The Kirman English and Yiddish Library at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture is available for anyone in the community to access. (photo from Peretz Centre)
“Books are humanity in print” – Barbara Tuchman
The Kirman English and Yiddish Library at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture was set up in 1976 by Paula and Shaya Kirman, members of the Peretz Institute – as it was then known – and dedicated Yiddishists. The two main purposes in establishing the library were, first, to collect and preserve the books that were scattered in different places in the community, and, second, to make these books available to the whole community in a lending library.
Paula Kirman, who worked as a cataloguer at the University of British Columbia library, volunteered many hours to set up a card catalogue and shelve the Peretz library in an organized way. Eventually, she resigned from her volunteer position because of a perceived lack of support from the Peretz Institute’s board of directors.
In 1999, in preparation for the construction of the Peretz Centre’s present building (in the same location the institute had been since the 1960s), the library books and card catalogue had to be boxed and removed. With the completion of the new building in 2000-2001, the organization was renamed the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture and the words of I.L. Peretz, considered by many as the “father” of modern Jewish culture, were prominently displayed above the entrance foyer: “A people’s memory is history; without a history, a people can grow neither wiser nor better.”
Sporadic attempts to restore the library were made, but, when Al Stein returned to Vancouver and joined the centre’s board of directors in 2001, much of the library was still in boxes and Kirman’s card catalogue was in disarray. Stein volunteered to lead the effort to restore the library, if the board would support it in two ways: vote for funding for new shelving and support Stein’s effort to obtain a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver to hire a library technician and digitize the entire library, including the Yiddish books.
The grant proposal was successful. A newly graduated library technician, unfamiliar with Yiddish, was contracted and many hundreds of hours were spent properly transliterating each Yiddish book and journal title, digitizing the entire collection in accordance with the latest electronic library standards, relabeling each book, arranging for electronic hosting of the library catalogue, supervising the installation of new shelving and then, finally, shelving the books and journals in an organized fashion.
Thanks to large and small donations of both English and Yiddish books from individuals, from the Winnipeg Jewish Library and from the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, as well as a small number of purchases, the Kirman Library of the Peretz Centre now contains nearly 4,000 books and journals and is almost at capacity. The collection includes titles by kabbalists, rabbis, atheists, historians, politicians, musicians, artists, humourists, and those who wrote fiction, plays and poetry – in other words, the entire spectrum of Jewish creativity, encompassing all the arts.
Most of the collection is now in English and is a unique treasure trove of information and pleasure for the casual reader and the scholar. Two collections are of note. The late Dr. Gersh Winrob donated his English-language collection of Holocaust literature, memoirs, history and analyses, certainly one of the largest in the community. And the late poet Miriam Waddington donated part of her library, mostly English-language literature and essays, with a bit of Yiddish poetry.
The Peretz Centre is a proud member of the Yiddish Book Centre, now the largest Jewish cultural organization in the United States.
The Peretz’s library catalogue may be searched from any computer via the Peretz Centre website, peretz-centre.org: click the Kirman Library tab and then the Catalog link. The library ID is Kirman Library. No password is needed.
Books and periodicals can be borrowed for a $10/year fee. Four items may be borrowed at a time, for a period of four weeks, which may be renewed if no hold has been placed on the item. And the library may be used whenever the Peretz office is open, so call ahead before coming down, or for more information about library policy in general, such as its overdue or lost items policy, or to obtain a library card: 604-325-1812, ext. 1, or [email protected].
If you have any specific questions or comments about the library, or wish to make a donation to it, Stein can be reached at 604 731-1193 or [email protected].
How does a 1940 Yiddish theatre song – probably based on a passage from the Talmud’s Tractate Bava Metzia – end up becoming a popular piece sung around the world?
Over a 75-year period, Aaron Zeitlin’s “Dona Dona” (in Yiddish, “Dos Kelbl,” “The Calf”) has been sung by some of the 20th century’s biggest English-speaking performers, including Joan Baez, Donovan, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Chad & Jeremy, and countless others. It has been sung in Japanese, German, French (in this version, the calf is replaced by a boy trying to figure out his future) Swedish, Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Catalan and Vietnamese. Zeiltin’s original “Dos Kelbl” was put to music by Sholom Secunda; in 1956, Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz translated it into English.
“Dona Dona” was part of Zeiltin’s Yiddish play Esterke, based on the legendary relationship of a Jewish woman named Esther and King Casimir of Poland. Zeitlin first published it in 1932 in Globus, the Yiddish literary journal he edited. The play about Esterke and Kazimierz the Great was a Polish-Jewish mystery in four acts. Male and female actors sang “Dona Dona” as a solo, as a duet and as a chorus with orchestration.
Zeitlin was invited to New York for the performance of Esterke, which is an indication of how influential Yiddish theatre was in the pre-Second World War Jewish cultural world. With the outbreak of the war, however, he was unable to sail back to his family. His wife, two children, father and brother were killed in the Holocaust.
