” that can still be found in books ranging from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” to Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch.”

The Yiddish scholars whose work is collected here refused to characterize Yiddish as a dead language, but they are painfully aware that it lives only in the margins of the contemporary Jewish world. “Small pockets exist where Yiddish is still spoken as an everyday language, both in the Haredi/Black Hat Orthodox communities and among a few hundred other Jews dedicated to keeping Yiddish alive,” acknowledges Sarah Bunin Benor. “Yet, for most American Jews, Yiddish is a ‘postvernacular language,’ a source of nostalgia, crystallized in the form of jokes, tshatshkes (keepsakes), refrigerator magnets, and festivals.”

Indeed, one notable and highly significant fact about “Choosing Yiddish” is that not a single word of Yiddish is reproduced in Hebrew characters (as opposed to English transliteration) except in photographic plates.  This is clearly a conscious choice, because it allows non-Yiddish-speakers like me to fully understand the argument that is being conducted among scholars, but it also reminds us that we are locked out of the more intimate conversation that can only be conducted in what was my grandparents’ language, but not my own. Thus are we reminded that one goal of the contributors to “Choosing Yiddish” is to lure non-Yiddish speakers back into the mamaloshen.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Hollywood gets lessons in the nuances of Hebrew

Some time ago, I was invited to a dinner here in Israel attended by a delegation of film people from Los Angeles. During the meal, one successful documentary director asked me a question: Could I think of any Hebrew words that have no equivalent in English?

An excellent question, and even though I was sure there were many such words, the only two I could think of actually do have English equivalents, except that in Hebrew — or maybe it would be more accurate to say “in Israeli” — they carry completely different values.

The first is balagan, which came into Hebrew from Yiddish.

Balagan means “total chaos.” But this word is unique, because contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt — a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from his mischief-making son — but it is completely there. But chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality and passion. In a place where people push and shove in line, where children insist on drawing on walls and not on paper, where a briefcase holds stained income tax reports lying between a pastrami sandwich and a piece of graph paper with the beginnings of a poem on it, that’s where you’ll find human liberty, the liberty that both Yiddish and Hebrew have always held sacred.

The second word that came to mind was dugree, a word taken from Arabic that means “direct, honest talk.” Just like chaos, directness is a valued attribute in Israeli society. So dugree people will always tell you that you’ve gotten fat, that your wife is ugly, that the film you made is so-so, and — come to think of it — they never did manage to get through any of your books. They don’t do it because they have a need to enlighten you, but because for them saying anything else would be hypocritical. Of course, they know they could just smile and save you from some of that honesty, but then they wouldn’t be completely dugree. And so, genuinely dugree people will call you two hours after you’ve said goodbye and add that in all the excitement, they forgot to mention that your son seems underdeveloped for his age and your skin looks terrible.

If the concept of balagan only slightly aroused the intellectual curiosity of the visitors from Los Angeles, the concept of dugree managed to get their full attention. They tried to think of a time when someone came up to them after a screening with a negative comment and couldn’t. “Maybe your movies were simply great,” one of the Israeli hosts said, trying to pay an extremely non-dugree compliment.

“No,” said the director, “that’s not it. It’s just that in L.A., when a film isn’t good, your colleagues come over and say things like, ‘It was so brave of you to do this film,’ or ‘I really liked the dog.'”

“And if the film is really terrible?” I asked. “If someone suffered through every frame of it?”

“Oh,” said a producer. “In that case, chances are he’ll come over wearing a big, toothy smile and say, ‘Good for you.'”

In the taxi on the way back from dinner, I pictured the toothy smiles of all the people who said how much they loved my book during that fabulous book tour on the West Coast in 2001.

Now, when I think about it, many of them did tell me how brave I was to write that book, and there’d been a tall, thin woman from Berkeley who shook my hand warmly and said that she really loved the dog. In retrospect — to be dugree with myself — that should have made me suspicious right then because there was no dog in the book.

On a more positive note, it may have taken me six years, but I did finally get it. Good for me.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” “The Nimrod Flipout” and “Missing Kissinger.”

A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way

“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.


Annulla Has Her Say


For a one-person show, what you need foremost is a character. Meet Annulla. A warm, spirited older woman with an energy that belies her years and her difficult past, and the eponym of the Eclectic Company’s new production, written by Emily Mann.

