Yiddish speaks to a wide audience

By Katharine Hamer, August 20, 2009
Richard Glasstone

Richard Glasstone

There are said to be fewer than a million Yiddish speakers in the world today. But judging by the response to an intensive course at the University of London, there is no lack of interest in keeping the language alive.

Forty-three participants from across Britain and Europe took part in this year’s Ot Azoy programme, run by the Jewish Music Institute. For six days, students at all levels took classes in Yiddish language, song, drama, history and film. By the end, even the absolute beginners had acquired a decent grounding.

“It’s quite unbelievable how much people can achieve in one week,” said instructor Khayele Beer. “It’s always very moving and very impressive.”

Retired ballet teacher Richard Glasstone has been attending Ot Azoy for six years, along with his artist wife Heather. With regular practice, they were by last summer sufficiently confident in their language skills to translate and illustrate a Yiddish children’s poem as a gift for their granddaughter.

“I think, unfortunately, a lot of Jewish people tend to discard Yiddish and say, ‘oh, you know, that’s the language of the shtetl,’” Mr Glasstone reflected.

“In fact there’s a whole literature that’s very exciting. There’s quite a big revival.”

Yiddish teacher Sonia Pinkusowitz insists the interest never went away. “For Jews there’s a constant interest in our heritage,” she said. “Yiddish may not be spoken on a daily basis but it’s here, it’s vibrant.”

A number of the younger participants had signed up because of their involvement with klezmer or Yiddish music.

Brighton resident Rachel Weston, 26, has been performing “quite a lot of Jewish music. I just feel drawn to singing in Yiddish,” she said.
“It’s a really fun language, a very expressive language and there’s such a huge variety of songs that have been written in Yiddish that communicate the struggles and the stories and the jokes. I thought it would really help just to try and learn a bit of the language.”

Although non-Jews were among the group, it Ms Pinkusowitz believes you cannot take the Yiddishkeit out of Yiddish. As student Ann Malkin wryly observed: “In no other language course would you be learning how to talk to the doctor about your ailments on the third day.”

Last updated: 4:36pm, August 20 2009