Yiddish is my first language. My newly arrived refugee parents spoke no English, and my “arrival” three months after their landing in the “Goldene Medina” made Yiddish my “mamalashon” (mother tongue). When my parents didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, they spoke Polish.
I grew up in the epicenter of Yiddish culture — the Lower East Side, where there were half a dozen Yiddish newspapers covering the political spectrum — from the Morgen Freiheit — a communist paper; the legendary Forward, left-leaning; to Der Tag, a more conservative daily. My brother used to work in the print shop for Der Tag on Sundays, and the grime from his work took considerable effort to remove.
Years later I was a graduate student at CUNY and took a course at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research with Irving Howe, the noted expert on Yiddish and English literature. Howe was the subject of a PBS documentary by Joseph Dorman, Arguing the World, which highlighted the intellectual ferment at CCNY in the 1930s. His collegiate colleagues, debating the nature of the world in the North Campus cafeteria, included Nathan Glazer, the noted sociologist; economist Daniel Bell; and Irving Kristol, the founder of neo-conservatism.
At YIVO, Howe read from a draft manuscript of his history of the life and culture of Lower East Side Jews, which ultimately became the best-selling World of Our Fathers. Howe was brilliant, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly, including newly-minted PhDs. Howe was a leading influence on Democratic Socialism and was the co-founder of Dissent Magazine. His magnum opus delineated the daily struggles of immigrant Jews and their passion for consuming “high and low-brow” culture: primarily Yiddish stories in newspapers, the “Bintel Brief,” the advice column of the Forward and, of course, Yiddish theater.
During its hey-day, the Yiddish Theater mounted dozens of productions annually, from light comedies to Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare. But, alas, those days are gone. But it’s critically important to remember the glories of Yiddish, a unique amalgam of German, Hebrew, and other languages of various host countries accommodating and/or persecuting their Jews.
I was delighted to attend the major fundraiser for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, the oldest and only remaining Yiddish theater in the U.S. Its honorees were Sylvia and David Steiner, stalwart supporters of Israel and our MetroWest community. They are also patrons of the marvelous National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
Among the plaudits they received were acknowledgements by world-class architect Frank Gehry, whose first language was Yiddish, and Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.
Later that evening Thomas led the New York Philharmonic in a tribute to the Yiddish Theater and his grandparents, Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, the leading impresarios of Yiddish theater. It was a glorious evening of entertainment and nostalgia.
As an aside, earlier in his career, Thomas was the conductor of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. During a blizzard, my wife, Gail, and I attended its concert when we were graduate students in the “Queen City.” The orchestra outnumbered the audience and gave us a standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion. Michael Tilson Thomas is a real mensch.
Recently, a movie titled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness was released, directed by the aforementioned Joseph Dorman. My next blog will address this film.