by Bernard D. Cooperman, Director
Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies
Major Collection of Yiddish Works Transferred to University of Maryland Libraries
University Holds Conference and Musical Celebration
Yiddish still lives. It flourishes in small enclaves, mostly ultra-religious: in Brooklyn, New York and in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, Israel. But as a spoken language, Yiddish has largely disappeared. Once the dynamic language of millions upon millions of Jews in Eastern Europe, Yiddish fell victim to the forces of modernization and assimilation, and of course to the Nazis' guns and gassing and the ovens of Auschwitz.
But Yiddish was not merely a spoken language. It was also a vehicle of prolific and exciting literary creation for over a century. In thousands of volumes of poetry and prose, in hundreds of newspapers and magazines, in works of analysis and description, of science and history and art, Jews used Yiddish to capture their radically changing worlds. Torah was taught in Yiddish, and so was Marx. Hasidim and apikorshim (heretics) both fought with God in Yiddish. Politics was conducted in Yiddish. Educational systems were fashioned in Yiddish. Everything from the Bible to Kropotkin, from Peretz to the New Testament was fashioned and refashioned in the never-ending stream of literature that poured from Yiddish pens.
The legacy of Yiddish creativity has been well translated into English and other languages. Hollywood and Broadway have celebrated the works of Sholom Aleichem, Sholom Asch, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Great American writers, Irving Howe and Saul Bellow to name only two, have lent their hands to providing English audiences with access to at least a taste of Yiddish. And yet, the reservoir has barely been touched.
Thousands of volumes, from simple autobiographical journals to learned rabbinic tomes, from charming lyrical invocations of simpler times to bitter diatribes against God's indifference and man's injustice, all lie unopened and unread. Worse, they are often tossed away unthinkingly by people who can no longer read the square heavy letters of the Yiddish books their parents or grandparents had once treasured.
This is why the University of Maryland and the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at College Park, have committed themselves to preserving Yiddish literature and to developing a full-scale program devoted to Yiddish. It is crucial that this great cultural treasure not be lost. Each new generation of students must be given the opportunity to open a Yiddish book and discover emotions and ideas that echo as true today as they did when the streets of Warsaw and New York rang with mothers calling their Mordkhes and their Soroles home for eppes tzu essen.
On Sunday, November 3, the University will celebrate the transfer of the book collection of the late Yiddishist S. L. Shneiderman to its library. Shneiderman, who passed away on October 8, was a well-known figure in Yiddish literary and journalistic circles, and served as president of the Yiddish PEN club from 1975 to 1978. In addition to his journalistic work, Shneiderman published several books including a Yiddish study of Ilya Ehrenberg (1968) and a history of Polish Jewry which appeared in Yiddish and then in English as The River Remembers (1978). Shneiderman also authored the script for the historical documentary The Last Chapter (1966).
The books, almost half of them bearing the autographs of prominent Yiddish writers from Russia and France, Israel, Canada and the United States, will be housed in McKeldin Library, the university's main research facility. The collection ranges from fiction to journalism, from poetry to memoirs, from evocations of the shtetl (small town) to analyses of contemporary Israeli foreign policy. There are autographed volumes from famous poets like A. Sutzkever, and Yiddish historians and religious thinkers like Isaac Lewin (father of Nat Lewin, the prominent local lawyer). Especially strong in recent publications, the Shneiderman collection will add significantly to McKeldin Library's already extensive holdings in Yiddish and make it second only to the Library of Congress in this part of the country.
Housing a Yiddish collection in a university library adds significantly to its usefulness. At McKeldin Yiddish books proudly take their place alongside other Jewish literatures in Hebrew and all the major languages of western civilization and within the broad cultural history of mankind. Yiddish works gain enormously in depth and resonance by being placed in the broader contexts from which they originate. They remind us that Yiddish writers were not merely a curiosity, a few oldsters mumbling nostalgically. Yiddish literture was inspired by the same factors that motivate all great writing: the desire to wrestle with reality, and to open the readers eyes to the worlds around. But Yiddish books have their own special charm. Perhaps because of the tremendous dislocation of the Jewish world in our century, perhaps because of the Holocaust, each book is more than its contents. Each volume seems to beg to tell a story about itself, about its author, about worlds that are slipping through our fingers.
Here, for example, is a collection of poems by Moshe Waldman, Fun Ale Vayten (From Far-Away Places; Paris: 1980). Though the book bears a Tel-Aviv imprint, a glance at the title page shows that the book was really printed in Paris, in a part of the city better known for sex shops than for Yiddish presses.
Waldman was a member of an accomplished literary family: one uncle was a novelist and another was a well-known composer. His first book of poetry, Fartinkelte Frimorgens (Darkened Dawns) was published in Warsaw in 1938. As the literary critic, Dov Sadan, noted, the title expressed the fears of an entire generation of young writers who knew that the dawn of their careers held no promise of a new day's glimmer. After the Holocaust, Waldman worked for a while in war-destroyed Warsaw trying to rebuild Jewish culture there and provide a Yiddish education to the children who had survived the war. He even published a language textbook, Lomir Kinder Lernen (Children, Let's Study). Later, he and his wife, Menucha Ram, made their home in Paris, where they were at the center of the Yiddish literary world and where their home served as an informal literary salon.
Every page of Waldman's anthology is filled with lyric expressions of heart-wrenching loss and with bitterness directed at God and man. Here is his 1965 poem written for the yohrzeit (annual day of remembering) of his murdered parents.
Kaddish for my parents, a Yohrzeit candle
Kaddish you're supposed to recite in public,
Under lights burning for a minyan of Jews-
That's what the zeydes with beards used to do.
But I pray only dumbly. And alone.
I lift up my arms like menorahs
And recite all my prayers in silence
Within grey, empty/still walls.
What should someone do who can pray only in himself?
Where should such a person go, not to be a fool?
A person who delves deep into his own pain
And finds naked/ruined cemeteries
In a magnificent, disgusting world?
Ashamed, he calls to his almighty: "Lord-
The One in whom everyone wants to believe:?
For transforming all life into dust
For that pain, You deserve dumb praise."
Where should I recite kaddish? I am left so alone.
trans. Bernard Cooperman
In celebration of such gems the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies is delighted to host a conference on the importance of Yiddish in Jewish culture this Sunday, November 3. Scholars from major universities around the country will analyze the historical role of Yiddish, the representation of Jewish life in literature, the women's religious values expressed in Yiddish prayers and the function of Yiddish in modern Orthodox Jewish life. The conference will be held in Skinner Hall 0200 at 1:30.
In the evening the Center for Jewish Studies, in collaboration with Yiddish of Greater Washington, will also sponsor a concert by the well-known Jewish singer, Adrienne Cooper. Cooper is famous for her lyric treatments of the many styles of Yiddish music which flourished in Europe and America from the turn of the century to the war years. The concert will be given at the Jewish Student Center on Mowatt Lane, right next to the University of Maryland Campus.
All events are free and open to the public. For further information, call the Center at 301-405-4975.