By Michael Hill
March 15, 2008
Many middle-aged American Jews have identical memories of Yiddish - the language their parents spoke when they didn't want the children to understand.
That's what Gila Haor remembers from her childhood in upstate New York. But at 33, she's trying to change things in her Pikesville household by speaking Yiddish as often as possible to her three daughters, ages 3 to 8.
"It would make my grandparents - they are gone - so proud to know that I am speaking Yiddish," she says.
Enthusiasts like Haor are few and far between. In fact, Yiddish might have died out, or at least been threatened with cultural sidelining, had it not been for people such as Aaron Lansky.
Lansky stumbled onto Yiddish in college and eventually saved a million volumes in his National Yiddish Book Center - winning a MacArthur Foundation grant along the way. He will be the first speaker in a series on the Yiddish language that begins Sunday at 7 p.m. in The Center for Jewish Education, 5708 Park Heights Ave.
For the most part, Yiddish has followed the path of all immigrant languages: the main language of the first generation to land in America, understood but not spoken by children who yearned to assimilate, a foreign language to the third generation.
The difference: other immigrant languages such as Italian, Polish and German had home countries. Yiddish did not. As the third generation of immigrants shunned it, with it spoken only in some ultra-Orthodox communities - and with most of its native speakers in Europe lost to the Holocaust - it risked dying out.
Enter people such as Lanksy, 52, who says his relationship to Yiddish was the same as that of many Jews his age: "I heard it spoken as a kid, but nobody spoke it to me."
After taking one of the first courses on the Holocaust while a student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Lansky began looking into the culture lost to the Nazi regime. "I realized I needed to understand Yiddish to understand this culture," he said.
He got a professor at nearby University of Massachussets to teach him after hours. "That language opened up the history, opened up the literature, opened up the whole world of this culture," Lansky said.
In graduate school at McGill University, Lansky realized that many books written in Yiddish were in danger of being discarded or destroyed, so he took a leave of absence to rescue them. Scholars told him there were about 70,000 volumes out there. Lanksy found a million - now housed at the center he started on the Hampshire campus in Northampton.
"I literally collected the remnants of a civilization that most people never knew existed," Lansky said. "Even well-educated Jews who think they know Jewish culture come to the center and say 'What is this? How come we were never told about this?'"
Lansky, who won the MacArthur grant in 1989, wrote a book about his efforts, Outwitting History, published in 2004.
Hilda Rubin, vice president of Yiddish of Greater Washington, says four main forces almost killed Yiddish - Hitler with the Holocaust, Stalin by wiping out the Yiddish scholars who survived World War II, assimilation in America, and the State of Israel, which picked Hebrew as its official language and repressed the teaching and speaking of Yiddish in the country's early days.
"I call myself the missing link between the older generation that first came to America and the younger generation of today," says Rubin, 79, who will speak March 25 at The Associated headquarters on Mount Royal Avenue.
Rubin, 79, unlike many in her generation, saw Yiddish as more than the language of her immigrant parents. In her Bronx co-op neighborhood - a place of Jewish intellectual ferment - Yiddish was not just spoken, but taught. "My mother constantly tried to make sure her kids got the best Yiddish education," she says.
"There is this big gap with Jewish children today," Rubin adds. "They learn biblical history and then - boom - they go to the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel."
Yiddish, spoken by generations of Eastern European Jews, is essentially a Germanic language - dismissed by its detractors as a mere German dialect - with other roots that reach out to Hebrew and Aramaic. It also picked up linguistic influences wherever Jews lived during the centuries of the diaspora.
"You can take a random Yiddish sentence and break it down, and the sentence itself contains 7,000 years of Jewish history," Lansky says.
Though many Americans associate Yiddish with the Jewish comedians who dominated that art form in the 1950s and 1960s - the language of schlep, shtick, schnoz, schmooze - it also spawned a sophisticated culture.
Until the mid-19th century, most Jewish authors wrote in the native tongue of the country where they lived. But a Yiddish literature - written in Hebrew characters - grew in Eastern Europe to encompass theater, film and music, too.
Occasionally that culture found its way into the mainstream, such as the Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof or with the 1978 Nobel Prize to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish.
"It is such a picturesque language," says Judy Langenthal, who grew up hearing Yiddish in Baltimore. "It often has a touch of sarcasm to it. My grandmother could be pretty testy, and she would use these Yiddish curses that would often rhyme. One of them was, 'May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and your feet up in the air.' When you say that in Yiddish, apparently it rhymes."
Langenthal, 72, tried to learn Yiddish in school. When everyone was taking French at Forest Park high, she took German. Although though she went to Brandeis University - founded by Jewish philanthropists - there were no Yiddish courses.
But she has seen that change. A member of her family, Philip Myers, endowed a chair in Yiddish studies at the Johns Hopkins University - now just one of many top institutions that teach Yiddish.
"I think it has to do with the realization they were throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Sylvia Schildt says of the Yiddish revival. "There were a lot of negative things connected with Jewish history - the Holocaust, the pogroms, and poverty, intense poverty. But hidden in all of that was this incredible culture."
Schildt, in her early 70s, will discuss her book about growing up in the Yiddish-speaking New York neighborhood of Brownsville on April 13 at Baltimore Hebrew University.
As full-time director of his Yiddish book center, Lansky says people coming there are not driven by nostalgia. "For them it's common sense," he says. "This language was spoken by three-quarters of the world's Jews for the last 1,000 years. It would be good to start to understand what their culture was all about."
He recognizes that Yiddish will never again be the lingua franca of Jewry in this country. "We were American kids. I think our parents and grandparents felt it was unfair to burden us with the past," Lansky says. "I am not complaining. When you consider where Jews are today to where they were 100 years ago, it was worth it."
And there are the exceptions like the Haor family. To explain its appeal, Gila can only come up with a Yiddish word - hamish. "It is hard to translate," she says. "It means homey, familiar, comfortable. ... I am just grateful to have it as part of my family."
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