Yiddishkayt’s Helix Project: a modern adventure into the forgotten Yiddish past

Posted on October 16, 2012 by


Cobblestone paths and narrowly winding streets. Freshly painted yellow buildings and crumbling courtyards boarded up in disrepair. Vilnius, summer 2012, or as the Yiddish speaking Jewish population called it prior to World War II, Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

A cobblestone street in Vilna.

Ten people walked together, running their hands along forgotten walls and snapping close-up pictures of white peeling paint.

Stopping, Robert Adler-Peckerar, Executive Director of Yiddishkayt (a Yiddish cultural and educational center in Los Angeles), informed the six undergraduates, two graduates, and one tour guide that they were walking along a street called Mėsininkų Gatvė, or “Butcher’s Street” in Lithuanian.

More winding streets, before coming to the opening of Gleyzer Gas, or “Glassmaker’s Street” in Yiddish.

Gas, like Gatvė,” someone pointed out.

“Like gasse in German,” another voice was quick to add.

“Hey, what’s ‘street’ in Russian? Is there any resemblance?”

A brief pause of silence before, “alleya?”

“Yeah, I think that’s right. Alleya.

“That’s cool, it’s like ‘alley’ in English.”

“Exactly,” Peckerar interjects. “That’s what gas means in Yiddish, alley.”

A typical moment in the life of a Helix traveler, weaving together bits and pieces of different languages in order to form a complete, if slightly confusing, portrait of the object in front of them. In late June, Yiddishkayt launched its pilot Helix Project, taking students on the academic adventure of a lifetime, journeying into the heart of the historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania) in order to discover the hidden narrative of what Eastern European Jewry was like before the Holocaust.

Robert Adler-Peckerar, Executive Director of Yiddishkayt, in Bialystok.

The language of these lost people was Yiddish, a high German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin that was written with the Hebrew alphabet and combined elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic and Romance languages.

“Anybody who starts working with Yiddish sees an unbelievable richness and complexity and diversity in Jewish life, just by a basic Yiddish sentence,” Peckerar proclaimed, leaning forward in excitement.

He recalled the first sentence of Yiddish that he taught the 2012 Helixers: Mayn zeyde hot gebentsht di shabes-likht mit a brokhe. My grandfather made a blessing over the Shabbat candles. In one simple Yiddish sentence, there’s the German of “mayn,” the Slavic of “zeyde,” the Hebrew of “shabes,” and “gebentsht” which comes from old Romance.

“Yiddish speakers were aware of all these elements that made up their language. And when we lose that, when we lose Yiddish, we lose an awareness of all of these different strands, historically, culturally, and coming to Yiddish, you’re forced to become aware of them. […] The language pulls all these things together and makes a much more interesting whole out of them than the story of Jewish culture that most people get today when it’s just in English,” Peckerar exclaimed, leaning back in his chair.

Luckily, none of the Helixers spoke just one language. They were all polyglots — with varying levels of proficiency.

An old Yiddish typewriter in the Yiddishkayt office.

“I think of Yiddish as both a language and a shorthand for an entire cultural experience. And learning Yiddish means both learning some of that language to give you access, but also knowing about the entire cultural experience of a millennium of Jewish life in Europe.” After a reflective silence, Peckerar continued,  “and I think that it also functions as a model for other groups of people who have Jewish languages, whether that’s Judeo-Persian, or Ladino, or any of the wide variety of Jewish languages that are out there that give you another take on how Jewish culture operates.”

Yiddish is a reflection of the cultural practices of Eastern Europe, showing us how, as Peckerar noted, cultures fuse together and form something new.

“The history of Yiddish,” Peckerar insisted,” is of various peoples coming together and forming something new.”

From his solid blue couch in the corner of his office in Bunche Hall, history professor and department chair David N. Myers agrees with Peckarer’s assessment of Jewish history.

“As the great Gerson Cohen once noted in his article “The Blessings of Assimilation in Jewish History,” Jews have actually survived by embracing and adapting cultural forces outside of their own community, and bringing them back into their own community and using them as a constant source of revival,” Myers noted.

While Peckerar and Myers appear to be in agreement on the aggregated nature of Jewish culture, there are those who strongly oppose the significance Yiddish culture is afforded in Jewish history (as the saying goes, six Jews, seven opinions).

Yiddishkayt Office.

“Yiddish as a language I’m interested in because that was the language of the shtetl, that’s the language that a great deal of scholarly works were written in, but I’m only interested in the context of the [religious] Judaism, and to separate out [the culture], that’s not such an interest for me,” said Rabbi Jacob Rupp, resident rabbi at UCLA’s Jewish Awareness Movement, sipping bubbly water at his kitchen table.

Of greater concern to Rupp is the decline of learning the Torah and the rise of apathy when it comes to following the sacred texts. Rupp voiced his opinion that the Jews of today are hungry, hungry for meaning, depth, and direction in a largely superficial world.

When asked what the new generation of Jews should focus on, Rupp responded without skipping a beat: “The most important thing now is knowledge. Just becoming literate about who you are.”

He launched into a story about how Jews want G-d to be revealed in the world, and as soon as that happens, the Torah tells us that wickedness will disappear like smoke.

