Modernism and the Yiddish Imagination: A Conversation with Gennady Estraikh

Gennady Estraikh

Gennady Estraikh

YIVO’s Director of Education, Jennifer Young, sat down with Gennady Estraikh, YIVO’s inaugural Albert B. Ratner Visiting Scholar in East European Jewish Literature, to ask him about the evening class he will be teaching at YIVO, “Modernism and the Yiddish Imagination.” The class will meet for six sessions on Tuesday evenings, 6:30-8:30, beginning October 28th. Click here for more information, and to register.

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Di gantse velt af a firmeblank: The World of Jewish Letterheads

There has been little attention paid to the history of letterhead, the pre-printed stationery used almost everywhere by companies, institutions, organizations, and individuals for correspondence. According to “The History of Letterhead,” the first use of the term in English was in 1890, as a new commercial term for printed letter paper. Despite the fact that letterhead has been around for over a hundred years, little has been written about it. And its use is on the wane, as correspondence increasingly becomes electronic and no longer involves actual paper.

But before the letterhead sunsets forever into history, it’s worth another look, particularly examples from its heyday, the late 19th and early 20th century, when graphic design of letterhead was particularly expressive and ornate. Before the Internet, before even use of the telephone was widespread, correspondence was the primary form of communication in both commercial and personal life.

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Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater (1965)

WEVD LogoIn this episode, originally broadcast on March 14, 1965, host Sheftl Zak sits down with Wolf Mercur, who helped YIVO acquire the papers of famed Yiddish actor, Maurice Schwartz (1890 – 1960). The collection includes 150 scripts by Sholem Asch, Abraham Goldfaden, Jacob Gordin, Peretz Hirshbein, Y.L. Peretz, I.J. Singer, and other well-known Yiddish writers. There are also plays in other European languages by, for example, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, and Eugene O’Neill. In addition, the collection includes reviews of shows, and programs and playbills of the Yiddish Art Theater, of which Maurice Schwartz was the founder and director; photographs; and articles both by and about Schwartz.

From 1963-1976, YIVO had its own program on WEVD, the radio station established by the Socialist Party of America in 1927 (its call letters stand for the initials of American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs), which was purchased by the Jewish Daily Forward in 1932 and became a major venue from Yiddish programming.

YIVO used its spot on WEVD for Yiddish-language interviews and discussions with leading New York Yiddish cultural figures, as well as for reporting on its own scholarly and cultural work.

A new podcast of this program in the order in which it was originally broadcast will be posted here every two weeks.

Presentation of series curated by Matt Temkin, YIVO Sound Archives.

Listen to the program [in Yiddish].

Down with the “Revival”: Yiddish is a Living Language

by JENNIFER YOUNG

Let’s get one thing straight: Yiddish is not a dying language. While UNESCO officially classifies Yiddish as an “endangered” language in Europe, its status in New York is hardly in doubt. According to some estimates, Yiddish is the fifth most commonly spoken language in Brooklyn, behind English, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park alone, the number of Hasidic Jews, for whom Yiddish is the primary language, is well over 150,000. While census data on Yiddish is notoriously skewed (census numbers do not include speakers under 5 years of age, a major Hasidic demographic), the numbers indicate that Yiddish is here to stay: even UNESCO recently held a conference entitled, “The Permanence of Yiddish.”

News stories announcing the death, and/or rebirth, of Yiddish, abound in mainstream media today. The phrase “Yiddish revival” gets you 15,000 Google results, mostly recent articles from the Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, and Reuters, to name just a few from the top 10 hits. As one blogger has pointed out, Yiddish is “journalistic evergreen,” providing countless opportunities to recycle ideas about its demise, or (dramatic twist!) its rebirth. This week’s Atlantic article continues this trend: while posing the problem of Yiddish’s imminent demise, the article ends up underscoring the presence of important Yiddish cultural institutions, from YIVO’s own Yiddish-intensive summer program, to the Forverts, the Congress for Jewish Culture, the New Yiddish Repertory Theater, and Yugntruf.

If you are interested in Yiddish, you have probably received articles of this kind of from well-meaning relatives. Besides the death/revival duality, another motif common in this kind of reportage is the Hasidic/secular divide: this motif implies that, while Yiddish may have numbers on its side, Yiddish culture is still declining, because Hasidim don’t contribute to a modern, secular Yiddish culture. Along with the problematic assumption that Hasidim have nothing to contribute to the continuing vibrancy of modern Yiddish culture, one problem with these tropes is that they obscure a much more interesting cultural phenomenon: the way that Yiddish serves as a conduit for creating an overlapping space between the margins of both the secular and religious communities, allowing for a creative dynamism between the two.

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Golde and Her Daughters: Soviet Jewish Women Under Stalin

"A woman’s path extends from the stove to the door. / Here in the USSR without God, the woman’s path leads everywhere." Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the workplace), 1927.

“A woman’s path extends from the stove to the door. / Here in the USSR without God, the woman’s path leads everywhere.” Bezbozhnik u stanka (The Godless at the workplace), 1927.

On June 16, 2013, Elissa Bemporad spoke at YIVO about her book, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press), a case study of the Sovietization of Jews in the former Pale of Settlement.

