Monthly Archives: August 2012

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It doesn’t matter that the sites on the maps, written in German, are just a bit out of date.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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Turbanology Unwraps Sikh Culture

Gurinder Singh Mandla (photo: Patrick Cox)

Ever since six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were killed by a lone gunman, Americans have been asking questions about the Sikh faith.

They’re pretty basic questions. Most non-Sikhs know virtually nothing about Sikhism.

Who are the Sikhs? What are their beliefs?

What is the significance of the Sikh turban? In the language of clothing, what is the turban saying?

Some answers come from Britain, where Sikhs are more established than in the United States.

Turbanology: Sikhs Unwrapped is a touring exhibit, a documentary film and website. This video is a sort of introduction.
After you’ve watched that you can follow, if not exactly master, how a Sikh male binds his hair and wraps it in a turban. But that doesn’t explain why the turban is such a potent symbol of Sikh culture.

“We are ordered to wear a turban to show respect to God,” says Gurinder Singh Mandla, a lawyer who practises in Birmingham, home to thousands of British Sikhs. “As we feel that God is omnipresent, we must always have our head covered as a sign of respect and deference.”

Even at night?

“Once I go to bed I will tie a smaller turban because it’s still supposed to be covered, and I think the only time my head is not covered is when I’m having a bath or a shower.”

Sikh men, and a few women, have been wearing turbans for centuries. In South Asia, the turban is often a symbol of royalty. So a Sikh will speak of his turban as his crown. He is a prince on Earth—a soldier too, who is commanded to fight injustice.

But when Sikhs began establishing themselves in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, wearing a turban was socially unacceptable.

“There were sacrifices made because there were no jobs available to those who looked so distinctly different,” says Mandla. “Many Sikhs unfortunately disregarded the requirement to wear a turban and cut their hair so that they could gain employment.”

Today, Mandla is a lawyer, with an office across the street from a large Sikh temple. He’s well known in the community, but mainly for something that happened decades ago.

In 1977, Gurinder Singh Mandla was 12 years old. He had passed an entrance exam for a private school in Birmingham. His father, Sewa Singh Mandla, was concerned that other boys at the school would tease Gurinder for wearing a turban. So he went to meet with the headmaster.

“[The headmaster] said: ‘Well, you know the rules of my school is that every child here has got to wear a cap,’” said the older Mandla.

The boy would also have to keep his hair short. Mandla replied that it would be against his son’s faith to cut his hair and not wear a turban. He reminded the headmaster that wearing a turban was accepted in the British military.

But it didn’t help. The boy was denied a place at the school.

The Mandla family sued. Under British law, they had to prove that Sikhs were a distinct ethnic group.

“To show that you’re an ethnic group, you had to show that you have an identity,” said the older Mandla. “You have your own language. I had witnesses say that we had our own script, the Punjabi script.”

The Mandlas lost the case in lower court, and then again on appeal. But as the case continued working its way through the legal system, it was energizing Britain’s Sikhs. The refusal of one school to admit a boy wearing a turban was snowballing into something that became known as the turban rights movement.

Finally, in the House of Lords, the Mandlas prevailed.

Jay Singh-Sohal, director of the Turbanology project, was born in 1983, the year that the turban rights case was settled. He says the legal victory “allowed Sikhs to grow up without any kind of fear or pressure on them to conform by cutting their hair or try to fit in.”

The days when Sikhs in Britain felt discriminated against may be over. But many are still choosing not to wear a turban—not just in Britain, but in India too. The usual reason given is that turbans are “old-fashioned”.

For Sikhs in the United States, the situation is different, says Singh-Sohal. Sikhs have been the target of violence not just recently in Wisconsin but ever since 9/11.

“There have been people killed because of their turbans,” says Singh-Sohal. “Sikhs who’ve been perceived to be Muslims— people who don’t necessarily understand what the turban represents and they’ve attacked these Sikhs and more often than not they’ve been elderly Sikhs as well.”

It’s this confusion over what the turban represents that made Singh-Sohal realize that there was need for Turbanology.

And he decided the best way to start unpacking the meaning of the turban, was with the thing itself: a piece of cloth that can be up to 26 feet long.

There is “no right or wrong way” of tying a turban according to Singh-Sohal. “A turban’s a very personal thing for a Sikh, and you might develop your own style through months and months of practise or, as I have, through years of wearing one to school and finding out what suits best for you.”

Which can mean different colors – Sikhs use a multitude of colors: orange, indigo, burgundy. And the turbans can be pleated, knotted and tied all kinds of ways.

Schoolboy-turned-lawyer Gurinder Singh Mandla prefers a multiple-pleated style. “I would like to think is a smarter version, compared to someone from India who may have a much larger turban,” he says. “Going back to the 50s and 60s. you could identify a Sikh from which part of the world he came.”

You have the East African style, Indian Army style, and many more.

Mandla says none of those should be confused with the turbans worn by some Muslims.

“The Islamic style is totally different,” says Mandla. “Usually, the top part of their head is not covered and they have a long trail hanging on the back. But there are variations and differences.”There’s undoubtedly something of a cultural battle taking place for hearts—and heads, and hair—of the next generation of Sikh men.

Will turban-wearing continue to decline in some places?

Or will ideas like Turbanology help make connections for younger Sikhs, so that the act of wearing a turban remains the most visible expression of the Sikh faith?

The Sikh men behind Turbanology and musicians like Tiger Style—two brothers from Glasgow who combine Bhangra music and hip hop—view the turban as anything but old-fashioned.

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Invented Languages from Hollywood to Bollywood

[Note from Patrick Cox: Hollywood and Bollywood compete (sort of) in language invention in this week’s podcast. Below is Saul Gonzalez’s post on an HBO-commissioned language]

Dothraki is a language spoken by fierce, fictional warriors in a far-off land. The language was invented closer to home by David J. Peterson, whose is neither fierce nor fictional. He lives in a studio apartment in Southern California.

