August 21, 2009
Yiddishkeit resurgence in London
Participants' passion for Yiddish comes from a love of music, family, history and literature.
It's a rainy Wednesday morning in London, midway through the Ot Azoy crash course in Yiddish, and we've just learned the words for different parts of the body. Instructor Heather Valencia suggests we turn to our neighbor and make use of our newfound vocabulary by dramatizing a visit to the GP's office. Amusement instantly fills the room.
"In no other language course," participant Ann Malkin wryly observed, "would you be learning how to talk to the doctor about your ailments on the third day."
There are, of course, as many stereotypes about Yiddish as there are Jewish jokes – that it's the long-dead language of our forebearers, or that its primary purpose is to act as a kind of grab bag of complaints. But it's so much more than that, explained Valencia in an historical overview: "Hardly any language can have inspired so much passion as Yiddish."
There may be fewer than a million Yiddish speakers in the world today, but judging by the response to Ot Azoy – an intensive one-week course held earlier this month at the University of London – there's no shortage of interest in keeping the language alive.
Forty-three participants from across Europe took part in this year's program, run by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI). Launched by JMI director Geraldine Auerbach, Ot Azoy is a total immersion in Yiddish, with a demanding schedule of classes in language, song, drama, history and film. The intensive nature of the program means that by the close of the week, even the absolute beginners have enough of a grounding to continue their studies.
Retired ballet teacher Richard Glasstone has been coming to Ot Azoy for six years, along with his artist wife, Heather. By last summer, with regular practice, they were confident enough in their language skills to translate and illustrate a Yiddish children's poem as a gift for their granddaughter.
"I think, unfortunately, a lot of Jewish people tend to discard Yiddish and say, 'Oh, you know, that's the language of the shtetl,'" said Glasstone, "and, in fact, there's a whole literature that's very exciting. There's quite a big revival."
Yiddish teacher Sonia Pinkusowitz believes the interest never went away. "For Jews," she said, "there's a constant interest in our heritage. Yiddish may not be spoken on a daily basis, but it's here, it's vibrant."
Montrealer Robin Nobel, who recently graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Jewish studies, grew up hearing her mother and grandmother speaking Yiddish. "So, for me, it has very much a family connection. Then, once I started learning it, motivated by this family tie, I just liked the way it sounded. I liked the way it feels on the tongue; I liked the language for its own sake. I also find the history of it fascinating – the evolution between the language and the culture." Nobel has been studying the language for four years, and it shows – at lunchtime in the small college cafeteria, she even parses the sandwich choices in Yiddish.
The reasons for enrolling in the course are as varied as the students themselves: a yearning to reconnect with one's roots, or learning more about Jewish culture through the language. After all, "You cannot take the Yiddishkeit out of Yiddish," noted Pinkusowitz. "You can't come to study Yiddish and not know what Shabbes is – or what challah is."
And yet there are those who have come who are not Jewish who have to learn all these things from scratch. A list of Jewish holidays written in Yiddish baffles Kate Guthrie – who has no idea what Pesach is, or Rosh Hashanah or Purim. But she's willing to immerse herself in all of it as a basis for her studies. She hopes to do a postgraduate degree in ethnomusicology at Cambridge, focusing on the Jewish music sung in concentration camps and ghettos.
In fact, a number of younger students signed up for Ot Azoy because of their involvement with klezmer or Yiddish music. Izabela Goldstein is the director of a Jewish choir in Lodz, Poland. The choir is preparing a CD of music from Lodz Ghetto – the last ghetto to be liberated, in August 1944. Since so much Yiddish music has been lost in Poland, Goldstein came to London to access material. She gets some insight during singing sessions with choral leaders Judith Silver and Vivi Lux, where even the vocal warm-up has a Yiddish flavor: when we release our breath, it's not as an "ah," but as one long "oy."
Brighton resident Rachel Weston, 26, has begun to perform "quite a lot of Jewish music just in the last six months. I just feel drawn to singing in Yiddish," she said. "It's a really fun language; a very expressive language, and there's such a huge variety of songs that have been written in Yiddish that communicate the struggles and the stories and the jokes. I really love communicating that through singing, and I thought it would really help just to try and learn a bit of the language."
Although Yiddish is largely phonetic, it's a struggle to learn the basis of a whole new language in just a few days, especially one with a completely different alphabet. It turns out, in some ways, to be even harder for those who already speak Hebrew or German, as the Yiddish pronunciations are just different enough to trip over.
But the rigorous nature of the teaching helps. Several hours of language instruction each day means it starts to sink in pretty quickly. After Pinkusowitz assigned, for our homework, the memorization of the irregular verbs, I found them my first thought on waking: Ich bin, du bist, mir zaynen.
"It's quite unbelievable how much people can achieve in one week. It's always very moving and very impressive," said instructor Khayele Beer at the closing session. She encouraged participants to continue with their Yiddish. "I just hope that something in this week has inspired you; that something has grabbed you by the pupik and will give you some sort of energy to go forward."
As for me, I just wanted to be able to call up my grandfather and say, "Zayde, ich red a bissel Yiddish." I speak a little Yiddish. And for now, that's enough.
For more information about Ot Azoy and other Jewish cultural programs in London, visit jmi.org.uk.
Katharine Hamer, former Jewish Independent editor, is currently based in London.