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A Lasting Language

Though 1,000 years old, Yiddish still has devoted followers and is embraced as a key way to keep American Jews connected to their culture.

May 22, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marion Herbst has an unlikely passion. She loves Yiddish. Twenty years ago she taught herself the language, then got serious and studied it in school, and now she teaches others. If you think it's a lonely life, think again.

The 67-year-old educator belongs to a Los Angeles club whose 12 members meet every month just to schmooze in the mame-loshen, the mother language. There are other professors and other clubs from here to Brooklyn, perhaps most notably, the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring. The national organization, which has an L.A. chapter, is committed to keeping the Yiddish language and culture alive.

And just last week, some 35,000 people attended Yiddishkayt, a celebration of Yiddish theater, dance, music and film held throughout Los Angeles.

Yiddish a dead language? We should live so long. Lately, a renewed interest has led more people to study it in colleges or Jewish community centers. Some can still practice on their grandparents, and many more can actually read the 1.5 million books that have been shipped from the National Yiddish Book Center, a booming business in Amherst, Mass., to libraries across the country.

A chunky mix of Hebrew and German with Slavic languages and some English worked in, Yiddish is more than 1,000 years old. Most people who speak Yiddish as their first language come from Eastern Europe, where the language flourished through the early 1900s. They kept it alive when they fled to America during World War II.

Shaina Goldberg, 21, grew up hearing Yiddish at home. Her Orthodox Jewish grandmother, born in the Ukraine, and her mother always spoke it when conversation turned to family matters. Goldberg felt left out, so she took courses at UCLA, where she is now a senior.

"I wanted to be part of the camaraderie at home," she said.

Now, when she and her grandmother make Friday night's Shabat dinner, they switch into what she calls Yiddish mode.

"We talk about family members, tell stories about relatives. My grandmother will say, 'Don't forget your cousin is having an event at school next week,' or, 'Did you hear about this?' " Anything that has to do with the intimate and emotional aspects of her family's life, Goldberg associates with Yiddish.

Herbst, 67, wrote the textbook "Learning Yiddish in Easy Stages" with Marvin Zuckerman. It goes into its fifth printing this spring. Her students have included young professionals and senior citizens in classes at Santa Monica College and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Yiddish experts say there are about 1 million people in the U.S. who speak or read it, and there are new students all the time. This semester Herbst is teaching senior citizens to read the literature, including works by such names as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem.

Getting beyond famous authors is the hard part. Only about 1 in 200 Yiddish books have been translated into English. To read the books requires learning the language.

"Language is the key to the culture," Herbst said. "It is a very rich culture with theater, music and literature."

Aaron Lansky, 44, who founded the National Yiddish Book Center in 1979, will publish the new edition of Herbst's grammar text. The Book Center not only distributes used books but has started to transfer them digitally onto discs and reprint them. Lansky started his business as a graduate student after scavenging books written in Yiddish on a mission to save the endangered language. Since then he has helped establish 450 library collections around the world, including one at UCLA.

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Summer interns at the Book Center study Yiddish in the morning. The rest of the day they sort through the mountains of book boxes--about 100 volumes arrive every week from around the world. The first year of the intern program, 1986, Lansky accepted about 10 students from the 50 or so who applied. This year there were more than 800 inquiries for just eight internships.

"Three-quarters of the world's Jewish population has spoken Yiddish in the past 1,000 years, but most interns who come here have little prior knowledge of the language," Lansky said. "Searching for their roots is part of it, but we hope they will find something more profound that intellectually challenges them while they are here."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews kept the language alive after most others left it behind to fit in with American life. Hasidic Jews and other ultra-Orthodox communities make Yiddish their everyday language. But they are not Lansky's customers.

"Most extreme Orthodox don't read Yiddish literature," he said. They limit themselves to Scripture and religious texts. The language gives them a way to stay apart from secular life. The other language they use most frequently is Hebrew, and the two overlap. Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet.

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