But if you relax, you suddenly find yourselves in the midst of Yiddish [jargon here and in every subsequent case]. But once Yiddish has taken hold of you and moved you–and Yiddish is everything, the words, the Chasidic melody, and the essential character of this Eastern European Jewish actor himself–you will have forgotten your former reserve. Then you will come to feel the true unity of Yiddish, and so strongly that it will frighten you, yet it will no longer be fear of Yiddish but of yourselves.
With these words Franz Kafka attempted to prepare a bourgeois Jewish audience in 1912 for the experience of Yiddish theatre.
They would be frightened, he insisted, but of what? Perhaps a content married to its form, a Jewish play from the poor, mystically-inclined East, told not in a pure German, patriotic Czech or lofty Hebrew, but its native guttural jargon, Yiddish – the mishmash tongue of the Jewish masses. Think of the clothes, the dresses and gowns of that Prague audience, then imagine them confronted by a language that,
consists of old German, altered like an old coat, with the lining patched with Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian, and with the outside fabric adorned here and there with the ribbons of loshn-koydesh.
Even in 1884, when the Yiddish newspaper Polishe Yidl printed this description, it was considered by ‘respectable’ Jews a scandal to keep ‘the jargon’ of Yiddish alive. In Kafka’s time too. And in ours? Is not ours also a time when Jews are – if they are to avoid dreaded assimilation – given the uncompromisingly restricted choice between either Zionism or religious orthodoxy?
Yiddish is a way out of this dichotomy. ‘It moves you’, Kafka insisted. It has always been a language of movements: Chasidic, socialist, anarchist, even Zionist (most early activists and settlers would have spoken Yiddish). It is a culture and identity which is intensely both Jewish and other – expressed in a language that is truly diasporic. Today it has lost none of its vigour. To learn Yiddish is to be a ‘yiddishist’ – it can’t be learnt in a stand-offish way, not because it’s grammatically difficult (it’s a lot easier than German or French, in my opinion), but because it asks of you to engage with its passionate, emotional spirit, and ultimately with your own. And it asks you to become actively involved, to help build a movement, create exciting projects, engage others and expand.
Summer is the best time to try out or improve one’s Yiddish, with short, intensive courses running around the world. In London the Jewish Music Institute puts on two week-long Yiddish programmes, Ot Azoy! and The Golden Peacock. They are both stuffed not only with language classes, but with singing workshops, cinema screenings, guest lectures, performances and dinners. Ot Azoy! focuses a bit more on language than song, Golden Peacock more on song than language.
For those who don’t think they can sing – don’t worry, you won’t be alone! The sense of togetherness when you’re in a room filled with others singing these songs of subjugation and resistance, thumping tables, dei-dei-dei-ing niggunim, it really is an incredible experience – one that has actually jerked many a tear of mine!
JMI’s 2013 courses take place Sunday 11 August to Friday 16 August, in SOAS, London. All abilities and ages are catered for. Scholarships and student-discounts are available for those who qualify.
In the JMI podcast below, Yiddish singer and Golden Peacock teacher Shura Lipovsky gives a great intro to what lies in store at this year’s summer programme.
See you in the summer then, in the midst, as Kafka depicted it, of Yiddish!