“Annulla: An Autobiography” tells the story of Annulla Allen, a woman born in Lvov, Galicia, who survived the Holocaust by passing as Aryan, and eventually immigrated to London. Mann, who received a Tony nomination for “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” met Allen 30 years ago, while working with her college friend on a project collecting oral histories of Holocaust survivors. She first became interested in the project out of a desire to learn her own maternal grandmother’s tale of survival. But, like many immigrants of her generation, Mann’s grandmother spoke Polish, Yiddish and English, but none of them fluently.

Allen, then, was Mann’s friend’s aunt, and unlike Mann’s grandmother, Allen had a language for telling her story. She’d even written a play herself.

We meet Allen in her London flat, much like Mann did herself. Allen (played by Eileen De Felitta) bustles about, preparing chicken soup for her sister and tea for her guests (us), and generally refuses to sit still. As she flits, she talks to us. We learn of her accomplished family, some of whom survived the Holocaust and others of whom perished. We learn how she survived, how she saved her husband who was sent to Dachau and of her heartache at having to send her son to live with friends in Switzerland until the war was over. We hear her philosophies on why women should rule the world (“If there was a global matriarchy there could be no more evil”) and about how she survived cancer, as well.

The play serves as a survivor’s testimony, but more than that, shows us a whole person and a whole life, something survivors are not always able to convey when telling their own stories. “Annulla” speaks for Mann’s grandmother, and for all those who cannot.

“Annulla” plays Thurs.-Sun., through Feb. 26. $12-$18. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-3003.


Little Miss Shmutzy

Anne-Marie Baila Asner was concerned that Yiddish words were disappearing from the vernacular. After all, she only knew about 30 words, and most of her peers knew even fewer.

So she decided that she was going to reinvigorate Yiddish by writing and illustrating cute, brightly colored children’s books that would help people develop an affinity for the language.

“Yiddish words provide something that English words don’t, and they say something in a single word that no other word in English says,” said the Los Angeles resident, whose day job is a credit risk analyst. “I want people to understand what Yiddish contributes.”

Thus the first title to come out of “Matzah Ball Books,” Asner’s publishing company, is “Shmutzy Girl.”

Shmutz is typically translated as dirt, but what the Yiddish word really means is an amalgamation of dirty, messy and smudged all rolled into one.

In “Shmutzy Girl,” the eponymous protagonist is sad because she can never seem to keep herself clean, but she learns to love herself despite her shmutz.

“Everything the characters do is consistent with their namesake in order to teach the word,” Asner said. “And each book has a moral.”

Asner said her books were inspired by Roger Hargreaves “Mr. Men” and “Little Miss” series which were popular children’s books when she was growing up in Canada. She now has 30 titles planned for her series, including “Kvetchy Boy,” about a boy who learns when he should and should not kvetch (complain, whine); “Shluffy Girl,” about a girl who is always shluffing (sleeping); “Bubba and Zaidy Kvelly,” about two grandparents who kvell (heap praise) over their grandchildren; and “Meshuggene Hunt,” which is about a crazy dog who always follows people home.

“There is a feeling that comes with using and hearing Yiddish words,” Asner said. “[The word] clumsy is much less kind and endearing than klutzy, sleep sounds less warm than shluffy. It is this warmth and detail for which I am trying to spark an affinity in our youth.”

Asner will be reading from “Shmutzy Girl” on July 18, 1
p.m. at Storyopolis, 116 N. Robertson Blvd. To attend the reading, R.S.V.P. at
(310) 358-2512. For more information on the series or to purchase books, visit
www.matzahballbooks.comor call (310) 306-7741.

Lovin’ the

For playwright Miriam Hoffman, Yiddish is hardly a dying language. “It just doesn’t want to die,” said Hoffman, who will teach Yiddish at the Dec. 14-20 intensive language/culture immersion courses at UCLA and the University of Judaism.

“Yiddish was always a problem since its birth,” said Hoffman, who writes children’s books on the subject, lectures at Columbia University and writes for the Yiddish-language newspaper, Forvertz. “It had to compete with the sacred language, which is Hebrew. Yiddish carried [Zionism] on its back for 1,000 years.”

The California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL) is sponsoring, “The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a Culture Through Its Beat,” with four levels of language courses, klezmer music and lectures on Yiddish literature. A finale performance will feature renowned actor and Yiddish true-believer Theodore Bikel.

Miriam Koral, CIYCL’s director, expects several hundred people to float in and out of the various events and classes, but there also will be a core of about 30 people attending all the language courses, many returning for their fourth Yiddish winter seminar.