“That’s the language it uses which is a very interesting idea,” said Rupp while motioning enthusiastically with his hand. “It’s not like G-d will go to war and there’s this idea of a cataclysmic battle between good and evil. When the truth appears, everything else dissipates. When you turn on a light in a dark room, where did the darkness go? It just disappears. Why? Because there’s light there now. The nature of Torah, it’s called light.”

Rupp adamantly rejects the idea that Jewish youth should focus on Yiddish culture, instead of spending their time studying Torah or other strictly religious texts and practices.

“Anyone who doesn’t advocate that,” Rupp concludes, “you’ll see, just doesn’t know their own history. Before you reform, conserve, humanize, modernize, and then post modernize, why don’t you learn Judaism? Just learn the foundation of whatever movement you’re a part of. You’ll probably find that it answers all the questions much better than the changing of the original thing. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it kind of thing.”

Peckerar would argue, however, that the traditional, orthodox system of religion does need fixing.

“I don’t know how accurate any of these demographic studies are,” Peckerar admitted, “whenever they do [them] it shows the single largest group of Jews is unaffiliated, and if that’s the single largest group, and then the next one is Reform, then those are the two largest groups that they always point to in the Jewish community as making up American Jewish life. If that’s the case, then by constantly asserting that Jewishness is defined religiously, then it doesn’t speak to the vast majority of Jews who are out there or the people who understand or know that they are of Jewish origin.”

Indeed, Peckerar’s philosophy seems to have spoken to the Helixers, most of whom share his fondness for Yiddish and Yiddish culture.

“I think it’s important on a larger scale to study Yiddish because if we don’t, if we allow Yiddish to fade into history, if we allow Yiddish to cease to exist, then the sad reality will become that the Nazis won, that they accomplished their goal of the destruction of Jewish culture,” said Hannah Efron, senior at UC Berkeley. “It’s also important to honor your family, to honor what was, to honor your ancestors, and to celebrate them through the study of something so central to their daily lives.”

Efron was lucky enough to travel to the small village of Indura, Belarus, named Amdur in Yiddish, where Hannah’s ancestor, Motte Tsennes, chose the Efron name and founded the well-documented Efron line.

Hannah Efron outside the cemetery gate in Amdur.

“When I tell people about this trip,” Hannah reflected, tilting her head slightly, “what I want them to know is that these places that we hear about are not fictional. These places in our history textbooks and places in family tree are still there. The land is still there. Our ancestors are still buried there, they rest there, eternally. And I learned the importance and the value of engaging with these places on a physical level, in addition to an emotional and historical level. It is my wish that everyone have the opportunity that I had to see where they came from.”

In fact, Efron’s hope is very much aligned with Peckerar’s goals for the trip.

“We hope that each trip would be personalized to the history and interests and desires of all of the participants in the group in some way. […] And that doesn’t mean that everyone has to be Jewish or come from that part of the world, but I want people to be able to connect personally to an aspect that’s particularly meaningful to them,” said Peckerar.

Besides visiting places of familial importance to its participants (as was also the case when the group visited the Real Gymnasium in Vilna where Helixer Tommy Kedar’s great-grandmother taught physics), the program was structured around intellectual interests as well.

Tommy Kedar in front of the Real Gymnasium.

“I am interested in the way Yiddish culture may intersect with my other intellectual priorities,” said Ben Steiner, recent UCLA history graduate. “For instance, the ways in which women’s creative energies may have been fostered by Yiddish culture, and perhaps, rumblings of women’s subcultures amid shtetl lifestyle as we saw on our trip, with the tkhines [Yiddish prayer books made for use by Ashkenazi women in the 17th century in Tykocin or Tiktin, Poland]. That, in turn, interests me less as a question of their historical facticity, and more because of what their more recent feminist reclamation teaches us.”

As with the students’ differing scholarly interests and pursuits, so too did the discussion of the importance of the Jewish religion and its intersection with Yiddish culture permeate the Helix Project.

The fact of the matter is, each Jew relates to their Judaism in a slightly different, but hopefully personal way, despite the conflicts in the community of what it means to be, look, and act like a Jew. For Rupp, Jewish religion is all-important, the raison-d’être. For others, they acknowledge the importance of religion, but value the purveyance of Jewish culture as well.

“I certainly think that Jewish religion has been a dominant presence in Jewish history and really the foundation of all subsequent forms of Jewish culture, as many secular Jewish cultural creators were acutely aware,” Myers said. “Most famously perhaps was Ahad Ha’Am, the great Hebrew essayist and cultural Zionist who said ‘it’s not we who keep the Sabbath, it’s the Sabbath that keeps us.’”

Among differing degrees of religious reverence, in the end, it comes down to a question about keeping the Jewish people alive and well in a respectful way. As Peckerar revealed while speaking about his experience discussing Jewish history with teachers from Central and Eastern Europe, he would rather people focus on positive periods of Jewish history instead of focusing mainly on the Holocaust (for both humanistic and religious reasons).

“You show these pictures of bodies, these people, some of them religious people who lived their entire lives guided by ideas about modesty, and then what do you show them of their lives besides them naked in a pit? That’s an offense to these people,” said Peckerar, raising his eyebrows and opening his eyes wide. “As a whole, I’d much rather people understand that Jewish life lived for hundreds of years in these places and thrived and created these incredibly complicated individuals than for you just to show them as bodies, as dead bodies.”

For more information about the Helix Project, email info@yiddishkayt.org or visit http://yiddishkayt.org/helix-project/