This terrible loss haunted Zeitlin for the rest of his life. Indeed, some maintain that “Dona Dona” represents the tremendous suffering and loss of life Jews experienced in the Holocaust. While Zeitlin – who was living in Poland in the 1930s – was certainly aware of the growing threat of Nazism, he composed the song before the Holocaust began.
Over time, the song has been interpreted in many different ways. In a 2010 article in The Jewish Magazine, Mendel Weinberger understands “Dona Dona” as a reference to the struggle between the physical and the spiritual. The calf represents the body, the seat of desire. The body seeks pleasure, wealth and honour, and is a slave to these desires. The calf on the way to the slaughterer is a metaphor for the body’s journey towards death. The calf (i.e. the body) is mournful because it has become attached to life and fears the unknown of the next world. The swallow, on the other hand, represents the soul, in Weinberger’s interpretation. The Divine Soul is a part of G-d’s Being and is not bound by the material limitations of the physical world; it is free to soar in the spiritual realms high above the earthly one.
Baez, who, probably more than anyone else in North America, was responsible for popularizing the English version of the song, has said she was attracted to the “beauty of the melody.” At the beginning of her long career, she started singing “Dona Dona” as a civil rights protest song. It appeared on her first album and became a “staple” in her performances.
In 1975, Seoul, South Korea, banned the playing of “Dona Dona.” The government considered the song to be leftist and violence-inducing. Two hundred and sixty other songs appeared on this blacklist.
Pointing to how times change or perhaps stay the same, in 2018, Liao Yiwu, a Chinese writer in exile, used “Dona Dona” to boost the morale of someone under long-term house arrest. He had been trying to get permission for poet Liu Xia (widow of Nobel Prize winner, dissident Liu Xiaobo) to immigrate to Germany. In a phone call that year, the severely depressed widow cried continuously, saying, “It is easier to die than to live.” Liao Yiwu played “Dona Dona” for his desperate friend, who has since been released and allowed to leave for Germany.
Given that Zeitlin had religious training, the Gemara of Talmud Bava Metzia 85a is a likely inspiration of “Dona Dona” and, therefore, probably best explains the song’s true meaning. The Gemara tells the story of how Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, came to endure terrible pains. A young calf, destined for the slaughterhouse, met up with the rabbi. The calf placed its head under the rabbi’s coattails and cried. Yehuda HaNasi said to it, “Go! It was for this that you were created.” Because he should have shown greater mercy to the calf, the rabbi was punished for 13 years with great suffering. Only when he expressed pity for some baby weasels did his pains leave him.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
On a wagon bound for market There’s a calf with a mournful eye High above him there’s a swallow Winging swiftly through the sky How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don
Stop complaining, said the farmer Who told you a calf to be Why don’t you have wings to fly with Like the swallow so proud and free How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered Never knowing the reason why But whoever treasures freedom Like the swallow has learned to fly How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
A husband competes with his oldest daughter for his wife’s affections, a man ponders whether he is more attracted to a 10-year-old girl or her divorced older sister, a woman has an abortion she didn’t necessarily want, a young man violently rebels against his abusive father. Jonah Rosenfeld tackles difficult subject matter in his short stories, with no compulsion to solve any particular problem or correct behaviours, but to explore the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and thereby offer insight into parts of humanity that we may shy away from contemplating. English readers can now access these stories and ideas, originally conceived in Yiddish, thanks to a newly published translation by Langara College’s Rachel Mines.
The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020) comprises 19 of Rosenfeld’s stories. Born in Chartorysk, Russia (now, Chortorysk, Ukraine), the prolific writer lived from 1881 to 1944, immigrating in 1921 to New York, where he was a major contributor to the Forverts. In total, he wrote 20 volumes of short stories, a dozen plays and three novels. Rosenfeld’s “stories provide a corrective to the typical understanding of Yiddish literature as sentimental or quaint,” writes Mines in the book’s press materials. “Although the stories were written decades ago for a Yiddish-speaking audience, they are surprisingly contemporary in flavour.”
The first Rosenfeld story Mines read, in Yiddish, was The Rivals (Konkurentn), six or seven years ago. “I’d only been studying Yiddish for a few years at that point and was reading to improve my language skills,” she said. “I was so impressed with the story that I decided, just for practice, to translate it into English. Later on, I found out that an English translation had already been published in [Irving] Howe and [Eliezer] Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but, by then, I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.”
Mines was a Yiddish Book Centre Translation Fellow in 2016 and The Rivals was her translation project during that fellowship year. “I’d already translated several stories before that, but 2016 was when everything started coming together in terms of improving my skills as a translator,” she said.
The project was her own idea, not work assigned by the Yiddish Book Centre, although the centre did support it.