“They have been inspired to learn Yiddish in other venues,” Koral said. “Our intention is to inspire people so that they have a real respect for this language, this heritage and language to go out and really sink their teeth into.”

Bikel publicly has complained that many Jews feel a need to support Israel by emphasizing Hebrew over Yiddish. But Yiddish thrives among throngs of Chasidic and other Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District and, in larger numbers, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park neighborhoods and upstate New York’s New Square and Kiryas Yoel communities.

Hoffman told The Journal that when she leaves her Bronx home to visit those enclaves, “it’s like going into Yiddishland. The children play in Yiddish in the streets, the restaurants are in Yiddish and there is the publishing of books in Yiddish for children. It’s exciting because it all starts with the little ones.”

“The Art of Yiddish 2003 — Entering the Heart of a
Culture Through Its Beat: An Immersion in the Living Language, Literature, Song
and Dance.” Dec. 14-20, Royce Hall, UCLA Campus and The University of Judaism.
For more information, visit

My Yiddische Papa

Educator Yakob Basner will tell you that if you want to learn about a people, study their language.

“You cannot learn or know the history of the Jewish people without learning Yiddish,” Basner said. “There are words you can not translate into English.”

“Yiddish is our language; it’s our culture,” he continued. “Before the war, 12 million Jews spoke it. And the last words spoken by the Jews in the Holocaust before they were killed was in Yiddish.”

Basner, a survivor of four concentration camps, has made it his lifelong mission to connect new generations of Jews to their past by teaching Yiddish language and literature. The Long Beach resident, who for 15 years has taught Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles, which preserves and promotes Yiddish culture, will receive the organization’s Yidishkayt Award during the Nov. 10 luncheon at the Fairmont-Miramar in Santa Monica that will celebrate the Southern California chapter’s 95th anniversary.

Basner has been vital to the continuance of the Yiddish tradition in the local Yiddish-speaking community, from Los Angeles’ Workmen’s Circle to Beverly Hills High School Adult School, where he has taught Yiddish for the past decade.

Basner, who turns 75 in December, has been speaking the language — an amalgam of German, Hebrew and European dialects — “from the beginning. I soaked it in from my mother’s milk.”

The Yiddish expert has lived most of his life before and after WWII in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia. He lost his father, mother, brother and sister in the Shoah. His brother was executed on a death march just a day before liberation.

At 17, Basner was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. He returned to Riga, where he worked in the leather-cutting trade while studying linguistics. By 20, he had reconnected with and married Doba, a girl he had known since he was 7. They have been married for 54 years.

“She was hiding in Riga throughout the war,” Basner said, “and I met her on the street.

After a decade of struggle to leave Latvia, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, the Basners and their two daughters finally reached California in 1980. The Basners have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Since 1987, Basner has taught Yiddish to thousands of students, including Eric Gordon, director of Workmen’s Circle.

In the fall of 1995, Gordon took Basner’s advanced Yiddish class. Two months later, Gordon became Basner’s boss at the Workmen’s Circle.

Gordon, a Yiddishkayt aficionado since his Yale days in the ’60s, has spearheaded a variety of chapter projects. His contributions include a mural on the headquarters’ Horner Street wall in the Pico-Robertson area, an art gallery, a monthly newsletter and programs co-sponsored with various organizations, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Democrats for Israel.

Gordon wants to continue to draw young people. A Jewish poetry slam is scheduled for late November, as is the formation of a Jewish artists group and a gay and lesbian group.

“Younger people are finding here what our older members have found in the past: a Jewish community and home,” Gordon said.

Social action and justice are still top priorities at Workmen’s Circle, which recently drafted anti-war resolutions.

“We stand for a national health-care system, labor rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, a land for peace solution to the Middle East conflict,” continued Gordon, explaining the platform of the Workmen’s Circle’s 50-plus North American affiliates. “It’s tied to the social action that in the past was conducted by unions, the Bundt and other organizations. It’s part of that whole tradition.”

Tradition is the key word.

“The Circle,” Basner said, “is an organization that has understood since the beginning of the 20th century to preserve the Yiddish culture, to help keep Jews connected.”

Basner has mastered English, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew and German. But it is Yiddish that remains closest to his heart.

“It’s a very rich, fun language,” Basner said. “A lot of idioms, proverbs, expressions. You not only get to teach the language, you have the opportunity to teach all the sayings and expressions.”

