Long-time members of this congregation know my constant complaint, that Judaism is retreating before mediocrity, that it lacks new inspiration and new creativity. That we need an infusion of talented young people, that congregations are retreating to orthodoxy because Mordechai Kaplan's drive to rejuvenate Judaism as a creative civilization has run out of steam.
Much of this still holds true. But I am happy to report today on a small vigorous movement in the opposite direction, in a place where few would have expected it.
Who here has heard of Aaron Lansky? (anyone?)
And who has heard of the McArthur prize? It is a grant of $250,000 by the McArthur foundation, awarded to deserving people in the humanities and sciences, to help them expand promising developments in a deserving new field. One such award recently went to Aaron Lansky, to help him record Yiddish culture and extend his collection of Yiddish books at Amherst University, now holding close to a million books.
A report on him was also aired on TV--it might have been on "60 minutes." So when the mail brought a request for a donation, I knew a bit about the project and sent a small check.
Two months later the mail brought a response. It was last summer's issue of the magazine of the National Yiddish Book Center, the "Book Peddler" or in Yiddish, "Der Packen Trager. " And what a magazine it is! In 80 pages it seems to pack more "Ruach," more inspiration and more creativity, than any recent Jewish publication, all of it well written, well illustrated and eminently readable, except maybe a few pages in Yiddish for which I cannot vouch.
The contents include an article about a movie describing the Yiddish newspaper "Forverts", still being published in New York, and another article on the Yiddish "Freiheit," founded by Jewish Communists in 1922 and closed down in 1988, after its editor turned 97. Another article tells of a visit to Biro Bidjan, Stalin's "Jewish homeland" on China's border, where 6-10% of the inhabitants are Jewish and Yiddish is still spoken, though Jewish culture is in decline.
It contains a long book review by Robert Shapiro of Baltimore, about Yiddish slang in the Nazi concentration camps, and several shorter reviews; also, an essay on American Jewish poets, a personal narrative "From Podolia to Pennsylvania" taken from an ongoing oral history project, and so on.
As a sample, here is an account of a visit to the grave of Sholem Aleichem--the man who gave us Tevye the Milkman, among others, and who is buried in Brooklyn, New York:
This magazine, this rich cultural feast, was completely unexpected. I was brought up that Yiddish was a thing of the past, "the language of grandmothers" as a friend once put it.
I was also taught that our national language was Hebrew, while Yiddish was a corrupted German spoken in the shtetl, a dialect or patois but not a "real language". Reading the "Book Peddler," I found that similar sentiments were already expressed by the "Springfield Republican" in 1870. Citing from there:
I still believe in Hebrew, yet I am forced to admit that something wonderful and exciting is happening in Judaism. As you leaf through the "Book Peddler" you become aware that here is a vigorous Jewish cultural movement, country wide, establishing itself in communities and in universities, coast to coast. The center is in Amherst, Mass, but it is expanding with library centers at Yale, Stony Brook, Florida and even GW University in Washington. It has supporting organizations not only in the US but in Australia, Mexico and Denmark. Its books are on their way to Eastern Europe [P.S. : They received a warm welcome there; their story was featured in the "Smithsonian"], and enough young people seem involved to make one envious. Here are 4 of them--"Despite dust, humidity and temperatures in the 90s, our 4 summer interns managed to shlep, sort and shelve almost 200,000 Yiddish Books." Here is Makkabit Malkin, born in Israel and supervising the collection, and Neil Zagorin, expanding the computer database. And you see the pictures: young people, smiling from the heart, they seem to know what they are doing.
All that, you know, is rare in our community. So even if Hebrew is still my "Lashon HaKodesh," holy tongue, I must give a place to "Mame Lushn," to the "mother's tongue" of Yiddish.
Aaron Lansky, in an editorial, puts it eloquently:
Something great is happening, and our members may well take note. If you have Yiddish books, perhaps left by older family members, the Yiddish Book Center would love to have them. If you speak Yiddish--there is a Workmen's Circle in Washington (I'm told) and a Yiddish club in Baltimore whose meetings are attended by 250 members.
I never thought I would be turned on to Yiddish, but this seem to be too important to ignore.
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 12 June 2002