Conference to celebrate Yiddish language and a culture

[22 April 2007]

By David Crumm

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem

DETROIT—If you’re a maven about classic comic shtick that makes you laugh until you’re feeling a little verklempt, then you’re already part of the global effort that’s bringing some of the world’s top Yiddish scholars to the University of Michigan Sunday through Tuesday.

“But if people think that Yiddish is only a funny old language used by comedians, then they’re missing the much larger world of Yiddish culture that we’re trying to revive,” Anita Norich, director of the U-M’s Frankel Institute for Judaic Studies, said as she prepared for the three-day, public conference.

Yiddish, once the everyday language of millions of Jews around the world, has faded since the Holocaust, but it’s far from extinct as millions of “American Idol” fans learned this week.

Even though country music star Martina McBride has no discernable Jewish roots, she told the show’s audience that the contestants’ performances left her verklempt, or “overcome with emotion.”

Yiddish is a pillar of American popular culture, said Mark Ridley, who runs Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, Mich.

“I’m 56 and when I was a kid, a lot of comedians would toss in Yiddish words,” he said. “The beauty of it was that, even if you were watching it on TV in Walled Lake and didn’t have a clue what the words meant - hey, they just sounded funny.”

Ridley noted that a few more recent comics like Mike Meyers on ” Saturday Night Live” have used Yiddish.

“Meyers got the whole verklempt thing going,” Ridley said. “But I agree that Yiddish could fade from our lexicon. Young comedians in clubs right now don’t use it.”

Over the next three days in Ann Arbor, Yiddish will be celebrated in lectures, readings and panel discussions.

Saturday’s program in U-M’s Rackham Amphitheater will be readings celebrating such Yiddish greats as Sholem Aleichem, the Russian writer sometimes compared to Mark Twain whose short stories were turned into the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“There also were scholars, poets, musicians, artists and political activists who wrote and spoke in Yiddish,” Norich said. “This language carried with it a huge part of the world’s culture. That’s what we’re trying to keep alive.”

In 1925, world-class scholars like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud were among the cofounders of an effort to preserve Yiddish culture.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which they founded in what is now Lithuania, moved decades ago to New York. Its history is likely to be mentioned often during the conference. Most recently, YIVO was the center that uncovered long- lost letters from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, about his attempts to get his family out of Europe.

“There is an important scholarly and historical interest in all of this,” Norich said. “But it is also true that throughout history there have been tensions between high brow and low brow Yiddish culture.

“This was, after all, the language of the streets,” she said. “High brow critics had a word - `shund’ - which meant `trashy’ for popular culture like this.”

As she spoke, Norich pointed to the cover of sheet music for a 1908 vaudeville hit, “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy,” a novelty song about a Jewish cowboy called Tough Guy Levi.

Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, Mich., said that while Yiddish is important in understanding the experiences of Jewish immigrants, it’s even more important in preserving the best of Eastern European Jewish culture.

“One way we’ve seen a resurgence of Yiddish is in the growing popularity of klezmer music,” Syme said.

For centuries, this Jewish style of dance music that’s similar to early forms of American jazz was the quick-tempo sound that set toes tapping in Eastern European Jewish villages, called shtetls in Yiddish.

Monday night’s session at U-M’s Mendelssohn Theatre will be a lecture with musical selections examining the evolution of Yiddish culture since the Holocaust. The session is called “My Father’s Shtetl Has a Home Page Now.”

In Bloomfield Township, Beverly and Larry Sabbath are involved in the preservation of Yiddish books, mainly by collecting them from friends and used-book sales, then sending them to be archived at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.

“I’m now 72 and I grew up in Detroit, and there are still some Yiddish words that say so much about the culture in which I grew up,” Beverly Sabbath said. “It’s hard to explain what life was like in our community without some of these words, like `balabuste.’”

“Well, the word itself means `housewife,’ ” Norich said. “It’s Yiddish and comes from the Hebrew, ba’al ha’bayit, which means `master of the house.’”

But the word meant a whole lot more than that to Sabbath’s parents when they would proudly describe a woman among their acquaintances as “a real balabuste.”

“When they said that about a woman in our community, what my parents really meant was: She was a woman who was a very good homemaker, a good cook, cleaned well, was thrifty, cared for her children and taught them morals, and was good to her own parents, good to the community, volunteered for charity and did all the many other things that a model woman should have been doing at that time,” Sabbath said.

Norich smiled at Sabbath’s explanation, saying, “You see? There’s a whole lot of cultural meaning we’re trying to preserve in this language.”

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