“I should also mention,” she added, “that Vancouver is a veritable hotbed of Yiddish translation (who knew?), with a number of active translators, all of whom have been helpful at various times. Helen Mintz, in particular, was a huge inspiration and support. Her book of translations, Vilna My Vilna, a collection of Abraham Karpinowitz’s short stories, was published (also by Syracuse UP) in 2017. Helen and I spent several years together on Skype, regularly workshopping each other’s translations and helping each other out with advice and information. We’re still doing that, in fact.”
It is his exploration of the psyche that attracts Mines to Rosenfeld’s work.
“I’m interested in psychology – always have been – and particularly in people’s unconscious, and sometimes counterintuitive, reasons for thinking and behaving the way they do. So Rosenfeld’s insight into the darker corners of the human mind was an instant draw. I should say that his stories stand up very well to many current theories of human thought and behaviour. For example, the protagonist of The Rivals is a classic malignant narcissist – he ticks all the boxes. It’s interesting to note that Rosenfeld’s story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. Rosenfeld was an intuitive psychologist, and a very perceptive one.
“Another reason Rosenfeld’s stories appeal to me is that they work very well in a 21st-century, multicultural setting,” she said. “I’ve taught a number of the translations to first-year students at Langara, and students are attracted by his stories’ takes on immigration, women’s rights, male-female relationships, generational conflict, culture clash – this list goes on. Clearly, these ideas are as relevant today as they were when the stories were first written.
“Finally, I like Rosenfeld’s attitudes to his characters, even the less admirable ones. He seems interested in and sympathetic to their dilemmas; as an author, he doesn’t judge or blame his characters – he leaves that up to his readers. I like that Rosenfeld is more interested in exploring his character’s situations and psychology than he is in blaming or moralizing.”
Mines, who is retiring this year, taught in the English department at Langara College since 2001. One of the department’s main offerings has been a first-year class on the short story, she said. “Around the time I started translating, I started introducing stories with a Jewish theme to my classes. A bit to my surprise, despite coming from non-Jewish backgrounds, my students found the stories interesting and engaging, so I gradually added more and more stories with Jewish content. The last few years, I’ve been teaching Rosenfeld’s stories exclusively. My students love the stories and readily identify with (or at least understand) the characters and their predicaments. We’ve had many lively discussions!”
In an introductory chapter to The Rivals, Mines poses several questions she hopes keen PhD students or other researchers will take on, including where Rosenfeld’s place might be in the American literary canon. With the disclaimer that she is “just a lowly translator,” Mines said, “But, if pressed for an answer, I’d have to say it’s Rosenfeld’s psychological insights. He’s not entirely unique – other Jewish and/or American authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are almost Greek tragedies – his protagonists fail in their quests (for love, belonging, security, etc.) not because of external forces, but because of some internal, self-defeating habit of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to explore this type of psychological dichotomy, but he does so very consistently.”
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver were among 125 partners presenting a global commemoration of the 77th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising recently.
Beginning and ending with stirring renditions of the “Partisans’ Hymn,” the online event, which also commemorated the end of the Second World War 75 years ago, featured a long list of singers and performers from Hollywood, Broadway and elsewhere, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Mayim Bialik, Whoopi Goldberg, Adrien Brody, Lauren Ambrose and dozens more.
We Are Here: A Celebration of Resilience, Resistance and Hope, which took place June 14, was produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Sing for Hope, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.
“Zog Nit Keyn Mol” (“Never Say”) is generally called “The Partisans’ Song” or “The Partisans’ Hymn” in English and is an anthem of resilience amid catastrophe sung at Holocaust commemorative events. Written in the Vilna Ghetto by Hirsh Glik after he learned of the six-week uprising by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, its stirring concluding lines translate as, “So never say you now go on your last way / Though darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day / Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near / Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, ‘We are here!’”
Other musical performances included a Yiddish rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” adapted and performed by pianist and singer Daniel Kahn; “Over the Rainbow,” from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, two friends from the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, against the spectre of a darkening Europe; and “Es Brent” (“In Flames”), a musical cri de coeur written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig after what he viewed as the world’s indifference to a pogrom in the Polish town of Przycik.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of the state of New York, spoke of his father, the late former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who helped ensure the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the world’s third-largest Holocaust museum.
One of the other presenting partners, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is the longest continuously producing Yiddish theatre company in the world, now in its 105th season. It was founded to entertain and enlighten the three million Jews who arrived in New York City between 1880 and 1920.
Sing for Hope, another partner, believes in the power of the arts to create a better world. Its mission is to “bring hope, healing and connection to millions of people worldwide in hospitals, schools, refugee camps and transit hubs.”
The Lang Lang International Music Foundation aims “to educate, inspire and motivate the next generation of classical music lovers and performers and to encourage music performance at all levels as a means of social development for youth, building self-confidence and a drive for excellence.”
