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).
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Some of the images out of Haiti these past weeks have been heartstopping. They’ve clearly had an effect on decision-makers at the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC is well-known for its radio and TV services in languages other than English. The latest addition is a radio program in Haitian Creole that ran for just a few weeks in the aftermath of the earthquake. The program, Koneksyon Ayiti/Connection Haiti, was broadcast out of Miami and heard in Haiti via FM relays and on short wave. At the time, many Haitian radio stations were off air, their infracture damaged, many of their staffs injured or dead. This was at a time when relaying information to the public was crucial: where to go for food, shelter, medical treatment, etc. Koneksyon Ayiti also put Haitians in touch with loved-ones. There’s a nice explanation here on how the program came into being.
Then the main course in this week’s podcast: the past, present and future of Yiddish, the language that refuses to die. This also comes courtesy of the BBC with a nice slide show here. Once spoken by millions in Europe, Yiddish was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust and through assimilation. That’s why until recently news stories about Yiddish tended to be about its inevitable decline, with the language spoken only by the elderly (pictured: Asya Yanovskaya, one of the last surviving Yiddish speakers of a small town in Belarus). Today Yiddish survives, and not only as the language that gave English klutz, kosher, kvetch and other evocative expressions. It is undergoing a revival in many parts of Eastern Europe and the United States. The BBC’s Dennis Marks’ documentary (part one of two) focuses on how Yiddish took hold in New York in the mid-twentieth century, and how Yiddish songs and plays influenced American culture. Some Yiddish expressions are so assimilated into English that non-Yiddish speakers wouldn’t even question the origin of the words. I mean, I know where putz and chutzpah come from, but nosh? tush? In next week’s pod, Marks will tell us how some young American Jews are are trying to keep Yiddish alive for their generation and beyond.
Listen in iTunes or here.