July 6, 2006
Let There Be Yiddish
"Gut Shabbes." Synagogue vice president Donna Groman stands at the door, warmly greeting each guest. Inside, a samovar sits on a white-clothed table alongside temptingly arranged platters of homemade kugel and apple cake for the oneg.
Tonight is a Yiddish service, Zol Zahn Shabbes -- literally, we should have Shabbat -- and it's happening at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), founded in 1972 as the world's first synagogue for lesbian and gay Jews.
It's a meeting of two seemingly incongruous worlds -- an almost extinct 1,000-year-old Eastern European language and culture and a progressive and now well-established congregation of 180 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual families. And the Pico Boulevard synagogue is expecting a big crowd.
The sanctuary begins to fill. The congregants, young and old, male and female, are respectfully but comfortably attired. Many hug or kiss as they claim their chairs. All have varying allegiances to Yiddish.
Member Rebecca Weinreich, with daughters Shoshanah, 8, and Ashira, 4, is a celebrity this evening. Her grandfather, scholar Max Weinreich, founded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna, Poland, in 1925. Escaping from the Nazis in 1940, he re-established it in Manhattan.
"Do you speak Yiddish?" I ask Weinreich.
"Not in public. The expectations because of my name are too high," she says.
"Shalom Aleycheim." The lights dim as cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin welcomes everyone.
I peruse the 17-page booklet, which includes the evening's program, a history of the Yiddish language and links to Yiddish resources. Even a nar (fool) could realize that this evening's agenda is not just a kitschy visit to the alte velt (Old World).
Immediately the chorus begins singing, "O, Vee Gut un Vee Voyl Iz," a Yiddish version of "Hiney Ma Tov." They segue seamlessly into "Meer Viln Ale Nor Sholem," which is "Heveynu Shalom Aleycheim." People are clapping and singing along.
More people enter, and I count more than 100 guests.
After a break to greet one another, Chalin says, "Yiddish is the language that childproofed what parents said."
Chalin herself studied German and, in her early 20s, sang in a Yiddish adult choir in Philadelphia. There, singing songs about the early labor movement, she felt electric, establishing a deep bond with the language. Later, after graduate school, she enrolled in a two-month Yiddish immersion class at Columbia University in New York.
"Many of us have this romantic relationship with Yiddish. It speaks to us about a time gone by," she says. But she cautions that we can't have a relationship if we relegate it to little pockets or little sayings.
The songs that Chalin has chosen for the choir quickly dispel any sense of romanticism. "Un Du Akerst, Un Du Zeyst" ("And You Plow and You Sow"), written in 1864 for the German Workingman's Federation, taunts workers for how little they have to show for all their hard work. Others were written during the Shoah, giving comfort to the Jews in the same ways the Negro spirituals sustained the slaves.
Chalin introduces Lilke Majzner, Yiddishist and president of Los Angeles' Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926. A native of Lodz, Poland, and a survivor of seven concentration camps, Majzner came to the United States in 1950 at age 17.
"I came without any script," she says in a booming, confident voice. "I came to talk to you in English about Yiddish. That's silly. That's very silly."
People laugh. But it's clear that this diminutive figure, 84, professionally dressed in a beige suit and sensible shoes, isn't here to entertain us.
She proves that further by reading a poem by Yiddish writer Malka Tussman. It begins, "You have a Jewish mouth, so speak Yiddish." It ends, "Let there be Yiddish. That's how I talk."
How Majzner talks is even more emphatic: "I am shouting into your Jewish ears. Let there be Yiddish."
And shouting she is. She educates us about the 1,000-year history of Yiddish -- a history not just of words, of grammar and of curses but also of political parties, of freedom and of going on strike for Jewish and human rights.
And she exhorts us -- passionately and convincingly -- to take up the banner of her legacy, to learn Yiddish to make up for the 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews who were murdered in the Shoah and to build a better world.
"And when you don't feel the heaviness of the legacy, I will put some rocks in it," she says.
She receives a standing ovation.
After services, a crowd gathers around Majzner, some speaking Yiddish.
I talk to Davi Cheng, a Chinese American Jew-by-choice. She grimaces as she describes the frustration of mastering the guttural sounds of Yiddish.
"There's no 'ch' sound in Chinese," she explains.
I also sit briefly with Chalin who tells me how, in her experience, she finds a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians studying Yiddish.
"In my classes at Columbia, we talked about how Yiddish doesn't have a country and how often the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community feels like a people without a country," she says.
Chalin thinks many of those who desire to speak Yiddish fluently, like gays and lesbians, long for the notion of a secure community.
At evening's end, as people leave, I notice the samovar is empty and the apple cake and kugel gone.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.