The Sholem Aleichem Center in Tel Aviv and the Yiddish language in Israel

06-bfcdd-120x120You are listening to Hromadske Radio and Iryna Slavinska is at the microphone. This is the program “Encounters” devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations in all its spheres from joint history, culture, and literature. The program “Encounters” was created with the support of the Canadian charitable fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Today I am speaking with Leonid Roitman, who is the secretary of the Sholem Aleichem Center that was opened in 1966 in Tel Aviv. He talks about the work of the Center and also about learning Yiddish in Israel. Roitman recalls how the study of Yiddish was discriminated against in Israel, and that today this language turned from the language of everyday communication and great literature into a language of scholars, university classrooms, and academic congresses. The discrimination ceased. As Roitman points out, “Is it possible to persecute a sick old man?” At the beginning of our conversation, I asked Roitman how the Center was established in Tel Aviv.

Leonid Roitman: As a matter of fact, it was only a trial. It is not really correct to call it a house-museum. A house-museum usually means that the writer lived there at some point…

Iryna Slavinska: That is why I am asking…

L.R.: This is totally correct. It is a well-known fact that Sholem Aleichem never came to Israel and Palestine. He died in 1916, and this house was opened in 1966. Sholem Aleichem’s son-in-law and the famous Hebrew writer Yitzhak Dov Berkowitz opened it. He was a known popularizer of Sholem Aleichem’s works, and he was the main translator of his works into Hebrew.

After the death of Sholem Aleichem, his personal archive was inaccessible in one of the banks in America. Berkowitz did not quite like that, and he wanted the archive to be located close to him, and he was an Israeli writer. The archive moved here. They appealed to donors and collected enough funds for the construction of this institution here. Since then, it has been an archive for Sholem Aleichem and Berkowitz, an archive of everything that was written about them, a library, an exhibition hall, and a publishing division.

Since 1998, when Hebrew University professor of Yiddish Avraham Novershtern became the director, another important aspect has become central now: the study of Yiddish, Yiddish culture, and everything that is connected to the heritage of Eastern European Jews.

I.S.: So let us talk more about that. Who are those people who want to learn Yiddish culture? Are they students? Are they adults who are searching for identities and are finding them?

L.R.: You know…first of all, I am sure this topic will appeal to Ukrainian listeners because the topic of national self-identity and language is very important for you as well.

The best thing to discourage a person and to frighten him is to ask: “Why do you need this?” Just imagine that a person comes and says, “I want to learn Yiddish.” Then someone asks him: “Oh, how interesting, but why do you need it?” We have made some observations. Usually these are people who long for their past, and for their grandparents who are not with them anymore, but these people still remember the sound of the language. They are also those who appreciate the tremendous cultural stratum of the language and the literature. The next category is the most common and most reliable, and these are people who are engaged with the history of Eastern European Jewry for professional purposes, and without knowing the language they cannot work with a large number of documents.

I.S.: I would like to ask you, if a person who knows only Hebrew can easily learn Yiddish?

L.R.: Here it would be also easy to work with the Ukrainian listener. Can you tell me if it is easy to learn Ukrainian for a person who knows Russian and vice versa?

I.S.: I think it is the same as with Polish or Belorussian…

L.R.: I think so. It looks like languages are hard to learn. Yiddish and Hebrew are languages from two language groups. Yiddish is from the Germanic family, and Hebrew is from the Semitic language group. There is a common alphabet and a common idea. I can only explain what the Simchat Torah holiday means to a Hebrew student. For instance, if I teach Yiddish somewhere in Urjupinsk—I am sorry, but this is just an example—I should start from the very beginning: “Jews have the Torah. A chapter from the Torah is read each week. When the annual circle is closed, the holiday of Simchat Torah is celebrated, when people dance with the Torah and wave flags.” How many minutes of the class did I lose?

I.S.: 2-3 minutes.

L.R.: Yes, but I did it quickly…you understand that there are no such problems with the Hebrew student. They know the letters already. And there is a miracle when they tell me, “Just leave it alone, this is the nationalism in you talking…” No. Hebrew students talk without any accent in Yiddish. Modern Hebrew has the same accent, the same “r” sound and singing intonations that probably come from Odessa. This is all the same.

But you should not over-simplify. Language…any study of a language is a very complicated process. This time I would like to recognize our teachers, of course.

I.S.: I just wanted to ask about that. I think to learn there should be a teacher who is a native speaker who knew Yiddish somehow, either from the grandparents or parents or learnt it at the university. How is this tradition built?

L.R.: I this case I would like to say that we have two categories of teachers: teachers with Yiddish as a native language and those who had a systematic education in this language. Of course, they are all not young and they all come from South America. South America—mainly Argentina and Mexico—were the last outposts of a systematic education in Yiddish. This was because of two factors. The first was the compact settlement of a large portion of the Jewish population. The second is that they were less integrated into society than in the United States due to national and religious persecution. On one hand, democracy in these countries was sufficient enough to enable the Jewish community to open schools freely and study in them. On the other hand, society was quite xenophobic and did not accept them. Therefore, the largest Zionist societies in South America and the last outposts of education were in Yiddish. That was one category. And I am proud to be a student of those people from these countries and natives of this educational system.

The second is young people who graduated from universities in Israel and the USA with a major in “Yiddish and Literature.” Of course, I am talking about people with excellent and not mediocre grades. I do not want to give you too much information, but this is really so, because otherwise they would not be able to teach here. Can you imagine the competition with the native-speaking teachers? I wanted to recognize our teachers because their qualification is so high that they can make their classes interesting and useful.

