‘It’s our duty to keep the culture alive’

By Alexandra Mankowitz, August 15, 2008

My own journey to Yiddish culture had unpromising beginnings. As a Jew-ish girl growing up in the 1980s in a very secular home in West London, the language did not feature in my life at all, aside from a loud "geshmakt!" (loosely translated as "mmmm") from my father every time he hugged us. It was not until I reached my twenties that I realised there was more to Yiddish than the few words I heard as a child: that it was a real language, with a real culture.

When I stumbled on an old family postcard sent from Vilnius, Lithuania, I became determined to find out what wisdom from days of yore it might yield to ease me through my quarter-life crisis. I went along to The Friends of Yiddish, a group which meets every Shabbat in London's old Jewish East End, and there I met the late Yiddish composer and lyricist, Majer Bogdanski, who read it and laughed at the hick Litvak spelling. But what would the postcard tell me about who I was, about where I had come from?

My heart raced as he started to translate: "Dear Frumke," he read out loud, "everything's fine here, we're enjoying a good summer. I hope you're well. Warm wishes, Elchanan."

Some epiphany. And yet, curiously, that is exactly what it was. Through this one, trivial postcard I could see that the doors to the Yiddish-speaking world were still, miraculously, open. I decided to go through.

And now here I am - 30 years old, a fluent Yiddish speaker, and degree-level student of the language, currently making my contribution to the Yiddish art scene by translating the work of South African Yiddish writer, the late Moris Hofman.

Half of the world's Yiddish speakers were murdered in the Holocaust. No one can retrieve those lives, but why should those murderers get away with stealing our culture too? If only there were a Haganah for the mameloshn (the mother tongue) - heroes willing to risk it all, just like the Jews who fought to set up the state of Israel. But it seems like Israelis got all the chutzpah, and we got a generation who swept Yiddish under the carpet, embarrassed by its shtetl roots. I began to see my father's generation as a kind of break in the chain of Yiddish transmission, and became determined to make repairs.

That determination led me to the joy of discovering the wealth of its literature which is certainly the reward for me. The poet Yankev Glatshteyn wrote these lines that make me cry twice, once for their beauty and once again because they are so unjustly underexposed: "Ikh bin tsu kleyn tsu lebn groys/Geshe arum mir vos veyniker/Flater arum mir soydes fun kleynikeytn/Gib mir op mayn kheylek velt/oyf a kleyn telerl". ("I am too small to live big/Happen around me less and less/Flutter around me, mysteries of small things/Give me back my portion of the world/On a small saucer").

You do not stand a chance of getting back your portion of the world unless you embark on a Yiddish journey. And do it now while the final generation from the heym is still here as living proof that this portion is ours. So sign up. Yiddish needs you. But not as much as you need Yiddish.

Last updated: 3:30pm, September 10 2008