The JC Letters Page, 4th October 2019

JC readers share their views

January 09, 2020 15:02

Fiddling with Yiddish

How disappointing to read James Inverne’s article (Fiddler in the mamaloshen is not for me, September 27).

Inverne proposes that Jews “should celebrate our identity and power of self-determination by learning our own ancient language, not a makeshift one”. He states that Yiddish denotes exile, having inherited a view passed on by his father that “Yiddish is the language of persecution”.

Jewish identity is multi-various and all-encompassing. The history of Jewish exile and displacement is long and extensive. Jews have inhabited many lands for centuries — far longer than the existence of the modern state of Israel. The Jewish population worldwide today exceeds the number of Jews in Israel. Yiddish is not the only Jewish language spoken by Jews throughout history (See the Handbook of Jewish Languages published by Brill, 2017). Jews traditionally have also been accomplished polyglots.

Fiddler on the Roof was based on Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish Tevye der Milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman) which is richer in language, nuance and historical context than later theatre and film adaptations. The first Yiddish theatre production of the Yiddish Tevye stories was staged in 1919 at the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York.

Prior to the Second World War, the number of Yiddish speakers worldwide was 11-13 million. A language is a window into the culture of a people (one can download 11,000 Yiddish books online via the Yiddish Book Centre in the USA).

As a native Yiddish speaker and descendant of Holocaust survivors, I am fortunate to have grown up speaking, reading and writing Yiddish unselfconsciously. Yiddish was never “the language of persecution”. People are persecuted for who they are perceived to be: Jews were persecuted even if they spoke only German or Polish.

Whatever one’s ideological position, it is our responsibility to understand our Jewish heritage in all its complexities. One people — many languages. What is the problem? This contributes to the richness and beauty of our culture. Modern-day interest in Yiddish does not conflict with interest in the Hebrew language.

Mr Inverne is cordially invited to attend the Intensive Yiddish Language course (Ot Azoy) during the summer of 2020, hosted by the Jewish Music Institute, to learn more about the development, culture and history of the Yiddish language.

Dr Helen Beer
BenZion Margulies Lecturer in Yiddish, University College London (UCL);
Director of Yiddish Language Summer School, Ot Azoy

James Inverne says the recording of the new Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof “falls ugly” on his ear and he much prefers the German version. He gives a reasoned analysis of his feelings, going back to the old mantra of Yiddish being the language of persecution — which should be abandoned.  It’s an old thesis and one which I hoped never to read again, particularly as it would dismiss a wonderfully creative and rich literary body of work — plays, poetry, fiction, essays on every subject under the sun.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised that Mr Inverne has failed to point out, or has conveniently forgotten to mention, that the stories about Tevye and his family, friends and neighbours in Anatevka were originally written in Yiddish by one of our greatest authors, Sholem Aleichem. Without those Yiddish stories, Fiddler on the Roof would not exist. When the original show was written, it followed the stories about Tevye very closely.

I have an LP of Fiddler in Yiddish dated 1966 and it is utterly charming and full of wonderful atmosphere. When Tevye in English sings, If I were a Rich Man in Yiddish, he sings, If I were a Rothschild, which is how Sholom Aleichem expressed one of Tevye’s musings.  When Tevye sings Tradition, in the Yiddish version he sings of The Torah, as in the original stories.

I urge readers to obtain a copy of a Yiddish recording of this marvellous musical;  anyone with just a smattering of Yiddish, or even none, will be able to follow it. Without in any sense taking away from Fiddler in English, you will be much closer to the atmosphere of the original.

Rosalind Gold
London W2

Korda’s contribution

In referring to the BBC 4 TV Documentary, Churchill and the Movie Mogul, Rosa Doherty (JC, September 27) paints a rather rosy picture of Alexander Korda’s influence on bringing America into the war by saying he had “spectacular” results.

Korda, a Hungarian Jewish refugee film-maker who successfully transformed himself into an English gentleman, had a very warm and productive relationship with Churchill. Both had magnetic personal charm, but it is what they represented that undermined their efforts. Churchill faced failure because he was considered to represent outdated colonial imperialism. So he sent Korda to Hollywood to win them over with patriotic films.

But Korda also had a hard time selling the idea of war. He was soon being accused of spying, which he was (for Churchill); for his films being outrageous propagandist war-mongering (Goebbels’ efforts using Leni Riefenstahl were more outstanding and successful); and for being Jewish.

Antisemitism was flourishing under the influence of such American luminaries as Kennedy and Lindbergh; minimal Jewish immigration was being permitted; and the word “Jew” as a noun, as a verb and as an adjective, had become a familiar term of abuse. Mounting evidence of Nazi atrocities resulted in much talk but no action. The Documentary acknowledged, however, that while Korda’s work did soften up the American public for war it was really the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that did it. We should be wary of believing our own propaganda.

Dr Stanley Jacobs
London SW18

Offence and atonement

Lee Harpin’s article (JC online, September 27) calls into question the Jewish identity of Jenny Manson, on the basis of how she chooses to spend her time on Kol Nidre.

Like Mr Harpin and this newspaper, I, too, am very negatively disposed towards most of the positions held by Jewish Voice for Labour and Ms Manson but, as a secular Jew, I take offence at the suggestion that her authenticity as a Jew might in some way be diminished by how she chooses to spend Yom Kippur.

The notion of a holy day is nonsensical to many atheist Jews, and there are many legitimate non-religious expressions of Jewish identity that do not involve faith, prayer or attendance at synagogue.

I write as an oleh chadash in Israel who never goes to shul, doesn’t keep kosher and doesn’t keep Shabbat. Am I Jewish enough for Lee Harpin? Presumably as a Zionist, I would be.

How I choose to spend Yom Kippur is not the sole method to determine my Jewish identity. Indeed, neither is my attitude towards Israel, taken by itself. There is no single thing that universally signifies one’s status as a Jew, although the closest we might get to that is self-identification.

Ms Manson’s publicly articulated positions warrant criticism on their own merits, and it is not necessary or appropriate to question her Jewish identity on the basis of her non-attendance at shul.

Benjy Aarons-Richardson

Thoughts for food

I was dismayed and upset by the article by Daniel Sugarman advocating the selling of kosher venison (Venison: your new Yomtov treat, JC, September 27).

Do Jewish meat-eaters not have enough choice? Does caring about our wildlife and environment count for nothing?

In this day and age when more and more people are turning vegetarian or even vegan (and, yes, even religious Jews), why promote and glorify the killing and eating of such a superb and beautiful creature as the deer?

Anne Barber-Herlitz
Leigh on Sea

On  September 20, the JC published a recipe for a “Vegan-friendly date honey cake”.  Yes, it was bee friendly as the usual honey was replaced by date honey. But the recipe also contained three eggs. Yes, it was vegetarian friendly but vegan friendly? Definitely not!

Elisabeth Baker

January 09, 2020 15:02

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