Let's start with Yiddish, because that is something I have had a lifelong (92 and counting) involvement with and still think it is one of the most interesting languages to know something about.
My biggest regret is that those around me who spoke Yiddish, were involved with it and were interested in it are all long dead.
The following article appeared in the Saturday Age supplement "Spectrum" on 1 March 2019:
Yiddish concert embraces 'the lost language in all of us'
As the Jewish language awakens, a group of local musicians is putting poetry to song.
By Rachelle UnreichMarch 1, 2019 — 11.00am
You could say Yiddish is having its moment, which is odd for a language that originated among Ashkenazi Jews some time in the 11th century.
In Shtisel, an award-winning TV show about the ultra-religious Jewish community in Israel, characters speak a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish, which is largely old Germanic dialect. An all-Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof is currently playing off-Broadway, and later this year, Carnegie Hall will put on From Shtetl to Stage, celebrating old and new Yiddish culture.
From left, Evelyn Krape, Simon Starr and Galit Klas in the library at Kadimah Yiddish Theatre. Credit:CHRISTOPHER HOPKINS
Melbourne is no slacker in the Yiddish arena, boasting the largest number of Yiddish speakers in Australia. It's also home to Kadimah Yiddish Theatre, the team behind the production Play Me A Poem. At the National Theatre for one night, it will feature well-known musicians and composers such as Deborah Conway, Lior, Willy Zygier and Josh Abrahams creating original songs on stage to Yiddish poetry.
Kadimah's co-artistic director, Evelyn Krape, is on a mission to re-energise interest in Yiddish, which is sometimes referred to as a dying language, mainly because of its dwindling numbers: it was once spoken by more than 10 million Jews around the world but after the Holocaust, this fell to an estimated 1.5 million. Krape's aim is "to establish Yiddish as a thriving and dynamic cultural source," and she recalls being validated by non-Jewish actor Rob Menzies when their paths crossed at a play reading. "He said, 'Yiddish is the lost language in all of us'."
It's true that audiences around the world have been responding to Yiddish performances. A Yiddish-language production of Waiting for Godot opened up a Samuel Beckett festival in Ireland in 2014, and appeared in New York again recently. Composer Josh Abrahams (Addicted to Bass) performed Yiddish songs with the band Yid! at WOMADelaide last year. "The heat was incredible," he recalls, "yet thousands of people were giving the horah [an Israeli group dance] a red hot go. It was amazing."
In Play Me A Poem, musicians will put Yiddish poetry to unlikely tunes. Abrahams' song is reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, while reggae, jazz and Afro-Brazilian vibes will also be in the line-up. Simon Starr, musician and founder of the band Yid!, is expecting "an emotional response". He believes people who think of Yiddish as an old-fashioned language will be unprepared for how avant-garde some of the chosen poetry and lyrics are, despite some being written early last century.
"It is still pretty radical for today," Starr says. "Even if someone isn't connected to it ethnically, it's still deep and passionate and provocative. There are audacious commentaries on the Bible and current affairs, and also heartfelt, harrowing tales of suffering and longing and separation that mirror the migration patterns that were both a result of persecution and economic aspirations. It's a very rich source of material."
For this show there will be surtitles, so that audiences aren't merely listening to an orchestral piece but will have an understanding of the lyrics. "What's really fascinating is to see these amazingly modern responses to what are largely pre-Holocaust poems," says Krape, who co-directs. "We want to say to the audience: Listen – you'll hopefully be knocked off your feet. You might think this is old, but it's not old-fashioned."
Although many in the audience won't be familiar with Yiddish, others will have heard it spoken by an older generation at home. "I don't know what's going on in the ether," says Krape, "but it feels like people are searching for connections to community and heritage, in a way that is heymish [the Yiddish word for warm/ homey], but is [also] dynamic, innovative and contemporary." Krape's parents and grandparents spoke Yiddish, but she only came to it as an adult, and now attends classes in Brunswick.
In Melbourne, there's a thriving community of Yiddish learning: preschool and primary school Sholem Aleichem teaches Yiddish as a second language (and also as a VCE subject), while Monash University offers it at tertiary level.
Kadimah's artistic director, Galit Klas (who is also the show's initiator and co-director), was a Monash student, and was so inspired that she ultimately performed in and directed several Yiddish productions (singing in Yiddish Divas and writing The Ghetto Cabaret). "It really sparks something in their insides for the Jewish audience; it's like this lost missing piece," she says.
And it's also fulfilling for those who find modern music lacking. "Popular music has become horrendously manufactured," says Starr. "There's barely any trace of humanity in there, because instruments and voices have been so treated electronically. There's little human feeling left; it's music by algorithm.
"I think people still respond to well-played, live music that is played with the right intention. It's just people sharing real stories, and I can't imagine that ever going out of fashion. People will respond to that heartfelt live performance, and the next level is when the content has another layer or resonance for them."
