Friday, August 22, 2008

my first visit to Yung Yiddish

Yesterday's was an afternoon of language learning. I came home, and decided I'd had enough of Hebrew and I was going to work a little bit on Yiddish. I'd printed out a story in Yiddish that had been published in Pakn Treger (the National Yiddish Book Center's magazine) a few months ago - the stories are published in the magazine with the Yiddish on one page and the translation on the opposing page. I printed out both, but have decided to write my own translation and not to look at the published one, and to compare notes when I'm finished. It is a long story and at the rate I'm going it will take me something like two weeks if I do a little every day. We'll see how it goes.

When I got sick of doing Yiddish, I switched to Hebrew. I decided to write the essay that's due Sunday, so I could free up my time over the weekend to work on my homework for literature class, which includes writing a short childhood memoir (Yes!!!) and a literary critique (Double Yes!!). In the meantime, I wrote my essay on - and I did not choose the topic myself - Is it possible/acceptable to create art about the Holocaust? I answered the question by telling a few anecdotes about art that I felt either successfully or unsuccessfully honored the Holocaust. I then went on to discuss the ideas of Theodore Adorno, who famously declared that to write a poem after the Holocaust is simply barbaric. He later went on to revisit this quotation and to note that in our era of incomprehensible suffering, art is necessary. I discussed how I agree with Adorno's sense of the tension between wanting to honor the unspeakable by not trying to describe it - in describing it perhaps you lessen or soften it, and in creating something beautiful or aesthetically pleasing in some way, you make suffering more palatable - and wanting to remember and acknowledge the unspeakable by speaking (and creating) of it. This was not an easy essay to write in Hebrew, and I hope that what I wrote in Hebrew at least makes grammatical sense, if nothing else.

At 7:00 I left the apartment to go to Yung Yiddish, the organization with whom I've been in contact with for quite a while in anticipation of interning/volunteering while I am in Jerusalem. I had told the director of Yung Yiddish that I would meet him there at 8:00, a half hour before this evening's program, to introduce myself. I got on the bus and asked the driver to make sure I was on the right bus. I told him I'd never been to Rehov Yerimiyhu before and asked if he could let me know when we were there. After a while I pulled out my map and checked some street signs. I noticed that we were on Yerimiyhu, only in an area where it has a different name. "Great!" I thought, "we must be almost there!" It was 7:50. The bus driver didn't say anything to me, and after a while I noticed that we were on bigger roads with bigger stores and things were getting farther apart. More and more the signs said things like "To Tel Aviv" rather than "To City Center." I was getting a bit nervous, but was willing to trust the bus driver a bit longer. We were off my map, but I thought maybe we were going only a little out of the way and then would be going back toward Yerimiyhu. It was 8:00 and I didn't bring the Yung Yiddish phone number with me. We drove into a suburb. We were going pretty slow because it seemed there were bus stops every few seconds. I said to the bus driver, "Excuse me, but I don;t know where we are. I wanted to go to Yerimiyhu and you told me..." He hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. "I forgot," He said, "And I have to keep going this way." "What should I do?" I asked him. He said, "Stay here and return with me." When we had reached the end of the route and he was turning around, he stopped the bus and had me point to where I wanted to go on a map. He told me we would be there soon. We picked up lots of people along the way and made a lot of stops, but when we got to Yerimiyhu he didn't forget this time. So, I got off the bus at Yerimiyhu. It was 9:00. That is not a type-o. So, I get off the bus and realize that I am alone in the dark in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. I am wearing a longsleeved shirt and a skirt that just barely covers my knees. Not very modest for this area, but not disrespectfully immodest either, I think.

Nevertheless, I definately felt uncomfortable and a bit worried, particularly as I didn't know where I was going. The bus dropped me off at number 14 or so and Yung Yiddish is 52. I walked for a while and then asked a nice-looking older woman for directions. She said I was only at 38 and should just keep going straight. Eventually, I came to a small building with a sign out in front that read "Yung Yiddish"