I.S.: I guess they also work as interpreters?

L.R.: Yes, young people do. The older ones devote their lives fully to teaching since they do not have any more energy left.

Young people usually translate into their native languages…help me God to remember the native languages of our teachers…Hebrew, German, Polish, Spanish, French, Hungarian.

I.S.: A good assortment…

L.R.: You see, we are open to half of the world, and we are ready to unveil the treasures that Yiddish has within it.

I.S.: If I understand it correctly, the Hebrew language is central in Israel and it was consciously developed after the state was created. Yiddish, if I am not mistaken, for a longer time was relegated into the background, and only recently it started to reemerge and people started to use it more, to learn it, and to translate from it. How does it work today? I mean, how do Yiddish and Hebrew interact and are there any issues on the state level or is there is any support?

L.R.: There are no issues anymore. There was no support, but persecutions on the state level. This all happened during the period of the formation of the state and the formation of the Hebrew language. The former director of the Center Abraham Lis kept repeating the same phrase: “Jewish history knows three miracles: the first is the foundation of the State of Israel; the second is the revival of the Hebrew language from scratch; the third is Yiddish literature.”

Today, of course, Yiddish is not persecuted. Honestly, how is it possible to persecute a sick old man? Yes, in certain historical periods, we, unfortunately, know such facts and examples, but today Yiddish just changed its form, its contour. Previously it was the everyday language of the family. Today it is the language of classrooms, libraries, and academic congresses. You should know that there are more than just two Jewish languages. Of course, the main language of all the Jews is Hebrew. There is also such a language as Ladino. This is the language of immigrants from Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. I always call it “Spanish Yiddish” because it has about the same percentage of Spanish, the same percentage of Hebrew, and foreign words. The situation with Ladino is much worse.

Yiddish has two advantages. The first is the literature. There is folk literature in Ladino. Yiddish literature maybe…well, there is no such a thing as competition when it comes to literature, but it meets the highest standards in quantity and quality. The second aspect is a little funny, and it is the existence of the ultra-Orthodox community, whose main language is still Yiddish. They do not want to speak Hebrew, because they believe that this is a holy language, and it is not proper to use it in everyday speech. The most interesting is that people for whom this language is native will never have a book by Sholem Aleichem in their hands. But there is a silver lining. Each time, well, with some frequency, there is a man out of this community who breaks with the ultra religious. It is his choice, for the sake of God, but he always comes to us, because a love for the mother tongue, you know, is indestructible. They come to us and, as a rule, they become the best researchers, writers, journalists, or have other professions that the experts of any language are engaged in.

I.S.: Is literature in Yiddish being written now?

L.R: It is being written. I am a bit skeptical here. We have now my friend here Mikhail Felzenbaum, who is known among the comparatively young authors in Yiddish, and the wonderful modernist poet Lev Berinsky who also lives in Israel. My fellow countryman Moisei Lemster also writes. But I think, and I want to stress that this is my personal opinion, and I am very skeptical, there can be no literature without an environment. I think it is impossible to write War and Peace in the Malaysian language. You can translate it, but not write it. I am skeptical about it.

There is more fruitful work in Yiddish journalism.

I.S.: Do you mean newspapers in Yiddish?

L.R.: Yes, they exist. It is a pity, but these newspapers are published in the USA. There is an Israeli version. The one newspaper in Israel was closed down a long time ago. I am fine with that because digital information has replaced the newspapers. As a rule this digital information is non-commercial and everybody can go to any site and read any article. Yiddish has a large field of activity here.

But here I am optimistic, and there are so many things written in Yiddish that it would take your entire life to read just one millionth of all of it. The lack of writers nowadays does not make me sad, but I wish there were more teachers, actors, and producers.

I.S.: And to sum up. You were saying that there is a publishing department in the Center. What do you publish?

L.R.: We still publish literature. The Center previously published some works of Sholem Aleichem that were not included in the complete collections of works. The same with the works of Berkowitz. The Sholem Aleichem Center now supports the publication of books on literature, history, art criticism, and the theater of Eastern European Jewry. A book does not necessarily have to be written in Yiddish. The main requirement for the Sholem Aleichem Center is a dedicated faith to the subject and a high level of quality.

I.S.: I also did not ask about the financing. How is it working out? Publishing books is quite expensive. And there are costs for teaching, what with salaries for instructors, and teaching materials...

L.R.: You probably are not aware that the study of Yiddish at the Sholem Aleichem Center is subsidized. I am not going to explain to you the exchange rate between the shekel and the dollar. Studying at Israeli prices...the tuition fees are purely symbolic. There is a fund, and the main contributor was a businessman with the name of Soloveychyk, and he donated enough money to this institution. We are a public organization. We have a board that is headed by the chairman of the board and the director. Our financial activities are completely transparent. Well, there is a fund, and we exist because of the interest earned by this fund, but we are open to any donations.

I.S.: Yes, who would not be open…

L.R.: Well, and I want, of course, to send my best regards to all the countrymen of our beloved, and I hope your beloved, writer Sholem Aleichem.

I.S.: That was Leonid Roitman, the secretary of the Sholom Aleichem Center, which was founded in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1966. This has been the program “Encounters,” a project at Hromadske Radio produced with the help of the Canadian charitable fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You have been listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger