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Yiddish Program Aims to Get Beyond Schmoozing

July 07, 2005|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Jewish day schools would seem like a natural place to teach Yiddish, the mama loshen, or mother tongue, spoken by 75% of the world's Jews before the Holocaust. But schools that teach both Jewish studies and mainstream academic subjects have been more likely to offer French or Spanish in addition to Hebrew than Yiddish.

This fall, however, the famously evocative, 1,000-year-old language will be taught at three Jewish day schools in Los Angeles, a rare addition to the standard curriculum in use across the country.

"To go to Jewish day schools and discuss teaching Yiddish and see them excited -- it's a sea change," said Aaron Paley, founder and co-chairman of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, which is administering the program.

The three-year pilot program is being developed with a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation. If administrators deem the effort a success, it will be offered to additional schools throughout the country, Paley said.

Yiddish, the language that added chutzpah and klutz to the vernacular, is based on medieval German, written in Hebrew characters and read from right to left like Hebrew. It was spoken by millions of Ashkenazi Jews in Europe until the Holocaust and by immigrant Jews wherever they settled. It was the language of Jewish social activists, writers, singers, actors, artists and entrepreneurs in towns and cities throughout the Western world.

"It was," said Bruce Powell, head of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, "almost the Esperanto of the Jewish world, the language everybody spoke no matter where you went."

Powell's nondenominational Jewish school in the San Fernando Valley is one of the three that will add Yiddish in the fall. The others are Shalhevet School, an alternative Orthodox school on Fairfax Avenue near Olympic Boulevard, and Sinai Akiba Academy, a Conservative Jewish day school in West Los Angeles.

Paley said the beginning course will be offered to fifth- and ninth-graders, with a more advanced class added each of the next three years.

In the past, local children could study Yiddish and Yiddish culture in after-school and weekend programs run by Jewish organizations such as Workmen's Circle and cooperatives of parents, many of them nonobservant Jews and on the political left. Most of these programs have withered away, said Paley, 47, who as a child in the 1960s attended a vibrant, "profoundly cultural" Yiddish program on Saturdays in the San Fernando Valley.

Anna Fishman Gonshor, who teaches Yiddish language and culture at McGill University in Montreal, said she knows of only a handful of Jewish day schools in the United States that offer Yiddish on a regular basis, all on the East Coast. The language is also taught at Jewish day schools in Canada, Mexico, Australia and Israel, said Gonshor, an advisor to the new program.

Screenwriter-turned-historian Dan Opatoshu, 57, of Sherman Oaks, had the idea for the Yiddish program. Born into a prominent Yiddish-speaking family, he is the grandson of Yiddish novelist Joseph Opatoshu and son of actor David Opatoshu, who began his career in Yiddish theater and later played Jewish underground leader Akiva ben Canaan in the 1960 film epic "Exodus."

As a child, Opatoshu said, he readily understood both English and the Yiddish spoken by the artists who frequented his grandfather's New York salon. Opatoshu, who is Spielberg's brother-in-law, studied Yiddish in order to read original source material on the Jewish labor movement while a graduate student at UCLA.

How spoken Yiddish became endangered is a complex tragedy, according to Opatoshu and others. Hitler had millions of Yiddish speakers killed and destroyed the Yiddish-speaking communities that once dotted Eastern Europe. But Yiddish had also begun to vanish in the U.S. as more and more Yiddish speakers, and especially their children, were assimilated into mainstream American culture.

"You didn't want to be a greenhorn forever," said Gonshor, using the dismissive term for a newcomer favored by early Jewish immigrants to the United States. As a result, most new immigrants sent their children to public schools, where everyone learned English. Children of Yiddish-speaking parents might understand the language, but the grandchildren rarely did.

The establishment of Hebrew as the official language of the new state of Israel after World War II also hastened the decline of Yiddish, as nationalists actively discouraged its use.

However, much of the extensive literature written in Yiddish has been saved, in the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City and elsewhere. But, Opatoshu said material that survives "will be for naught if nobody can access it, nobody has the language."

"A language is a template, a map into a culture," said Opatoshu, and when Jews began to lose their Yiddish, they also began to lose the text and texture of a thousand years of Jewish life.

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