February 15, 2001
Women always have been the private voice of Yiddish, which is, after all, called the mameloshn (mother tongue). When we think of women and Yiddish, we hear Jewish mothers crooning lullabies, whispering prayers, gossiping over fences. With few exceptions, the public voice of Yiddish -- its poets, playwrights, novelists, singers, journalists -- has been male.
Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and USC's Center for Feminist Research, however, will amplify the public voice of the Ashkenazic woman -- and take it way beyond the stereotype of the yiddishe mame -- next weekend, when it presents an all-day conference Sunday, Feb. 25, titled "Women's Yiddish Voices."
In keynote addresses and workshops, participants can explore a number of topics concerning the history, politics, and sociology of Eastern European Jewish women and their North American granddaughters and hear women's voices in several Yiddish literary and performance genres.
Conference coordinator Susan Lerner, who is a co-chair of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, said Los Angeles is a great venue for such a program because of "the broad diversity of the Jewish community here." She told The Journal she hoped to attract not just the usual core audience for Yiddish programming in Los Angeles but also young people and members of the religious and non-Ashkenazic communities.
"So few people know that Yiddish has a very rich literature," said actor and director Sabell Bender, a member of the conference planning committee. "They think it's a joke language; many don't even think it is a language. It's been buried before it's dead, and we want to show it's living."
The conference will be preceded on Sat., Feb. 24, by a Yiddishkayt-sponsored performance of the all-women klezmer group Mikveh at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. The quartet, billed as "four of the top musicians on the international klezmer scene," performs new as well as classic Yiddish music.
Putting together "Women's Yiddish Voices," a process that took almost a year and a half, was "a wonderful exploration of the contemporary scene," Lerner said.
Among sessions that don't often turn up at Yiddish conferences are a presentation by contemporary female poets; a selection of autobiographical sketches written as entries to a 1942 contest sponsored by YIVO, some of which were by women who had just learned how to read and write; and a panel titled "Lesbian Identity in Today's Yiddish American Community."
The conference session that reaches furthest back into history, Lerner suggested, probably best represents the day's themes. The presenters of "Medieval Women," she said, using newly discovered writings, will demonstrate the independence, intelligence and strength -- along with the faith and Jewish commitment -- of women in European Jewish communities hundreds of years ago.
"It's not that they didn't have anything to say," Lerner said. "They just weren't recorded."
"Women's Yiddish Voices" will take place 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun., Feb. 25, on the USC campus. Mikveh will perform at 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 24, at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd. For ticket prices, conference fees, registration, exact location and other information, call Yiddishkayt Los Angeles at (323) 692-8151.