When I was a kid growing up in Poughkeepsie and the Five Towns, my father’s parents lived with us. Although they were both born in Manhattan, they spoke fluent Yiddish when they didn’t want me to know what the subject was, and my father, who spoke little Yiddish, understood enough to join the mysterious (to me) conversation. They’re all dead now, and I still haven’t learned much Yiddish
That’s the pattern with multi-generational American families and, despite the ardent if boneheaded protests of The Donald, almost all American families were immigrants at some point.
The difference for Yiddish, of course, is that between assimilation, ideological hostility in Israel and the murder of a significant proportion of Europe’s Yiddish-speaking Jews, Yiddish has been hovering on its putative deathbed for 75 years. Such factors don’t come into play for Spanish or Cantonese or Bengali or other diasporic languages.
The trigger for this rumination was the recently completed one-week whirlwind of Kulturfest, perhaps the greatest celebration of Yiddish culture in New York City in those 75 years. Much to the delight (and a bit to the surprise) of the organizers, the National Yiddish Theater – Folksbiene, the event was a huge success, from the concerts at Joe’s Pub, NYU’s Skirball Center, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, City Winery and other venues, to the screenings of rare examples of contemporary Yiddish cinema, a lively street fair and visits from European and Israeli proponents of Yiddish theater.
“Our sense of it being a mammoth undertaking never subsided,” Moishe Rosenfeld, Kulturfest’s music events curator and producer, said in a telephone interview this week. “But there was a sense of tremendous purpose. This was our moment to create the big Yiddish event in New York, to make the statement that Yiddish is still a part of the New York Jewish community and the world Jewish community in a way that is permanent and enduring.”
Rosenfeld pointed to one particular event that he — and I — thought was pivotal, the “Jewish Soul” concert at SummerStage in Central Park.
For over 20 years I’ve written about the remnants of Yiddish culture in New York and acknowledged only tacitly the existence of a large and rapidly growing Yiddish-speaking community, the ultra-Orthodox. Colleagues and pundits have cautioned me that although the city’s haredim do speak Yiddish every day, they are unlikely to produce an equivalent to the vibrant literary, theatrical and musical culture that once was at the center of the city’s Jewish world.
Maybe so, but it might be time to rethink that proposition.
As Rosenfeld said, “This concert was envisioned by Zalman [Mlotek, Folksbiene’s artistic director] as a way of saying to that community and the brilliant artists of that community, ‘We are one — you perform in Yiddish and we perform in Yiddish, and we can perform together. We are honoring what you have done in this community to perpetuate this culture.’”
The presence of Orthodox music stalwarts like Avraham Fried, Lipa Shmeltzer and the rising neo-chasidic rockers Zusha suggest that the message has been received. A turnout of 3,000 fans suggests it will be carried beyond that evening’s event.
I, for one, have never been entirely convinced that we won’t see a new green shoot of Yiddish literature emerging from the shteiblach of Brooklyn. The earliest Hebrew poetry was devotional and that remained the norm until the Haskalah. The recent success of confessional works by ex-Orthodox Jews reminds us that there are plenty of vibrant writers in that community; surely some of them will want to speak to the friends they have left behind.
Besides, the revival of Hebrew as a modern language that can communicate literary nuance as well as automotive repair instructions had its start in a single family, with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda deciding to raise his children in a Hebrew-only home. There are many families among prominent Yiddishists, particularly among contemporary Jewish musicians, who are attempting to do the same for the mamaloshen. They have homegrown support communities vastly greater than Ben-Yehuda had.
Maybe it’s time for me finally to take Yiddish lessons. If they were alive, my grandparents would be amused, if a bit frustrated, at giving up their secrets.
George Robinson writes about music and film for the paper.