Tag Archives: Jewish

Jewish American Students Reimagine Yiddish Europe

Hannah Efron at the gates of the old Jewish cemetery, Indur, Belarus (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

[This post from Nina Porzucki]

Forget Lonely Planet. Forget Fodor’s. When Rob Adler Peckerar plans a trip to Eastern Europe he goes straight to one guidebook publisher, the Baedeker—the 1907 Baedeker to be exact. “You can’t beat the maps,” says Peckerar.

It doesn’t matter that the sites on the maps, written in German, are just a bit out of date. They show just what Peckerar is looking for. “It indicates the Jewish spaces [that] are still active Jewish spaces. You can look on the map and see here’s a synagogue and here’s a synagogue.”

For Peckerar, the executive director of Yiddishkayt, a non-profit Yiddish cultural organization, these guidebooks point to a past that he wants young American Jews to know.

“The past thousand years of Jewish life is what’s missing from Jewish education,” he says. “Kids don’t know about Jewish life in Europe, they learn today mostly about Israel and they learn the destruction of Jewish culture.”

Instead of visiting concentration camps and mass graves like many conventional Jewish student tours this summer, Peckerar took eight students to the hometowns of Jewish poets and novelists. This was a tour more about life than genocide.

More than anything else Peckerar wanted to take students back to the villages where their families came from sometimes hundreds of years ago. “Most Jews don’t know the name of the place where their family is from,” says Peckerar. What they know instead he says, is a vague picture of shtetl life in Eastern Europe – or a musical like Fiddler on the Roof.

Hannah Efron, a 21-year-old, comparative literature major at UC Berkeley, was one of the students who went on the trip in search of her family’s origins. Growing up, Efron always heard “Oh Hannah you’re such an Efron.”

‘Being Efron,’ meant having her grandfather’s sense of humor and his stubborn streak. But she never really considered where that Efron-ness originated until Peckerar helped her research the first member of her family to take Efron as a last name. In a small Yiddish-speaking town named Amdur, in what is now Indur, Belarus, lived her ancestor, Motte Tsennes. Motte was his first name and Tsenne was his mother’s name. As was the tradition he was Motte Tsennes or Tsenne’s son, Motte. Motte was the first one in the family to choose the last name Efron.

The group of students took a bus ride to what is now just a tiny village. They knew two things: Motte Tsennes was the town baker and he lived on the corner of the old market square. The bus stopped at the old market square. The town as Efron describes it, was just two streets and a smattering of houses. Peckerar, Efron, and the tour guide exited the bus, and approached an old woman watering her neighbor’s yard. They asked her if there were any Efrons in town. Much to their surprise, the woman started to talk about the Jewish history of the town. The old woman told Efron that long, long ago the town had been about 80% Jewish. Today, there were just a few remnants of Jewish buildings left.

The old synagogue (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

The group walked down the road, snapping photos. People came out of their houses to see the commotion, says Efron. They pointed the group in the direction of what was once a synagogue. During the Soviet period it had been used as a music school but had since fallen into disrepair. “We would try and peek in the windows and it was full of garbage,” says Efron. Eventually someone in the group found an open doorway and one by one they jumped into the old synagogue.

The space was enormous, Efron says. This was one of nine synagogues in this town but this was the main one. Walking around the enormous, empty building drove home just how big the community had been. “You could picture it full,” says Efron. “On the high holidays you could picture everyone gathered there. You just had to close your eyes.”

The group left the synagogue in search of the cemetery. Efron describes it as a wild place. Weeds and grass hid the headstones, which had turned to tiny stone nubs on the hill. Horses out to pasture wandered between the graves. A rusted gate with two Stars of David was the only real indication of what the field had been. “I was secretly hoping in my heart of hearts that we would find a stone of Motte Tsennes,” says Efron. But she didn’t find that first Efron’s tombstone. However, as she walked around the cemetery she felt the presence of Motte Tsennes and her family.

The gates of the old cemetery (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

“I felt like my family knew that I was there to visit them, to mark them and to honor them. And they were like, ‘there’s our Hannah; she’s going to graduate from Berkeley next year; still no boyfriend.’ That they knew I was there and I knew they were there.”

Hannah Efron is back in Berkeley, hanging out at her parent’s house until the school year starts. Was she changed by the trip? Yes and no. She is still, according to her family “very Efron.” Only now she has a place to put to the name.

[Patrick Cox adds: Listen to the podcast for more scenes from this Eastern European trip, including Yiddish and English recitations of poems by Morris Rosenfeld and Moyshe Kulbak.]



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Moorish grafitti and texting in Yiddish

The Alhambra in Grenada, the crowning glory of Moorish Spain, has more than 10,000 prayers and poems in Arabic inscribed on its pillars and walls. We hear about an effort to decipher and catalog the inscriptions. It’s not the first time this has been tried. But previous attempts foundered, when researchers became distracted by their findings. This time,  Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research is taking a more rigorous approach. Even so, it must be  hard not set aside your tools and get meditative after you’ve discovered an inscription like “Be sparing with words and you will go in peace.”

The rest of the pod is devoted to the second part of the BBC’s documentary on Yiddish. Reporter Dennis Marks picks up the story in the 1960s, when Yiddish was staring extinction in the face, after many decades in which it language thrived among Jewish Eastern European immigrants, as in this World War Two-era poster).  But more recently in New York City, the language has began to  undergo a modest revival. A big contributor to that was Aaron Lansky who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, which rescused thousands of Yiddish volumes from depositories and dumpsters: as he puts it to take books “out of the dustbin of history and put them back into use.”

We also hear from YY Jacobson, a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of New York and editor of the Hasidic Yiddish newspaper Algemeiner.  His contribution to the survival of Yiddish is the most overtly religious. Others have cultural or ancestral reasons for investigating the language: people like klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, novelist Dara Horn, and a family who speak with each other in both English and Yiddish. The teens in the family text message each other in transliterated Yiddish, complete with texting shorthand:  ZG is zei gezunt (be well) and BSH is biz shpeter (until next time/goodbye).

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Words your grandmother taught you in Chinese, Dutch and Yiddish

Did Barack Obama learn a word or two from his grandmother? Well, maybe not — he didn’t grow up with the gran pictured here (it’s his Kenyan stepmother). But many people did learn their very  first foreign words from their grandmothers. The Big Show’s Marco Werman learned a Dutch curse. Nina Porzucki learned a Yiddish word that speaks to a existential Jewish mindset: dafka. Nina’s grandmother didn’t think she was conveying such a Big Idea. She was just describing the stubborn behavior of her granddaughter.

Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism.  Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong,  and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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podcast #41: speed-dating 37 languages, a woman’s voice during ovulation and a chant from Cameroon

Forget humans. Why not date a language? That’s what Keith Brooks is doing. He’s checking out 37 languages with a view to getting serious with one of them —  after he’s played the field a bit. Also, strange things happen to the pitch of women’s voices during ovulation according to this study, and this one, and this one.  Plus, we chow down sideways with a Yiddish word, and hear the tale of a chant from Cameroon that’s been popularized by Michael Jackson and Rihanna. Listen on iTunes or here.

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