Although Yiddish is 1,000 years old, it still thrives with new works of literature released every year. Basner, whose Holocaust odyssey was chronicled in the English-language book, “The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back” (Brager, 1991), still obtains much hanoe (joy) from teaching Yiddish.

“I feel that Yiddish will stay alive,” Basner said, “because it’s very stubborn, like the Jewish people. It will survive.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s annual awards banquet, emceed by “Freaks and Geeks” stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, will be held Nov. 10 at the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Tom Hayden and members Judy Silver and Frances Friedman will receive awards. Mit Gezang Yiddish Choir will perform. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.circle.org.

The Nachas of Books

Until recently, it seemed you could find Yiddish books only in obscure libraries or in the attic of the house of someone’s grandparents. But recently, the National Yiddish Book Center launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online bookstore that makes more than 12,000 out-of-print titles available for purchase over the Internet.

Each order is routed to a production facility in Pennsylvania, where a digital printer accesses the previously scanned pages and generates a new paperback copy within minutes. The price is $29 per book (center members pay less).

Offering 12,000 of the 18,000 to 20,000 titles that compose modern Yiddish literature, the digital library has turned Yiddish into the most in-print literature available, said Aaron Lansky, the center’s founder and president. Popular writers include I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch.

When Lansky was a Jewish studies graduate student around 1980, most Yiddish books were out-of-print. Fearing that surviving tomes would soon be thrown out by a younger generation, he says he set out "to save the world’s Yiddish books before it was too late." Working from an unheated factory in Northhampton, Mass., Lansky made a public appeal for unwanted books and sent volunteers to collect them from abandoned buildings and old synagogues across the country. The center, which now has some 30,000 members, has since recovered more than 1.5 million books.

Its birth coincided with a trend to study Yiddish language and literature, which meant that by 1998, students and scholars were buying up the most important titles. Worse, nearly all the books had been printed on inexpensive paper and were physically deteriorating. The solution was digitizing the collection, a $3.5 million project that’s been funded in part by a $500,000 grant from Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. It’s the only major publisher of Yiddish books today. "We’ve shown how new technology can be used to save an endangered literature and bring it back into print," Lansky said.

Access the library at

Assembly Yiddish

For the benefit of the 90 percent of Assembly-members who are not Jewish, and for other Yiddish-challenged lawmakers, Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) has published a 36-page booklet, appropriately titled "Yiddish for Assemblymembers."

It contains a selection of words drawn from the mameloshen, with examples of their use in the legislative process, as well as a brief guide to Jewish holidays.

Hertzberg succinctly explained the purpose of the literary effort in a press release. "I want to make sure members don’t get farblondjet when us alte kahkers of the Assembly make a megillah about our bills," Hertzberg wrote. (A sanitized translation would read: "I want to make sure members don’t get mixed up when us fussy old guys make a long story about our bills.")

Hertzberg told The Journal that he owed his own Yiddish vocabulary to his maternal and paternal grandparents, who came to America from Latvia and Odessa. He said that he had received numerous thank-you notes from fellow legislators, who can finally figure out what the speaker is talking about and have begun using selections from the vocabulary in their own speeches.

Another enthusiastic reader has been ex-vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has been known to drop a Yiddish exclamation here and there to good effect.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the booklet.

Klutz: Clumsy person.

Example: I’m such a klutz; I smashed my finger when I banged the gavel for order.

Mitzvah: commandment; a meritorious act.

Example: You did a mitzvah when you passed the family health insurance bill.

Hertzberg credited his assistant Barbara Creme and community activist Jonathan Zasloff for much of the research on the publication, which was funded with campaign, not public, money.

While Hertzberg’s booklet signals the advance of Yiddish in the legislative branch, its increasing use in the judiciary was noted some years back in the August Yale Law Review in an article titled "Lawsuit, Shmawsuit."

The authors, Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, noted, for example, the growing use of the word "chutzpah" in legal pleadings and opinions.

"There are two possible explanations for this," state the authors. "One is that during recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the actual amount of chutzpah in the United States — or at least in the U.S. legal system.

This explanation seems possible, but unlikely.

"The more likely explanation is that Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot," they add.

Kozinski and Volokh append an illustration of chutzpah:

"A man goes to a lawyer and asks, ‘How much do you charge for legal advice?’

‘A thousand dollars for three questions.’

‘Wow! Isn’t that kind of expensive?’

‘Yes, it is. What was your third question?’"