The program, which runs approximately 90 minutes, is available for viewing at wearehere.live.
I review a lot of books for the Jewish Independent. Over the years, that has included many children’s books. I do my best in these instances but, as much as I like to let my inner child run free occasionally and as much as I’d one day like to create a children’s book or two, I’m a grown-up. What do I really know about how enjoyable the single-digit-age set will find a publication? Well, for my latest two reviews, I turned to a couple of experts for advice.
With COVID-19 causing the shutdown of schools, my youngest nieces – Fae, 8, and Charlotte, 6 – were suddenly available to be put to work. With their parents’ blessing, nay, encouragement, I scanned and emailed them two recent books published by Intergalactic Afikoman (see jewishindependent.ca/new-publisher-set-to-launch). The assignment was to read Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space by Brianna Caplan Sayres and illustrator Merrill Rainey and Such a Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-imagined by Jill Ross Nadler and illustrator Esther van den Berg. As my nieces were new to the reviewing world, I gave them a handful of questions to answer: What did you like about the books? What did you not like? What did you learn? Would you recommend the books to your friends?
Their mother, Deborah Weiss, sent me summaries of their answers, as well as Fae’s handwritten responses – I’d asked her to be the family’s scribe for the job.
They started with Asteroid Goldberg, which features Asteroid and her parents on their way home from Pluto for the Passover seder. When the family gets to earth’s orbit, they are not allowed to land (for an unstated reason), so they must make alternate seder plans on the fly (pun intended). A few of Jupiter’s moons for kneidl, a piece of Saturn’s rings for matzah, the Milky Way as their pantry. Who to invite? Family members close by, including Grandma Luna, who was biking on Venus, and Uncle Cosmos, who was hiking on Mars. When they come to the Mah Nishtanah, Asteroid asks, “What makes this night so different?” to which the answer is “Everything!” Caplan Sayres couldn’t have known how relevant her Passover story would be this year.
Both Fae and Charlotte loved the story and the artwork. Even though Charlotte found it a bit too long, Fae recommended it for kids 7 and under.
“I like this book because it was a rhyming book and because it had lots of play-along words,” wrote Fae, who explained to her mom that “play-along words are words with multiple meanings.”
As for lessons learned, Fae “did not learn anything.” However, her sister, who can be a pistol, said she learned that one should “never go on a rocket before Passover.”
As for their mom’s thoughts, Deb said, “I really liked this book. As we get ready for a Passover that will be very different this year, I loved reading about a family that had to change their Passover plans and still had lots of fun and found new ways to celebrate. This really resonated with me!”
Deb and the girls also enjoyed Such a Library! “I thought this was a really clever and imaginative take on a well-known folktale,” said Deb, who noted, “Both girls liked the funny text, the story and the artwork. We also liked the clever name of the librarian.”
In Such a Library!, Stevie heads to the public library to read his book – “With three brothers, two sisters and a baby at home, Stevie’s house was never quiet.” As he starts to read, though, he hears pages turning, computer keys tapping. He tiptoes to the librarian, Miss Understood, and says, “This library is too noisy.” He tells her, “It’s like a party in here.” Thinking that a party sounds like a wonderful idea, she opens a book: “Hundreds of colourful balloons flew from the pages, followed by party hats and horns.”
Each time Stevie goes to Miss Understood to complain, she opens another book and the library becomes a zoo, then a circus, as the characters jump out of the pages of the books she opens and take over the library. Only once the characters are all returned to their books can Stevie enjoy reading his, to the relatively quiet sounds of the pages turning, computer keys tapping.
Such a Library! is an interpretation of the Yiddish folktale about a man who thinks that his small house is too crowded with his wife and many children. The rabbi recommends that the man also bring into the house the family’s cow, chickens, goats, geese and ducks. When the man can’t take it anymore, the rabbi tells him to kick out all the animals, after which, the small house seems quite big and spacious.
Fae would recommend Such a Library!, once again, to kids age 7 and under, while Charlotte really liked it and would recommend it to anyone.
As for what the girls learned, Deb said, quoting Charlotte, “We learned that, if you’re looking for a quiet place to read, to not to go to the library when it’s full of acrobats!”
The National Film Board of Canada (nfb.ca) offers a selection of some 4,000 short and feature-length films, whether you’re looking for animation, documentary or fiction. Explore the Cartoons for Kids section for the latest releases.
Enjoy searching the many choices available from the NFB, Jewish-related or not. Recently added titles include Where the Land Ends, a documentary feature by Loïc Darses, about the places that created Quebec, exploring the historical narrative, as a group of young people who were not old enough to vote in the 1995 referendum express their views; Ice Breakers, a documentary short by Sandi Rankaduwa on the Black athletes who helped pioneer modern hockey, through the story of Josh Crooks, an African-Canadian player; and The Great List of Everything, an animated webseries by comic book artists Cathon and Iris Boudreau, as well as Francis Papillon.
