Jewish Journal


November 30, 2000

Yiddish in Immersion L.A.

Can one woman and the world's third largest Jewish community raise a language from the ashes ?


Miriam Koral  and Dr. David Katz, founder of Oxford & Vilnius Yiddish Programs in Vilnius, 1998.

Miriam Koral and Dr. David Katz, founder of Oxford & Vilnius Yiddish Programs in Vilnius, 1998.

As a little girl, Miriam Koral was fluent in Yiddish, both its language and culture. The child of survivors of the Holocaust and Stalinist gulags, Yiddish was the language her parents spoke to her.

Throughout her youth, Koral would spend hours in a Yiddish library, housed on the fifth floor of the Atran Culture House in Manhattan, conversing in mameloshen with noted Yiddish archivist Hillel Kempinski. By late 1993 when both her parents and Kempinski had passed away, Koral's link to the language and culture was seemingly disappearing.

"There was no one to speak Yiddish to anymore," says Koral. "It was so precious that I didn't want to lose it."

So Koral set out to find others who shared her passion for Yiddish. She enrolled in Yiddish immersion programs at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies in England.

After her second summer in Oxford in 1997, Koral considered creating a similar program in Los Angeles where people could come and study Yiddish language and culture.

The idea crystallized about a year later when Koral went to Vilna to teach Yiddish. The Lithuanian program was the first time since World War II that Yiddish was taught in Vilna, once such a major center of Jewish culture and learning that it was referred to as "The Jerusalem of Lithuania."

While in Vilna, Koral says, she first realized to what extent the Holocaust decimated not only Eastern European Jewry but also its culture. "For the first time, I really got it," says Koral, "what is meant by the loss of this entire civilization."

When she got back to Los Angeles, Koral left her job as an environmental consultant to dedicate all her energy to create a home for Yiddish in Los Angeles.

"Here is where we need to focus our energy, not in the ashes," says Koral. "If we let Yiddish culture and language die, we will have allowed the Nazis and the Soviets to kill some aspect of the Jewish soul." Koral's dream is about to take flight.

For the first time in Los Angeles, students of Yiddish can spend two weeks immersed in the language, history and culture of Ashkenazic Jewry. Called "The Art of Yiddish: Cultural Nourishment for a New Age," the program, which runs Dec. 19-29, will be held in the Doubletree Guest Suites in Santa Monica. The curriculum will focus on Yiddish language, expressions, theater, film and song. Students will receive Yiddish language instruction, from beginners to advanced, every morning. The afternoons will feature lectures and workshops on Yiddish theater, film, song, and music. During evening hours, students will watch Yiddish films or listen to concerts.

"The Art of Yiddish" is sponsored by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and UCLA Extension. Principal support for "The Art of Yiddish" is being provided by The Jewish Community Foundation.

Koral hopes that programs such as "The Art of Yiddish" will help lead a Yiddish revival in Los Angeles and around the world.

"Part of the battle, when you talk about L.A., is simply educating people about the value of Yiddish culture," says Koral, who points out that Los Angeles is the home of the third largest concentration of Jews. "There seems to be a sense of endless possibilities in Los Angeles."

Along with the success of Yiddish culture festivals such as Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, Koral also points to established Yiddish programs in the Southland and many that are in their nascent stages.

She recently attended the 55th anniversary of Heshbon, the last California-based Yiddish journal. Heshbon's 80-year-old editor, Moshe Shklar, is considered to be one of the foremost Yiddish poets of his era. During the celebration, Koral says she was struck by the idea that "when these people are gone, who is going to be left to do anything meaningful and literary in Yiddish?"

Koral also recently hosted a forum for Yiddish writers in Los Angeles at the Taper Auditorium in downtown's Central Library.

"It was the first time Yiddish was spoken on that stage," she beamed. Koral hopes that "The Art of Yiddish" will spawn a greater interest in Yiddish within Southern California, one that within a couple of years will help establish Los Angeles as a center for serious Yiddish scholarship.

"I feel I was born into this obligation," says Koral. "I have a profound sense that I am a keeper of the flame."

To Koral, teaching Yiddish language and culture to people is not about saving a language from extinction but rather to give people a glimpse into a culture and language that produced its own film, theater, literature, music and art.

"We may or may not have a Yiddish-speaking community," Koral says. But by teaching people the language of Ashkenazic Jewry, she adds, "we will have a critical mass of people who can speak, write, read , translate and unlock that cultural legacy, that treasure that belongs to us."

"The Art of Yiddish: Cultural Nourishment for a New Age," runs from Dec. 19-29. For more information, call Miriam Koral at (310) 206-0929 or e-mail her at yiddishkayt@earthlink.net.

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