With the legislative and judicial branches thus increasingly attuned to Yiddish, it remains for the executive arm to weigh in. In a hopeful sign, Hertzberg reports that he gave a copy of his booklet to Gov. Gray Davis, who shortly thereafter declared publicly that he needed the state’s energy crisis like a "loch in kop" (a hole in the head).

Alive and Well

Aaron Paley, Los Angeles’ impresario of Yiddish, finds his job is easier these days. He no longer has to work quite so hard to prove that Yiddish is not dead.”Two years ago, it was like pulling teeth to convince people why Yiddish language and culture is important,” says the director of L.A.’s second biennial Yiddish festival, “YK2! The New Face of Yiddish Culture – A Festival for the Next 1000 Years,” which has come to town this week. “Now people know. The Zeitgeist has changed.”

Paley ticks off the evidence. As Yiddish turns 1,000 years old at the dawn of the 21st century, the National Yiddish Book Center is digitally scanning every page of every Yiddish book ever published. KlezKemps and Yiddish-language ulpans are thriving everywhere from Oxford University to the Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) on Robertson Boulevard. L.A. is the site of dozens of Yiddish classes and clubs. And the Knitting Factory, where klezmer musicians and others on the radical Jewish culture scene play to hipsters on the Lower East Side, is about to open a branch on Hollywood Boulevard.

The Yiddish festival, which drew more than 10,000 Angelenos in October 1998, meanwhile, has nearly doubled in size to become the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. With more than 40 events in some 20 venues in 2000, including lectures, concerts and plays, the goal is simple.”We want to prove that Yiddish and Yiddish culture is not kitschy, moribund, tinged with sugary nostalgia or regret about the Holocaust,” says Paley, who is in his early 40’s and grew up attending the collectively run Yiddish Kindershule and Mittelshule in Van Nuys. “We want to prove that it provides a foundation of ideas and creativity that artists can draw on today.”

A case in point is Sara Felder, San Francisco’s favorite Jewish lesbian juggler-performance artist, who will present her comic monologue, “Shtick!” about a cross-dressing immigrant vaudevillian and a modern performance artist who connect from opposite ends of the 20th century (see sidebar). Acclaimed choreographer John Malashock, once a principal dancer with Twyla Tharp, is the co-creator of “Blessings & Curses,” about a contemporary artist who weaves old and new stories into cloth.

On a more traditional note, Yiddishpiel, Israel’s only professional Yiddish repertory theater, will perform a medley of songs and dialogues. And the West Coast Jewish Theatre will present “Der Onshtel Makher” (“The Make-Believe Maker”), which starts as a stranger knocks at the door of an inn on the outskirts of Bilgoray, Poland, on a foggy, frozen night in 1858.

If Yiddish has a theme tailor-made for multicultural Los Angeles, Paley says, it is how to survive as a minority culture in the larger society. Yiddish is, by nature, multicultural, the living product of Jewish expulsion and migration, always borrowing words from host languages.

“YK2,” therefore, highlights Yiddish in relation to its most significant host culture, that of Eastern Europe, Paley says. Brave Old World, hailed by The Village Voice as a “klezmer supergroup,” for example, will perform with the Canadian-Ukrainian band Paris to Kyiv. Boris Sandler, editor of the 103-year-old Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts (The Forward), will describe how Yiddish survived the Stalinist purges of the former Soviet Union. Performances celebrating Eastern European culture will take place in Plummer Park, the heart of Eastern European L.A. And an exhibition organized by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research will tell of the Jewish Labor Bund from its early days in the old country to the late 1990’s. “One Hundred Years of the Bund” begins with the story of how, late one evening in October 1897, 13 people gathered at a safe house in a secret location in Vilna, bent on establishing a group dedicated to the political liberation of Jews throughout the Russian empire. The exhibit tells the rest of the story through documents ranging from clandestine Bund brochures to present-day photographs.

The Bund, like other aspects of Yiddish culture, defied the odds and survived the 20th century. And that, Paley says, is the point of “YK2.” “We’re still here at the beginning of the new millennium,” Paley explains, “and that is worth celebrating.”

“YK2” runs through May 21. For a schedule and other information, call (323) 692-8151.

Alive and Kicking

Aaron Paley, 41, grew up living and breathing Yiddish.

His world was a community of leftist Jews who considered the radical Workmen’s Circle the reichte, the right wing. Paley attended the collectively-run Yiddish Kindershule and Mittelshule in Van Nuys, where he studied labor history and Sholem Aleichem. He marched with his parents in anti-Vietnam rallies and was riveted by tales of sweatshop workers who became union organizers. For the Paleys and their friends, Yiddish was always associated with struggle and liberation; Aaron grew up an activist in his own right, promoting artists through his Community Arts Resources and organizing festivals devoted to “cultural democracy.”