New films are being added to nfb.ca all the time, and they’re always free to view.
From the page before the opening of Moishe Rozenbaumas’s incisive, heart-felt memoir, we already feel the pain that will inhere in much of his story. Even before we begin reading this autobiography, we see a photocopy of the author’s dedication, handwritten in Yiddish, to the memory of his mother and three brothers, with the dates they were murdered by the Germans’ Lithuanian collaborators in August 1941, in Telz, where Rozenbaumas (1922-2016) was born.
Many people know Telz as the name of the famous yeshivah that was located there, but The Odyssey of an Apple Thief (Syracuse University Press, 2019) by Rozenbaumas – translated from the French by Jonathan Layton and edited by Isabelle Rozenbaumas – takes us into the city, depicting a vibrant Jewish culture, zeroing in on housing, way of life, learning and sports. The title comes from little Moishe’s sneaking into the bishop’s orchard next door and nabbing apples, and the author gives us an historian’s sweep of an area, with a memoirist’s penchant for detail.
For instance, his description of a middle-class household’s Sabbath meal. Although Jews lived “in poverty, hand to mouth,” middle-class Jews had munificent Sabbath meals. Typical to Eastern European towns, the housewife prepared the cholent pot at home, then brought it to the baker, whose oven was heated all Friday night long throughout the Sabbath. Then, around noon on Shabbat, the woman would go and pick up her cholent. Most Jews didn’t have the sort of meals that Rozenbaumas describes, which are at odds with the reigning poverty in Telz.
When the Germans occupy Lithuania, Rosenbaumas accents the avid cooperation between the Lithuanians and the Germans, who murdered 90% of Lithuania’s Jews. He writes that the situation of the Jews in Lithuania was no worse than in other countries; they weren’t loved but they were tolerated. However, in the very next sentence, we read that once, when the president of Lithuania addressed an antisemitic rally, he said that nobody should be stupid enough to slaughter a productive cow while it’s still giving milk.
Rozenbaumas provides what he considers a needed reassessment of the yizkor bikher, the memorial books that survivors of various towns assembled after the Holocaust, which always accented the people’s “piety, purity and morality,” even though there were all kinds of individuals. What is often omitted from these yizkor bikher, Rosenbaumas states, is the miserable poverty of Jews who lived in lightless cellars, had only black bread dipped in powdered sugar for food, froze in winter, and dressed in rags.
During the financial crisis in the late 1920s, his father’s successful fabric shop began slipping. Rather than declaring bankruptcy, the father ran away to Paris, where he had sisters. Despite continuing promises, the father never sent any support to his wife and children, and was unaware of what happened to his family until after the war.
Without a father, the author’s mother and her four boys slowly sank into poverty and hunger. Rozenbaumas becomes an apprentice to a poor tailor with 10 children who live in squalid quarters. Soon, he is the sole breadwinner for his family. But, when the Germans invade, he flees eastward to the Soviet Union, just like his father had fled westward. But the author doesn’t notice the irony of the breadwinner again fleeing alone. True, Rozenbaumas asks his mother to come, but she refuses; he doesn’t ask any of his brothers to join him in his flight.
In the Soviet Union, life wasn’t easy. First, Rozenbaumas served four years on the front, undertaking dangerous reconnaissance missions; he was wounded and decorated several times. He regrets that Jewish former soldiers from other lands never mention the half million Jews who fought with the Red Army, including hundreds of Jewish generals and other high-ranking officers.
When Rozenbaumas’s unit liberates Lithuania, first thing he does is go to his house in Telz, where he finds Lithuanians occupying his now-emptied home. He learns where his family was massacred and longs for revenge, which soon comes. After volunteering as a translator for the Russians, he gets the satisfaction of hunting for the Lithuanian murderers, finding them, watching their trials and immediate executions. He even found the murderer of his youngest brother, Leybe, “who may have been,” Rozenbaumas adds, “his playmate.”
When Rozenbaumas finally decides to leave communist-controlled Lithuania, he describes the nightmare of leaving, taking the great risk of paying an exorbitant fee for forged papers that would guarantee his exit. He makes it, finally, across the border into Poland, with suspense and fright accompanying him like a second skin. It was not until he got to Vienna that he could breathe freely.
One day, Rozenbaumas met a man who knew about his father in Paris and thus was able to find him. But the father-son relationship was uneasy. The father never expressed a word of emotion regarding the murder of his wife and his three sons.
Coincidence also plays another crucial role. Rozenbaumas, by chance, bumps into his old girlfriend, Roza, and later marries her.
Rosenbaumas concludes his touching narrative with the hope that the stories of the European Jewish civilization that was brutally erased from the face of the earth will not be forgotten.