That layer might not just come from being Jewish. Yiddish, it seems, has taken on a new life in modern times; TV viewers incorporate some of the vernacular from watching shows such as Girls or Seinfeld, as words like schmooze, shvitz and kvetch make their way into everyday language.
Starr says the thing he finds fascinating about Yiddish poetry is that "the themes are quite universal and humanist". In New York, he says, Yiddish "has become the hipster language of lesbians, because it's an outsider language and it's their little secret."
Non-Jews, such as US actor Shane Baker, have made a living out of mastering Yiddish. Although raised as an Episcopalian in Kansas City, Baker was hooked after seeing a Marx Brothers film, and is now a poster boy for Yiddish theatre.
Klas says Yiddish "doesn't feel dead to me at all".
"There's a challenge for all of us [in Play Me A Poem] in that we're working in a language that we don't know very well. But it also gives you an extra lens with which to see the world and to create art. I don't know if it's given me a huge insight into my Jewish identity, but it's made me more proud."
Play Me A Poem is at The National Theatre on March 3. nationaltheatre.org.au
The above article from Spectrum does not give the historical perspective on why Yiddish has diminished over the years.
There is only one main reason - the zionists who wanted to develop a "homeland" for Jews in Palestine wanted to remove themselves from the reminders of their origins in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world where Yiddish was the spoken language. The zionists who managed to steal the country from the Palestinians made a conscious decision to say that Hebrew was the biblical language of the Jews and therefore it needed to be the language of the "new" country being established in Palestine to be called Israel.
And so Hebrew was born as the language of the zionists who established this "new" country and Yiddish spoken there was frowned upon to the extent that it has gradually died out.
Yiddish remained a spoken language amongst Jews in the United States of America, particularly in the ghettos of New York and was also very much a language Jews spoke in Buenos Aires in Argentina. South African Jews were, in the main from Eastern Europe and their language was Yiddish.
The following is an extract from Pakn Treger, magazine of the Yiddish Book Center, and is written by Aaron Lansky for the Fall 2018 issue, part of issue number 77. Their address is:1021 West Street, Amherst, MA01002, USA
The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. He was a Yiddish writer.
This is what he said when he went to Stockholm to accept his prize:
"The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language," he said in Yiddish. And he concluded with words that can be read now as prophecy:
Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and cabalists - rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful humanity.
Yiddish has not yet said its last word. And neither, I suspect, has Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This next article is from the same Saturday Age Spectrum as the previous article on Yiddish - 1 March 2019:
Antisemitism review: Deborah Lipstadt offers a guide for the perplexed
By Geoffrey Brahm LeveyFebruary 21, 2019 — 3.06pm
Antisemitism: Here and Now
Every serious discussion of antisemitism includes this joke: an antisemite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary. Attributed to British political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin, the joke is wise as well as witty. Given the Jews' calamitous history, an ideological or pathological form of Jew-hatred can't simply be about not liking Jews or even treating them harshly. It must be a prejudice with no rational basis. Although often applied to any occurrence of hostility or discrimination against Jews, antisemitism originally entailed a conviction that the Jews are inherently evil. The word "anti-Semitism" was coined only in the late-19th century but has since been applied to Jew-hatred throughout history.
Vandalized tombs with tagged swastikas are pictured in the Jewish cemetery of Quatzenheim, in eastern France, on Tuesday, February 19, 2019.Credit:Jean-Francois Badias
Berlin's definition of an antisemite appears on page 14 of Deborah Lipstadt's new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now. A Holocaust historian at Emory University in Atlanta, Lipstadt attained prominence after David Irving sued her in a British court in 1996 for describing him as a "Holocaust denier". She and her publisher famously won that case, as portrayed in the 2016 film, Denial. The present book is not a history but a reckoning with antisemitism in its current guises and contortions. (Lipstadt rejects the old spelling of "anti-Semitism" as it wrongly implies that the opposition is to "Semitism" rather than to the Jews, as was always intended).
Alas, more than 70 years after the Nazis' quest to exterminate the Jews of Europe, cases still abound in which Jews are variously slain, vilified, excluded, or threatened because they are Jews. In October last year, for example, a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue claimed the lives of 11 congregants and wounded seven others. There have been murderous attacks on Jews also in France and Brussels in recent years. In Britain, graffiti with messages such "Adolf Hitler was right" and "death to all Jews" has appeared in its cities.
Antisemitism. By Deborah Lipstadt.
Closer to home, Jews have been targeted and intimidated on Sydney public transport and while walking in Bondi. Earlier this month, more than 20 swastika symbols were daubed overnight around the Bondi area. Security guards are standard at Jewish schools and synagogues in Western societies. As Lipstadt observes, if anything, the bigots are growing more confident.
The current situation is complicated by two factors. First, Western Jews (in general) now enjoy a privileged status. Highly educated, socioeconomically successful, and politically influential, they are perceived by some less fortunate and marginalised as part of the dominant white majority. Second, there are the vexed issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict and of controversial Israeli government policies. Much of Antisemitism: Here and Now is devoted to discussing cases thrown up by these twin associations.
