Aaron Lansky and the Revival of Yiddish

Presented by David P. Stern in Greenbelt, Maryland on 10 February 1990


      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:

          When the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem died in the Bronx in 1916, he left behind an eloquent ethical will--later published in the New York Times and entered into the Congressional Record--which specified how he should be buried:

            "Wherever I die I should be laid to rest not among the aristocrats, the elite, the rich, but rather among the plain people, the toilers, the common folk, so that the tombstone that will be placed on my grave will grace the simple graves about me, and the simple graves will adorn my tombstone, even as the plain people have, during my life, beatified their folk writer."

          Sholem Aleichem was granted his last request. He was laid to rest among "the common folk" in the Workmen's Circle Section of Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn. Two hundred thousand people attended his funeral, which, at the time, was the largest in the history of New York.

          Last July, 72 years after his death, a group of staff members and interns from the National Yiddish Book Center travelled to New York to visit Sholem Aleichem's grave. It was clear that we were among the few to make the pilgrimage in recent years. When we arrived at the front gate of the cemetery, no one knew who Sholem Aleichem was, let alone exactly where he was buried.

          We finally found his grave at a bend in the road at the back of the cemetery. Although he was indeed buried among "the common folk," he had been joined over the years by a group of distinguished neighbors: Meir London, the Jewish Socialist congressman from the Lower East Side; Alexander Harkavy, the pioneering Yiddish lexicographer; and many of the most outstanding American Yiddish writers, including Joseph Opatoshu, I.J. Singer, Borukh Charney Vladek, Zishe Landau and others.

          It was as though we had stumbled on a Yiddish "Westminster Abbery." We walked about for almost an hour in the summer heat, paying silent tribute to so many of the writers whose books we have rescued and sorted. Before we left we gathered in front of the grave of Sholem Aleichem and read aloud--in both Yiddish and Hebrew--the humble epitaph which he had written for himself several years before his death:

      Do ligt a yid a posheter
      Geshriben Yidish-Taytsh far vayber
      Un far'n prosten folk hot er
      Geven a humorist, a shrayber

      Dos gantse lebn oysgelakht
      Geshlogn mit der velt kapores
      De gantse velt hot gut gemakht
      Un er--oy vey--geven af tsoris.

      Un davke demolt ven der oylem hot
      Gelakht, geklatsht un fleg zikh freyen
      Hot er gekrenkt--dos veyst nor Got
      B'sod, az keyner zol nit zeyn.
    Here lies a simple Jew
    Who wrote Yiddish tales for women
    And for the common folk
    He was a humorist, a writer

    His whole life he laughed
    And joined the world in its reveries
    The whole world enjoyed itself
    While he--oy vey--had troubles.

    And even as the public
    Laughed, split their sides, whooped it up
    He grieved, as only God knows
    In secret, so that no one should see.

      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:

          "The Jewish Post" is the title of a somewhat remarkable newspaper established in New York. It is printed in Hebrew characters, but is written in a patois made up of Hebrew and broken German, which neither a German nor a Hebrew scholar is able to read. It has been started to meet the wants of a large class of Jews, especially those coming from Russian Poland, who understand no regular language and can read no other paper published in the country."

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:

          "Mendele Moykher Sforim published his first Yiddish story in 1864. Since then, more than 40,000 titles have appeared, constituting the most concentrated outpouring of literary creativity in all of Jewish history.... "

          "For the first time--125 years after Mendele's first story and 45 years after the Holocaust--we are beginning to glimpse the significance of Yiddish as a discrete, finite body of literature within the 4000-year continuum of Jewish experience."

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.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 12 June 2002