Yung Yiddish is housed in the basement of a small building. The walls were lined with old friendly-looking Yiddish books crowded into bookshelves that encroached into the performance space. In one nook there was technical/sound equipment hidden by curtains and sheets that made it look like a colorful circus tent. Staff kept poppin their heads in and out of the tent to speak to the performer and ask if the music was loud enough. There were rows of seats on two sides - maybe enough to seat fifty. Most of the seats were filled and some people were standing in the back, near the door. I found myself a seat near the back. The room was unbearably hot - no fans or air conditioners. The audience was composed of a mish mosh of characters - an elderly woman sat next to me and it seemed that she only speaks Yiddish. At first she ignored me but after a while of my singing along to some of the music, she started to smile at me, and then she said to me in Yiddish, "You are so young to know Yiddish!" There were a few ultra-orthodox men, a fifty-something couple with the woman wearing pants and a t-shirt, a secular family with Yiddish speaking kids, there was a man with a T-shirt that said "Toronto" on it, a gap-toothed man who sang and danced vivaciously, and many others - I would venture to say that few of the people at Yung Yiddish seemed like people I would have been likely to encounter anywhere else. The performer, Tommy Schwartz, has this incredible deep, warm, voice, and speaks slowly with an enchanting lilt when he tells stories. He sang popular Yiddish cabaret songs like "Di Grine Kuzine," "By Mir Bistu Sheyn," "Vus Dergeisti Mir Di Lorn" and "Der Rebbe Elimelich," and in between them interspersed anecdotes and jokes in Yiddish. Occasionally he would translate what he was saying to English (Though I was proud and surprised to realize that not only did I understand most of the Yiddish, but I also already knew most of the songs) - I'm not sure if he knows Hebrew, and I think from what I understood of his speaking, he is from Hungary. After his many fabulous songs, Mendy, the director of Yung Yiddish, stood up to sing. He sang a piece I was not familiar with - it was very theatrical and evocative, and eerily heartbreaking. Mendy has a sweet tenor voice and the performance was done with genuine feeling, as though he were a well trained stage actor, which for all I know may be the case. He was followed by another woman who sang Edith Piaf's "Le Vie en Rose" translated into Yiddish - it was exquisite. The whole evening was fun, people sang along, commented to each other, mostly in Yiddish but some in Hebrew, about the performances, and at the back a woman translated the Yiddish into Hebrew for some people who didn't know the Yiddish. It was rare that there was silence in the room during a performance- people were drinking, greeting friends, etc. After a little singing and a few speeches, wine and vodka was passed around so we could make a toast to Tommy, in whose honor all of this was happening. The toast was followed by more songs for the audience to sing to. At one point I had a chance to introduce myself to Mendy when he went outside for some fresh, cool air. He was very excited to meet me and told me to stay until the end so he could have a chance to talk to me. I was a bit worried about catching the bus but stayed anyway. At the end of the concert someone asked me in Yiddish, and then when it took me a minute to understand what he was saying asked again in Hebrew, where I had learned the songs from - did I learn Yiddish from my parents? I told him that I studied some Yiddish in university. He asked if I speak it, and I said, "yes, but not well" - he asked if I speak Hebrew and I said, "I also speak Hebrew, but not well." He said, "Great, then we will speak a cocktail of languages" and we proceeded to have a conversation that was a mishmosh of Hebrew and Yiddish, which was absolutely perfect. Yiddish was his first language, he learned it from his parents. It seems that most of the people at YY learned Yiddish from their parents, whether in Orthodox homes or because their parents were immigrants to Israel whose native language was Yiddish. He lives in Tel Aviv but is very fond of YY (whose headquarters are in Tel Aviv) and comes when he can to the Jerusalem programs. It seemed that a lot of the people at YY knew each other and were regular attendees. It's a strange, quirkly, little community that I am excited to be a part of. As everyone was starting to leave, Tommy Schwartz approached me and asked me in Yiddish, "where are you from pretty young woman?" I responded "I'm from the US" and he responded, "Well, we can't all be perfect." Then he pinched my cheek, and left. Mendy sat down to speak to me for a bit - first we had to decide what language to speak in. We settled on English. He told me that he is very excited that I am interested in helping out, and that I can basically do whatever I want or think is needed. The headquarters are in Tel Aviv, but if for instance I wanted to work at YY twice a week in the afternoons, he would start advertising that the Jerusalem YY library would be open those hours, and that there would also be someone there to answer the phone. He said the books are in some semblace of order but could use a better system of organization, so that might be a good place to start. He also said that the biggest problem YY faces is with regard to funding. He's having problems holding on to the Tel Aviv location, and in general is concerned about fundraising. I told him I don't have much experience with that, and he asked me if I am a good writer. I said that in English, yes, I like to write. He was very excited about this. He suggested that I could write articles about Yung Yiddish events and that once a month I could produce an English language newsletter about YY that he could send to current or potential supporters. I told him that this is something that I could definately do. We parted, both expressing our excitement to be working with one another. He will be in New York for a few weeks, and then there's the holdiays and all that, so we're not sure when I would start, but at least we've met and that will get the ball rolling a bit.

I am really excited to be getting involved in this unique organization, and it is fun that Mendy is so excited for me to help out and so willing to have me do basically whatever I want if I think it will help. I think this will be a great learning opportunity for me - a chance to speak Yiddish, to experience Yiddish culture through music, lectures, and books, and a way to become a part of something in Jerusalem that involves no Americans and no people my age - a chance to get a little bit outside the 'bubble' and outside my comfort zone, and to explore. I'm sure that you will be hearing much more about YY on this blog in the future.

1 comment:

Jeff H. said...

Your post brought back some poignant memories of the Yiddish songs my paternal grandmother and my uncle Phil used to sing to me when I was a kid. Didn't understand (most of) the lyrics then, don't understand (most of) the lyrics now. But I can still hear their singing voices sixty years later. Thanks!