What naches! The artists making Yiddish cool

By Alexandra Mankowitz and Lemez Lovas, August 15, 2008
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Musicians in the UK and Germany explain why they are taking the language of the shtetl on to the hippest stages


I learnt Yiddish not just from my parents and grandparents, but from the whole town. We had plays, drama, reading and songs, all in Yiddish, all around us. I realise now how privileged I was."

So says folk singer Bella Kerridge, born in Bessarabia - part of the former Soviet Union - 85 years ago. Now based in Britain and still performing, she remembers a time when Jewish artistic endeavours were most commonly expressed in the language of the shtetl.

At its height, Yiddish was spoken by more than 11 million people across Europe. Today, generous estimates suggest that a total of up to 3 million remain. Crucially, though, the fact that the overwhelming majority are strictly Orthodox Charedim, who shun the cultural environment that nourished Kerridge and millions like her, means that secular Yiddish culture is now officially an endangered species.

Over the past few decades, a vanguard of young conservationists has sprung up around the world, determined not to let it die - and one of the areas where most is being done to keep Yiddish alive is the arts.

Vivi Lachs sings in the London-based band Klezmer Klub. Many of the band's numbers are performed in Yiddish. "I sing to audiences who know little or no Yiddish, so my Yiddish knowledge is vital in giving an experience of the music and also a way in (through English explanation) to a slice of history and a momentary immersion into the humanity of a lost culture with ideas still pertinent to today," she says.

"I want people to engage with the songs actively, whether that be by making connections to today, enjoying the humour, joining in with choruses of political protest, or crying from the poignancy.

"My band has begun to research and perform London Yiddish songs which bring new nuances to locations like Victoria Park and Leicester Square."

Young Yiddish music is thriving elsewhere in Europe too. In the forefront are singer and accordionist Daniel Kahn and hip-hop artist Zionlight, both of whom, perhaps surprisingly, live and perform in Germany .

The 24-year-old Zionlight, who was born in Israel but raised in Germany, says that he raps in Yiddish "to make people aware of it, to keep it alive, or maybe even to revive it, to make it something cool and trendy. But that's hard to reach. Yiddish rap is of course a niche product and it'll probably stay that way. I just don't want Yiddish to disappear completely. Especially not in Germany."

Rap music, he says, is a good form for making "new things like Yiddish approachable". Not that the language is entirely new to his German audience.

"Germans that read or listen carefully to my Yiddish raps can understand a big part," he says. "There are several different German dialects, like Schwabian or Bavarian, so for them Yiddish is just like one more, unknown dialect. Many words in everyday German are from Yiddish, words that everyone uses, from young to old, without knowing that it's Yiddish.

American-born Daniel Kahn, who fronts the band The Painted Bird, says he "mixes Yiddish song, especially the radical political material, with my interests in Brechtian cabaret, punk rock and modern folk songwriting. Personally, I think Yiddish is cool. Musically, it sounds beautiful and powerful, and the more I learn about its rich literature and complexity, the more I love it." He too has noticed his German audience's affinity for the language. "It's interesting to sing a Germanic language like Yiddish for a German-speaking audience - often, they'll understand the Yiddish better than my English translations. Of course, it raises questions like: ‘What happened to this language?', ‘Where did it go?'"

This young art scene augments the already well-established Yiddish language courses run in the UK by organisations such as Spiro Ark and the Jewish Music Institute (JMI). The JMI's annual summer school, Ot Azoy!, starts on Sunday with over 40 students signed up to attend.

For those who want to take things even further there are undergraduate or postgraduate level at University College London (UCL) or Oxford University.

But ultimately, why care about Yiddish in the 21st century? Why not consign the language and its culture to memory along with the nightmare that the 20th century represents for much of European Jewry? Helen Beer, head of Yiddish at UCL and head of Ot Azoy!, has a clear view on why it is important not only to preserve the language, but to widen its scope through study and the arts.

"Every aspect of Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish values has somehow been transmuted into something else in which Yiddish plays no part," she says. "If you consider that 8-10 million people spoke in this language and partook of this culture, then there's been a really serious rupture.

"Learning Yiddish brings people into a normal cultural Yiddish sphere which they can't access in any other way with regards to a language and a culture that doesn't have a territory.

"A lot of people who learn Yiddish are doing so because they have a sense that there was once a very rich Yiddish Jewish culture that for a whole multitude of reasons - the Holocaust, Stalinism, Zionism and a marginalisation of Yiddish by Jews - isn't in the public domain at all. I grew up in this culture and understand it and it matters to me that others to understand it in as authentic a way as possible."

Hear more of Daniel Kahn at www.myspace.com/theunternationale. Listen to Zionlight at
www.myspace.com/zionlight

    Last updated: 4:08pm, September 10 2008