On Monday, September 15, at 6:30pm, Bemporad will speak again at YIVO, this time about one fascinating aspect of her research: the experiences of Jewish women under Stalin, their encounters with the Sovietization process, and the cultural wars surrounding Stalin’s attempt to eradicate religious culture and create a “New Soviet Jewish Woman.”

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Assistant Professor in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College, City University of New York. Her book Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press) was awarded the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, and the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for an outstanding work of 20th century history. She is currently working on a social history of the blood libel accusation in the Soviet Union and Poland.

Read an interview with Elissa Bemporad.

Attend the program. (Note: This program will be in Yiddish.)

Max Weinreich in Copenhagen: Follow-up

by ROBERTA NEWMAN

On August 29, we posted an article about how YIVO founder Max Weinreich and his son were stranded in Copenhagen in the early days of World War II. In it, the author, Bent Blüdnikow, wrote also about the small community of Yiddish-speaking Jews who took the Weinreichs in and about how these Jews, including Blüdnikow’s grandfather, Abraham Krakowsky, stayed in touch with YIVO over the years.

After the war, when the Danish Jews returned from Sweden, where they had been evacuated by the Danish underground and thus saved from death at the hands of the Nazis, Krakowsky and others began sending documents chronicling the social, cultural, and religious revival of the community to YIVO. They were zamlers (collectors), members of the worldwide network of volunteers who helped build the collections of the YIVO Archives and Library both before and after World War II.

Here are a few examples of what they sent to YIVO in the late 1940s and 50s, and which can now be found in RG 116 Territorial Collections – Denmark.

Digitization of images by Vital Zajka, YIVO Archives.

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Newly Published Books Based on Research at YIVO

Every month, the YIVO Library receives complimentary copies of books whose content has been drawn in part from research done by the authors in the YIVO Archives and Library. Below is a partial list of books published in 2011-2014.

  • Brin Ingber, Judith.  Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.
  • Dauber, Jeremy. The worlds of Sholem Aleichem: the remarkable life and afterlife of the man who created Tevye.  New York: Nextbook; Schocken, 2013.
  • Goda, Norman J. The Holocaust: Europe, the World, and the Jews: 1918-1945. Boston: Pearson, c2013.
  • Meller, Shimon.  Raban shel kol bene ha-golah: toldot Rabenu Hayim Halevi mi-Brisk. Helek 1. Jerusalem, 2014.
  • Ofer, Dalia, ed. Holocaust survivors:  resettlement, memories, identities. New York; Oxford: Berdhahn Books, 2012.
  • Ury, Scott. Barricades and banners: the revolution of 1905 and the transformation of Warsaw  Jewry.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Leyenzal: Interview with Isaac Bleaman

leyenzal

In 2013, Isaac Bleaman launched Leyenzal (Reading Room), a website that commissions original biweekly Yiddish-language video lectures about Yiddish literature, which can be downloaded for free along with the texts being discussed.

Bleaman is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Linguistics at New York University, with interests in sociolinguistic variation, language contact, and language shift. He earned an MSt in Yiddish Studies at Oxford, and a BA in Linguistics and Comparative Literature at Stanford. Earlier this year, he was profiled in “36 Under 36: Three Dozen Millenials And Gen-Xers Reinventing The Jewish Community” in The Jewish Week.

He is interviewed here by Yedies Editor Roberta Newman.

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Abraham Sutzkever: The Power in Poetry

A dark violet plum,
the last one on the tree,
thin-skinned and delicate as the pupil of an eye,
that in the dew at night blots out
love, visions, shivering,
and then at the morning star the dew
grows weightless: That
is poetry. Touch it so lightly
that you don’t leave a fingerprint.

“Poetry” 1954, by Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by Chana Bloch

For Samson’s riddle—Out of the strong came something sweet—the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever substituted a riddle of his own: the power that emerges from rhyme and the permanence from what appears to be transitory. Sutzkever came of age in Vilna in the 1920s and 30s when Yiddish poetry was the favored creative outlet of its Jewish youth. For him, poetry—but only if good enough—was more than self-expression, more than beauty and truth: it was the endurance that is manifest in nature and in the Jewish people. On Wednesday, September 10 at 7:00pm, acclaimed literary scholar Ruth Wisse puts Sutzkever’s poetry to his own test. Professor David Roskies (Jewish Theological Seminary) delivers introductory remarks.

 

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Today News, Tomorrow History (1965)

YIVO MicIn this episode, originally heard on March 7, 1965, YIVO historian and archivist Zosa Szajkowski talks about the importance of collecting news of current events: “How what is news today is tomorrow’s history.” Two of the many YIVO archival collections with newspaper clippings and first-hand accounts that he mentions are The Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (RG 80), which contains documentation on events in Ukraine, including pogroms, in 1918-1920, and Territorial Collection-France (RG 116), which contains scrapbooks related to the Dreyfus Affair.

From 1963-1976, YIVO had its own program on WEVD, the radio station established by the Socialist Party of America in 1927 (its call letters stand for the initials of American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs), which was purchased by the Jewish Daily Forward in 1932 and became a major venue from Yiddish programming.

YIVO used its spot on WEVD for Yiddish-language interviews and discussions with leading New York Yiddish cultural figures, as well as for reporting on its own scholarly and cultural work.

A new podcast of this program in the order in which it was originally broadcast will be posted here every two weeks.

Presentation of series curated by Matt Temkin, YIVO Sound Archives.

Listen to the program [in Yiddish].