Curt Leviant’s most recent novel is Katz or Cats; Or, How Jesus Became My Rival in Love.
Musician Myrna Rabinowitz, left, and Jewish Senior Alliance’s Shanie Levin. (photo from JSA)
The theme of this year’s Jewish Seniors Alliance-Snider Foundation Empowerment Series is “Be inspired!” and the first of four sessions was called Be Inspired through Story and Song.
Held at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture on Nov. 29, Gyda Chud, co-president of the JSA, introduced the two presenters, referring to each as “a gift to our community”: storyteller Shanie Levin, who is a member of JSA’s executive board and on the editorial board of JSA’s Senior Line magazine, and singer-songwriter and guitarist Myrna Rabinowitz.
Rabinowitz opened with the Yiddish song “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long as You’re Well”) and the audience echoed enthusiastically the refrain, “As long as you’re well, you can be happy.”
Levin followed with a story by Kadya Molodowsky, the first lady of Yiddish poetry. A House with Seven Windows is about a proud, strong heroine in the mid-19th century who embraced the dream of “normalizing” Jewish life through a return and settlement in the land of Israel.
Other songs by Rabinowitz included the Yiddish translation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as well as “Sleep Little Boy,” a Yiddish song that she wrote eight years ago for her first grandson. She ended with the Yiddish rendition of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof (Tog Ayn Tog Oys).
Tall Tamara by Abraham Karpinowitz, both sympathetically comic and painfully tragic, was another inspiring story of Vilna’s poor and the unexpected dignity available to one woman through a chance contact with Yiddish literary culture.
Levin also shared Ted Allan’s Lies My Father Told Me, about the relationship between a 6-year-old child and his grandfather that transcends the differences in ages with deep connection. This story was made into a Golden Globe-winning film of the same name.
The last story Levin read – If Not Higher by I.L. Peretz – was about a rabbi who demonstrates that doing good deeds on earth may be a more exalted activity than doing God’s will in heaven.
Chud thanked the performers and urged the audience to attend upcoming JSA events, the next one being the screening of the movie Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep, at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Jan. 15.
Marilyn Berger, who initiated the Light One Candle project and designed a card to help JSA celebrate Chanukah, encouraged the audience to spread the light and make a special donation to help JSA continue its peer support program, as well as its advocacy work.
One of the family cards, produced 100 years ago, that is currently on long-term loan in the folklore department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on Mt. Scopus. It is from the Chaya and Chana Gitelman Collection.
Not too long ago, I was flipping through a collection of old family cards, all of which were produced 100 years ago in Eastern Europe. On the cover of one card, a young girl sits at a table writing in a notebook. Her mother stands over her, looking on. From a modern perspective, there is nothing unusual about a woman knowing how to read and write. But less than 200 years ago, this would have been considered somewhat revolutionary.
Just how revolutionary? In the article, “The History of Jewish Women in Early Modern Poland: An Assessment,” Prof. Moshe Rosman reported that, at the end of the 19th century, more than half of all Jewish girls could not read, not even in Yiddish. Rosman noted that not only was limited attention given to educating Jewish women, but that those who first wrote the history of this period, deemed it hardly worth dealing with the subject.
In early modern Poland, education for Jewish girls and women was largely designed to make them into faithful Jews who would keep female rituals. For the most part, their education was informal and conducted in Yiddish. Brenda Socachevsky Bacon states that a learned woman was an aberration and considered outside the norm. In analyzing Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s story “Hakhmot Nashim” (“The Wisdom of Women”), which was published in 1943, Socachevsky Bacon says a woman’s very presence in the beit midrash causes the men to be uncomfortable. “They view the realm of Torah study as their own, even as their own hypocritical behaviour belies their dedication to it,” she writes. “The men will not allow this discomfort to continue, even if it involves transgressing the Torah’s commandment not to embarrass another person publicly.”
Fortunately, this was not the whole story of this period. Rosman explains there were secularized school settings in which Jewish girls learned both Yiddish and European languages. The objective of these schools was modernization and general knowledge. Girls read classic European literature. In this instance, the scorn was sometimes transferred, with traditional Jewish literature viewed contemptuously.
According to Prof. Eliyana Adler (“Rediscovering Schools for Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia”), private schools for Jewish girls were a crucial ingredient in transitioning Russian Jewry into modernity. She reports that, from 1844 to the early 1880s, well over 100 private schools for Jewish girls opened in cities, towns and shtetlach throughout the Pale of Jewish Settlement.
The educators who opened and ran private schools for Jewish girls pragmatically balanced their ideological motivations with very real concerns about funding and retaining communal goodwill. Thus, those who ran private schools offered a variety of student tracks. Rich Jews (like their wealthy Christian neighbours did elsewhere) could pay to board their children. Many schools offered weekly instruction in both music and French as paid electives.
