August 23, 2019

Preserving Yiddish in the seder

Nowadays, it’s rare to find a Passover seder that doesn’t deviate from the traditional haggadah. But the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group, formed in the San Fernando Valley about 50 years ago, has been doing it its own way for decades — keeping the story secular, social justice-oriented, and drawing from Yiddish and other traditions. 

On March 29, 76* people gathered for a seder at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. The seder combined Yiddish, Hebrew and English poems and songs, and paid tribute to the founders of the community.

Erev Shabbos grew out of the Valley Kindershule and Valley Mittelshule, a Jewish school founded around 1960 by Yiddish-speaking Jews who had recently moved to the area. The school met on Saturday mornings, mainly at the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. The Valley shules (Yiddish for schools) were an outgrowth of the existing shule movement that dates back to the 1930s in Los Angeles. While the Valley shules ended around 1980, the former students continue to stay in touch, and several graduates reunited at the seder to sing Yiddish songs from their childhood, such as “In Dem Land Fun Piramidn.”

The kids’ parents wanted to pursue their own formal Jewish education, and so began a Friday night study group in around 1967. Decades later, they continue to meet, now on Sunday mornings. They began hosting seders for their children, with Torah stories geared toward young people. Children would sit on tablecloths on the floor and draw with crayons. Over time, as those children became parents themselves, the seders became more adult-centered. 

“Because we are secular, we don’t include any prayers. We include a lot of songs about justice and freedom and world peace. Certainly the themes might be the same that are included in a religious sense, but it’s from a different perspective,” said Sylvia Brown, 90, a Valley Village resident and founding member of Erev Shabbos along with her late husband, Murray. She also served as the principal of the Kindershule.

Members of Erev Shabbos created their own haggadah, a process that took several months. The group incorporated segments of several haggadot, while adding Yiddish and English poems that were meaningful to the group. It’s been revised every few years. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” Brown said.

Near the beginning of Sunday’s seder, Barbara Bickel read from the haggadah, “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the Exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”

The Erev Shabbos seder focused on the Holocaust and the resistance movement. The group lit six candles in honor of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. They also recited “Peysakh Has Come to the Ghetto Again,” excerpted from a Yiddish poem by Inem Heller and translated by Max Rosenfield. One part of the poem reads: 

In face of the Nazi — no fear, no subjection!
In face of the Nazi — no weeping, no wincing!
Only the hatred, the wild satisfaction
Of standing against him and madly resisting.

Also included was the Yiddish poem “Zog Nit Keynmol,” written in 1943 by poet Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto, which became the anthem of the Jewish partisan movement. One refrain reads:

Never say that there is only death for you.
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue.
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near.
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: “We are here!”

The haggadah also nodded to other peoples’ struggles for freedom. The group sang the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” itself inspired by the Exodus story. Following the second cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, the group filled a goblet of water for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the Israelites in singing and dancing after crossing the Red Sea. The Erev Shabbos group brought out tambourines and maracas and sang Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song,” as the women held hands and circled the room in a line dance.

“Miriam’s Song” was added to the haggadah by Cindy Paley, a Kindershule graduate and music educator, and one of the main organizers of the seder. She said her fellow students received an unusual education, studying Yiddish as well as workers’ rights. 

“It’s a very socialist, left-leaning group. [The tradition] came from the Bund in Eastern Europe. When we were in Kindershule in 1967, we went up to the peace march in San Francisco against the Vietnam War. I remember it was a very political group in those days,” Paley said.

“The shule network in L.A. — which was the most attended Jewish educational system in the city from the 1930s unil the early 1950s — spanned the political spectrum from socialist to communist-affiliated working Jews in the city,” said Yiddishkayt director  Rob Adler Peckerar.

Many of the Kindershule graduates credit that school and their liberal secular upbringing for shaping who they are today.

“It defined how I was Jewish,” said Robin Share, an instructional coach for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Going to Kindershule and Mittelshule formalized and put a sort of stamp of approval on that experience and the way we understood our role in the world as Jews and as progressives.”

“I think it was my really early introduction to liberal politics,” said Avital Aboody, a community organizer and social justice activist working in San Diego, who attended these seders as a child, when she and her friends would act out the Passover story with costumes and props.

Many of the group’s founding members have died. “We started with about 14 couples. There are only two [of those] men left, and seven women,” Brown said. “This year, we lost two members.”

Another former Kindershule student is Aaron Paley (founder of Yiddishkayt and a co-founder of the popular CicLAvia bicycling events held regularly throughout Los Angeles). He announced to Sunday’s group that he is currently working on “The Shtetl in L.A.,” a documentary about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group. He asked the guests at the seder to record interviews with the elders of the community, and to digitize and submit their archival photos and videos, as well as to contribute financially to the project.

“We’ve lost so many people. It’s really something that we’re still here,” said Sabell Bender, 88, a West Hollywood resident and one of the original Erev Shabbos members.

But with the now-grown children and grandchildren attending the annual meal and keeping the community intact, there’s new life to the group. “We hope it’s going to continue with the same spirit that it’s had before,” Brown said.

*We originally reported the number as 60.