Peterson is a U.C. Berkeley-trained linguist, He created Dothraki for HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones. He works in the rarefied field of constructed languages. He and most people like him don’t just study languages. They make up new ones from scratch.

Peterson has invented a dozen languages, with names like Kamakawi and Njaama. He was creating his languages in relative obscurity when he heard that Hollywood had a gig for someone with this talents. HBO was looking for a someone to develop the language of Dothraki for Game of Thrones, adapted from the popular book series.

Peterson got the job. Starting with the books, which had a handful of Dothraki phrases, he went to work on a 300-page grammar and dictionary for the language.

The Dothraki portrayed in the books are “a natural, horse-riding, semi-barbarous people,” says Peterson. “They are nomadic…They hunt and they raid.”

Peterson says the TV series producers were looking for a language that embodied that aesthetic—something that would sound gruff but authentic.

People have been making up languages for centuries, often for philosophical or religious reasons. Probably the best known is Esperanto. It was invented in the 19th century with the idea that if everyone on the planet spoke the same language, they would all get along.

Later, Hollywood got into the created language act. Perhaps the most famous example is the invention of Klingon for the Star Trek movies. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a small but dedicated group of speakers who have added hundreds of words and phrases to its vocabulary.

Na’vi is a more sophisticated language, with a wealth of grammatical rules. It was created for the movie Avatar by Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California. But because Dothraki was invented for a television series that could run for many seasons, it may end up having the widest vocabulary of any Hollywood language so far.

Peterson gave me a survival lesson in Dothraki. “If you want to greet some respectfully, you say Mathchumararoon.”

And then there are insults. Everyone, including TV producers, wants to know how say them. In Dothraki, the word ifak means a ‘walker’. “The Dothraki are a horse riding people,” says Peterson. “They respect people who ride horses. So, if someone is a walker they are not worthy of attention.”

Peterson concedes that there is a “rather vocal” minority of language inventors who believe there should be no created languages in movies and TV. They see language creation as a “private activity, something special to them. And the more people who know about it they less special it is.” But Peterson says most language inventors support his work for Hollywood.

And he’s doing more. His next project is to create two languages for a upcoming TV series for Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel).

Patrick Cox adds:

Bollywood’s contribution to language invention may be more modest. We don’t know too much yet about the language christened Gaalaguzi that is reportedly spoken in the upcoming movie Joker. Although invented for a movie in which aliens feature, it’s humans who speak it. These humans live in a remote, unmapped village. With India’s hundreds of minority languages, many of them spoken in remote villages, why invent a new one? Perhaps for legal reasons—or so that no-one can accuse the actors of mangling a beloved local tongue.

Related previous podcast episodes:

Interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

The past, present and future of Esperanto.

A screening of Avatar in the Amazon to speakers of real endangered languages.

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Africa’s Translation Gap

A new Translators Without Borders report says most African nations are in dire need of translation services. Report co-author Nataly Kelly talks about how that might happen, and how translation can save lives and foster democratic values.

For Hillary Clinton’s latest trip to Africa, she probably didn’t need to take along many translators or interpreters. Maybe just a French speaker. Of the nine countries on her itinerary, seven are considered Anglophone and two Francophone.

That, of course, does not tell the whole story—far from it. In one of those Anglophone countries, Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken.

It’s mainly the elite who speak these colonial languages. In Uganda, it’s English, in Senegal, French, in Mozambique, Portuguese. But most people—especially outside the big cities—don’t understand those languages.

That’s a huge problem for aid agencies trying to get the word out about disease prevention. The brochures, leaflets and posters they distribute tend to be written in those colonial languages.

Lori Thicke, who runs Translators Without Borders, told me that she’s visited villages in Africa where you can find a plentiful supply of brochures about AIDS prevention. Many contain technical and sensitive information: how to practise safe sex, how to use a condom. But because the brochures are in written in European languages, it’s often the case that that the not a single villager understands them.

Nataly Kelly

I also talked with Nataly Kelly of translation industry research group Common Sense Advisory. She co-authored a report for Translators Without Borders on the state of the translation industry in Africa. You can hear our conversation in the podcast. The bottom line is that, aside from South Africa, no sub-Saharan African nation has much of a translation industry.

There are signs of change. Some African nations are starting to promote their indigenous languages. There’s a debate in Ghana about replacing English as the official language, or augmenting it, with one or more of the more prominent local languages.

The problem is, none of those local languages is spoken across Ghana. They’re regional, and so adopting one of those as the official language would give the impression of favoring a single linguistic and ethnic group.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages That’s helped with the status of some of the less widely spoken ones, like Ndebele and Venda. It means that some official documents must be published in those languages. That raises their status and has spawned a translation industry—something that barely exists around minority languages elsewhere in Africa.

Many Africans speak two or more languages. In Cameroon, it’s not uncommon to find people who speak four or five languages. That’s led some outsiders to assume that Africa doesn’t have a translation deficit. But it does. Speaking a second language doesn’t automatically make you a translator.

You need training to be able to translate. You also need tools: dictionaries and glossaries of technical terms. And you need to be online to access them.

Translators Without Borders has started a training program for translators in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. They’ve begun with Swahili. It’s the closest Africa has to its own link language, spoken now by an estimated 40 million people.

There’s also a Translators Without Borders project that connects volunteer translators with Wikipedia and local mobile phone operators. The idea is to translate Wikipedia articles on AIDS, malaria and the like into local languages, and then make them accessible on people’s phones.

But it’s slow-going: Translators Without Borders has only a handful of volunteers who know those African languages.


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