Adler goes on to say, “at the same time, families of modest means were offered tuition payments on a sliding scale. Noteworthy, poor students were actively recruited for scholarship positions. Other schools offered less sophisticated fee scales, but clearly worked within the same framework. The rewards for having a robust student body became clear as both the government and certain private and communal bodies began to award subsidies to successful private schools.”
These private schools for Jewish girls designed Jewish studies curricula to meet the expectations of the Russian Jewish communities from which they drew their students. The curricula had to be modern and useful without being radical. Thus, efforts were made to introduce training in practical crafts; that is, crafts that could be put to use in the marketplace. In 1881, the first trade school for poor Jewish girls opened in Odessa. Thereafter, both trade schools and sections within other schools that offered more in-depth training in such skills as sewing opened with increasing frequency.
By the end of the 1890s, in Odessa alone, more than 500 girls studied in four communally funded vocational schools for Jewish girls. Jewish educators responded to the growing interest in interaction with the surrounding society by opening their private girls schools to Christian girls and by offering to teach courses in the Jewish religion in Russian schools. Prayer served as the common denominator of religious courses – the major focus of religious education was on prayer.
The teaching of Jewish history rather than simply the Torah allowed for an unprecedented degree of interpretation and even mild biblical criticism. Hebrew reading was also offered in many of the schools. Almost all Jewish girls schools offered penmanship and arithmetic.
Every private school for Jewish girls in the Russian Empire required extensive instruction in the Russian language. It was not uncommon for all general studies subjects to be taught in Russian.
Examples of the above educational transformation may be found in the bigger cities of Eastern Europe. In Plonsk (located some 60 kilometres from Warsaw), for example, toward the end of the 19th century, organizations such as Kahal Katan (literally, Small Community), educated the poorer strata of society. Also during this period, the city (which had a Jewish majority) opened a primary school for Jewish children, where some 80 pupils, mostly girls, studied in Russian. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/communities/plonsk/jewish_education.asp.)
Vilna is another example. In 1915, the Association to Disseminate Education established three schools – one for boys, one for girls and one mixed – whose language of instruction was Yiddish. Also in 1915, Dr. Yosef Epstein established the Vilna Hebrew Gymnasium (high school), which was later renamed after him. The informal educational system included literature, drama, music, industrial arts and other courses. (See yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/vilna/background/20century.asp.)
According to Dr. Ruth Dudgeon (“The Forgotten Minority: Women Students in Imperial Russia, 1872-1917”), Russian women, aided by sympathetic professors, created educational institutions that evolved into universities and medical, pedagogical, agricultural and polytechnical institutes for women. Moreover, in 1916, the Ministry of Education overcame its bias against preparing women for public activity, rather than the home, and mandated the equalization of the curricula in the boys’ and girls’ gymnasia.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Jewish-Russian enrolment in the courses for women was between 16% and 21%. The imposition of quotas in the 1880s, however, reduced the number of Jewish students. But, in places where the quota was lifted, the number of Jewish women in the courses soared.
In the restricted Pale of Settlement, young Jewish women wanting to study did everything to establish residency elsewhere. The “everything” included registering as a prostitute. According to Dudgeon, one brother found out about his sister’s actions and then drowned himself in the Neva; the grieving sister, in turn, ended her life by taking poison.
As circumstances for Jews in the Russian Empire deteriorated in the 1880s, those Jews who stayed in that part of the world came to embrace new ideological solutions to the situation. In an atmosphere of violence, deprivation and brutally strict quotas in education and professions, Russian-Jewish parents wanted their children enrolled in schools where the course of study offered some hope for the future.
By the turn-of-the-century period, educators were no longer opening private schools for Jewish girls based on the old model. The schools they opened – whether they were trade schools where Zionism was taught, religiously mixed schools devoted to full acculturation, or Yiddishist schools committed to inculcating socialism – promised more than basic literacy.
In Poland, Gershon Bacon writes, “the education of Polish Jews in the interwar period was characterized … [as] the ‘victory of schooling.’ The compulsory education law of the reborn Polish republic had brought about in one generation what had eluded generations of prodding by tsarist officialdom and preaching by Jewish maskilim (people versed in Hebrew or Yiddish literature). Whether in the public schools or in the various Jewish school networks, Jewish children in Poland were educated according to curricula that deviated in almost every respect from that of traditional Jewish education. [Notably,] religious families had no objections to sending daughters to secondary schools, even though they objected to exposing sons to secular education.
“What is most striking,” continues Bacon, “are the differences in enrolment figures in institutions of higher learning. There was a much larger proportion of Jewish women students among female students as a whole (36% in 1923/1924), as distinct from the percentage of Jewish men among male students (22% in 1923/1924). It would seem that we have here but another example of a phenomenon observed in other countries, where Jewish women entered institutions of higher learning earlier and in greater proportion than their non-Jewish counterparts.” (See jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ poland-interwar.)
