October 24, 2002
My Yiddische Papa
Educator Yakob Basner will tell you that if you want to learn about a people, study their language.
"You cannot learn or know the history of the Jewish people without learning Yiddish," Basner said. "There are words you can not translate into English."
"Yiddish is our language; it's our culture," he continued. "Before the war, 12 million Jews spoke it. And the last words spoken by the Jews in the Holocaust before they were killed was in Yiddish."
Basner, a survivor of four concentration camps, has made it his lifelong mission to connect new generations of Jews to their past by teaching Yiddish language and literature. The Long Beach resident, who for 15 years has taught Yiddish at the Workmen's Circle in Los Angeles, which preserves and promotes Yiddish culture, will receive the organization's Yidishkayt Award during the Nov. 10 luncheon at the Fairmont-Miramar in Santa Monica that will celebrate the Southern California chapter's 95th anniversary.
Basner has been vital to the continuance of the Yiddish tradition in the local Yiddish-speaking community, from Los Angeles' Workmen's Circle to Beverly Hills High School Adult School, where he has taught Yiddish for the past decade.
Basner, who turns 75 in December, has been speaking the language -- an amalgam of German, Hebrew and European dialects -- "from the beginning. I soaked it in from my mother's milk."
The Yiddish expert has lived most of his life before and after WWII in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia. He lost his father, mother, brother and sister in the Shoah. His brother was executed on a death march just a day before liberation.
At 17, Basner was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. He returned to Riga, where he worked in the leather-cutting trade while studying linguistics. By 20, he had reconnected with and married Doba, a girl he had known since he was 7. They have been married for 54 years.
"She was hiding in Riga throughout the war," Basner said, "and I met her on the street.
After a decade of struggle to leave Latvia, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, the Basners and their two daughters finally reached California in 1980. The Basners have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Since 1987, Basner has taught Yiddish to thousands of students, including Eric Gordon, director of Workmen's Circle.
In the fall of 1995, Gordon took Basner's advanced Yiddish class. Two months later, Gordon became Basner's boss at the Workmen's Circle.
Gordon, a Yiddishkayt aficionado since his Yale days in the '60s, has spearheaded a variety of chapter projects. His contributions include a mural on the headquarters' Horner Street wall in the Pico-Robertson area, an art gallery, a monthly newsletter and programs co-sponsored with various organizations, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Democrats for Israel.
Gordon wants to continue to draw young people. A Jewish poetry slam is scheduled for late November, as is the formation of a Jewish artists group and a gay and lesbian group.
"Younger people are finding here what our older members have found in the past: a Jewish community and home," Gordon said.
Social action and justice are still top priorities at Workmen's Circle, which recently drafted anti-war resolutions.
"We stand for a national health-care system, labor rights, women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, a land for peace solution to the Middle East conflict," continued Gordon, explaining the platform of the Workmen's Circle's 50-plus North American affiliates. "It's tied to the social action that in the past was conducted by unions, the Bundt and other organizations. It's part of that whole tradition."
Tradition is the key word.
"The Circle," Basner said, "is an organization that has understood since the beginning of the 20th century to preserve the Yiddish culture, to help keep Jews connected."
Basner has mastered English, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew and German. But it is Yiddish that remains closest to his heart.
"It's a very rich, fun language," Basner said. "A lot of idioms, proverbs, expressions. You not only get to teach the language, you have the opportunity to teach all the sayings and expressions."
Although Yiddish is 1,000 years old, it still thrives with new works of literature released every year. Basner, whose Holocaust odyssey was chronicled in the English-language book, "The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back" (Brager, 1991), still obtains much hanoe (joy) from teaching Yiddish.
"I feel that Yiddish will stay alive," Basner said, "because it's very stubborn, like the Jewish people. It will survive."
The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring's annual awards banquet, emceed by "Freaks and Geeks" stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, will be held Nov. 10 at the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Tom Hayden and members Judy Silver and Frances Friedman will receive awards. Mit Gezang Yiddish Choir will perform. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.circle.org.