By the early ’90s, however, Paley became distressed about the state of Yiddish in Los Angeles. The native speakers were dying out; Hebrew had replaced Yiddish as the Jewish language; and Paley’s beloved shule had closed down. &’009;

But a fledgling Yiddish revival was sweeping the country, spearheaded in part by another activist, Aaron Lansky, who had founded the National Yiddish Book Center to rescue Yiddish tomes from the dumpster.

Paley, too, decided to take action, inspired by a theater piece he viewed deep in the woods outside a Belarussian shtetl in 1994. As a performance artist recreated Yiddish life in a manner that was neither maudlin nor mournful, Paley decided to launch an organization and a festival to do the same in L.A.

“Yiddishkayt Los Angeles” began with a one-day festival in 1995; it is returning this month with an eight-day fete, “Yiddishkayt! A Celebration for All Ages — The New Face of an Enduring Culture,” Oct. 18-25. With more than 24 events from the Skirball to Self-Help Graphics, the festival will include plays, cabaret, symphonic music, films and an art exhibit. It will be perhaps the largest event of its kind ever in the U.S.

“I want to show people that Yiddish and Yiddish culture is not dead, kitchy, moribund, tinged with sugary nostalgia or regret about the Holocaust,” Paley explains. “I want them to see that it provides a foundation of ideas and creativity that people can draw on today. You can’t throw away 1,000 years of history; Yiddish is in the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews.”

The festival’s focus, therefore, is not on Bubbe and Zayde, but on artists who are reinterpreting Yiddish culture to create new, contemporary works. The New York avant-garde theater collective, Great Small Works, will present the U.S. premiere of “The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln,” a cutting-edge music-theater piece based on the Yiddish-language diary of a spirited, 17th century widow.

“Ghetto Tango: Music in Extremis” will focus on artists who worked in makeshift ghetto theaters during the Holocaust; “Viva Klezmer-L’khayim Mariachi!” will feature klezmer and mariachi musicians; the L.A. Jewish Symphony will perform Shostakovich’s song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry;” the Workmen’s Circle will dedicate its new, vibrantly colored mural; and Yankev Lewin will present his one-man show based on the classic play, “200,000,” by Sholem Aleichem, with English subtitles. Sabell Bender directs this surprisingly modern piece about a man who wins the lottery and loses it all to sleazy film producers.

Bender, chair of the festival committee, grew up in Boyle Heights when Yiddish was the language of daily conversation. She described how the first Yiddish-speakers came to Los Angeles, early in this century, from the Jewish enclaves of the East Coast. During the L.A. Yiddish heydey from the 1930s to the ’50s, they supported dozens of Yiddish organizations and shules, some socialist, some Labor Zionist, some apolitical, some communist.

There were two local Yiddish theater companies, including the L.A. Yiddish Folks Bineh (The People’s Theater); union meetings were conducted in Yiddish and so were the lectures at the Soto-Michigan Jewish community center in Boyle Heights.

But as second- and third-generation American Jews moved west and assimilated, Yiddish began dying in Los Angeles. Only Chassidic Jews kept on speaking Yiddish in daily life.

The secular Yiddish revival began here and around the country only after Hebrew was firmly established as the language of Israel, says Eric Gordon, director of the Southern California district Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. It began only after anti-Semitism had declined and Jews felt secure in America. Then, Ashkenazi Jews openly expressed the hunger to return to their roots.

Today, the Yiddish Renaissance is palpable. The National Yiddish Book Center has just opened an $8-million complex in Amherst, Mass., and is planning to digitally scan every page of every Yiddish book ever published, Lansky told The Journal. There is a KlezKemp for klezmer enthusiasts; and mainstream artists are appropriating Yiddish culture as source material (note Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s rendition of “The Dybbuk.”)

Here in L.A., there are dozens of Yiddish-language classes and clubs; a literary journal; at least four professional klezmer bands; a Laemmle Theatres Yiddish film day; and a KCRW-FM series of Yiddish short stories performed by actors such as Leonard Nimoy.

The upcoming Yiddishkayt Festival, which Paley hopes will become a biennial event, is part and parcel of the Renaissance. “I want people to realize that Yiddish is relevant and has a place in L.A. in 1998,” Paley says.

For information and a festival schedule, call (323) 692-8151.