So many factors about these educational statistics still need to be explored. Nevertheless, one can observe that an outcome seems to have been the creation of a modern Jewish Eastern European woman who “opened her mouth with wisdom.” (Proverbs 31:26)
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
During the Goldene Medina exhibit this past summer, the documentary Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin was screened. It will be shown again on Dec. 8 at Congregation Beth Israel. (photo from Steve Rom)
I have a bad case of South African Jewish envy. This condition developed when I moved to Vancouver from the North End of Winnipeg. I can’t remember meeting even one South African Jew while growing up in the Prairies – the majority of Jews in my hometown were from Eastern Europe. However, I met oodles of South African Jews when I moved here in the early 1990s and I was impressed by their knowledge of Judaism and their commitment to Jewish life. There seemed to be something unique about their community and it seemed exotic compared to Winnipeg’s. Many of them became my good friends, perhaps because, as a Litvak (my last name literally means a Jew from Lithuania), I share a common ancestry with my South African co-religionists, who predominately hail from Lithuania.
When I first moved here, my South African friend Geoff Sachs, z”l, two Montrealers and I organized Tschayniks, an evening of Jewish performing arts at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. It was at the JCC that I met another South African friend, Steve Rom, who was working there at the time, and helped us set up our events. About a month ago, Steve brought a fascinating exhibit to Congregation Beth Israel. Prior to being mounted in Vancouver, the exhibit, Goldene Medina, a celebration of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, was displayed in South Africa, Israel and Australia. Thanks to Steve, Jews in Vancouver got a taste of South African Jewish life, as well.
A unique feature of the exhibit was that nobody was named or personally identified on any of the displays. This approach helped tell the story of all South African Jews, and made the exhibit simultaneously particular and universal.
Stories were depicted on a series of panels, and traced the South African Jewish community from its origins in 1841 – when Jews first settled in South Africa – to the present. On one of the panels, I recognized the son and daughter in-law of Cecil Hershler, who has South African roots and is well known in the Vancouver Jewish community as a storyteller. His son married a woman from Zimbabwe and the wedding in Vancouver, which I attended, was a joyous blend of South African and Zimbabwean cultures. Seeing the panel brought back memories of that happy occasion and gave me an unexpected personal connection to the exhibit (other than identifying with my Lithuanian landsmen).
Other panels depicted various aspects of Jewish life in South Africa. While I was fascinated by the differences between the South African Jewish community and my experience growing up in Winnipeg, the exhibit was really a microcosm of Jewish life in the Diaspora. For example, the panel on Muizenberg depicted the resort town located near Cape Town, where throngs of South African Jews flocked to during the summer. The photos of crowded beaches told a thousand stories. However, that panel also reminded me of the stories that my dad, z”l, told me about taking the train to Winnipeg Beach in the summer with other Jews from the city to escape the summer heat. Like at Muizenberg, there was a synagogue at Winnipeg Beach. I am sure that Jews from New York have similar stories of escaping the city heat by going to the Catskills. In addition, the Jews of America, like the Jews of South Africa, referred to their new home as “the Goldene Medina.” Ultimately, all three places – Canada, the United States and South Africa – represented a new start for Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
The Goldene Medina exhibit gave me an opportunity to learn about Jews from the land of my ancestors in Lithuania, who were able to reinvent themselves on the African continent and create a thriving Jewish community, which, at one point, reached 120,000. This resiliency is a characteristic of Jews and Jewish communities all over the world. And this resilience was evident in the film Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin: Cape Town Embraces Yiddish Song, which screened at Beth Israel during the exhibit – and will be shown again at the synagogue on Dec. 8.
Using 10 years of archival footage, Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin showcases the Annual Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival, which was held in Cape Town. The documentary features stirring renditions of classic Yiddish songs like “Romania Romania” and “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” as well as two original songs written for the festival by Hal Shaper, a renowned songwriter, which are sung with passion by talented South African Jews of all ages. The songs featured in the film evoke a yearning for a Jewish world that no longer exists in Lithuania and Eastern Europe and highlight the power of the Yiddish language and music.
While the South African Jewish community has shrunk since its heyday in the 1970s to approximately 50,000, it is still an important Diaspora community. In addition, South African Jews make important contributions to every Jewish community they move to, and bring their unique culture to their new homes.
Seeing the exhibit and the documentary cemented the kinship I feel with my South African brothers and sisters. A few of my South African friends even dubbed me an honourary South African Jew at the exhibit, an honour I gladly accepted. One day, I hope to make a pilgrimage to the land of the Litvaks to experience South African Jewish life firsthand. Until then, I will have to continue to learn about South Africa vicariously.
The Dec. 8 screening of Leah, Teddy and the Mandolin at Beth Israel takes place at 4 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. For more information, visit leahteddyandthemandolin.com.
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.