The book is written as an exchange of letters between Lipstadt and a whip-smart Jewish student, Abigail, and a non-Jewish law colleague, Joe, at her university. The format allows these fictional interlocutors to variously voice their confusion, outrage, and internal conflicts about episodes of apparent antisemitism on campus and in the wider world. Lipstadt responds sagely as a kind of guide to the perplexed.
The discussion begins by distinguishing different types of antisemite. There is the extremist who is upfront about his or her thirst for the Jews' demise. There is the "dinner party antisemite" who wouldn't dream of physically harming Jews but wants to exclude them from their golf or country club. There is the "clueless antisemite" who remarks to her Jewish friend that she, of all people, should be able to spot a bargain. And then there are the "antisemitic enablers", who, while not antisemites themselves, encourage the antisemitism of others.
Here, Lipstadt points her finger at both President Donald Trump, on the right, and British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, on the left. Trump has cultivated not only nationalist but also nativist sentiment. He defended the white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the 2017 Charlottesville rally, for example, even after one of them drove a truck through the counter-protesters. During his presidential campaign he retweeted an image of Hilary Clinton alongside a Jewish star embossed with the accusation of monied corruption. One of his ads showed three prominent American Jews with commentary about "global special interests" that "control the levers of power in Washington".
Corbyn has a history of arch criticism of Israel but also of supporting blatant antisemites. Last year, video emerged of him speaking at a Palestinian Return Centre event in 2013 in which he suggested that "Zionists" do not understand English irony despite living in the country all their lives, a comment that has not helped him shake the accusation that he himself is an antisemite. Lipstadt marshals compelling cases against both politicians as "enablers", while noting that Corbyn's disposition appears to be sincere whereas Trump's appears to be cynically directed at energising his electoral base.
The book further explores such issues as the difference between antisemitism and racism, antisemitism within the Islamic world, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the "toxification of Israel", and the new hostility towards Jews within progressive movements and on campus. Lipstadt wisely cautions against an attitude of Jewish victimhood. She also criticises Jewish organisations that respond to the BDS by seeking to "boycott the boycotters" or which, like canarymission.org, seek to intimidate Pro-Palestinian professors and activists by compiling public dossiers on them.
Antisemitism is antisemitism regardless of the status of its targets. The Pittsburgh synagogue victims are no less murdered for having been visibly white and comfortably middle class. And the lazy equation of "wealthy and white" with domination overlooks the prominent involvement of Jews in progressive movements including the civil rights movement and feminism.
Less satisfactory is Lipstadt's treatment of the Israel factor. She is wrong to claim that questioning Israel's right to exist is axiomatically antisemitic. To demand only Israel's disestablishment among the family of nations, many of which are guilty of systematic abuses, is clearly discriminatory. However, one can hold that it was a mistake for a Jewish state to be established in Palestine without remotely being antisemitic. Even the founding father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, initially campaigned to place the Jewish homeland in East Africa.
Criticism of Israel as a Jewish state is dismissed too quickly. Lipstadt counters that other democracies have official state religions. True, but the issue is whether and how the state religion is used in the distribution of individuals' rights, opportunities and overall treatment. It should be of concern that national fronts in Europe and alt-right figures in the United States laud Israel as an ethno-democracy while peddling antisemitism at home.
The 2018 Global Anti-Semitism Report found that "70 per cent of anti-Jewish attacks were anti-Israel in nature". Israeli brutality towards the Palestinians provokes brutal and intemperate politics elsewhere in reaction. It is also the case that Israel-bashing attracts and provides cover for genuine antisemites. The attempt to call this out has been hampered by the legacy of Israeli politicians and Jewish leaders responding to any criticism of Israel with the charge of antisemitism.
Often, non-Jews who are concerned about the Palestinians' situation invoke traditional antisemitic tropes without realising it or intending to do so. A current example is the controversy that has ensnared US Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, who suggested in tweets that American support for Israel is "all about the Benjamins" (referring to Benjamin Franklin on the $100 note) and the Israel lobby bribing politicians. The tweets sparked an uproar, a rebuke from House Leader Nancy Pelosi, and ultimately Omar's contrite apology. But as Peter Beinhart noted in The Forward, those who are quick to condemn this clumsy verbal bigotry are deathly silent about the tangible bigotry that Palestinians in the West Bank face daily courtesy of Israeli law and policy.
Although most diasporic Jews do not hold Israeli citizenship, a central plank of Zionism is the unity of the Jewish people. Many Jews in and outside of Israel have protested "not in our name" regarding Israeli government policies. Many more believe that this has nothing to do with them, not unlike ordinary Muslims who believe they shouldn't have to answer for the actions of Islamic militants. And many support or defer to Israeli government actions.
The book closes with Lipstadt counselling Joe not to be afraid, as a non-Jew, to call Israel out when he believes it has crossed a line. Sage advice for Jews as well.
Geoffrey Brahm Levey is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New South Wales.