Yiddish in its historic heartland

  • 2000-07-20
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Historically Vilnius once had such a large and vibrant community of Jewish scholars and writers that it was known as the Jerusalem of the North. While Hebrew was the language of Talmudic commentary, Yiddish was the vernacular language spoken by the city's Jewish community. The number of Yiddish speakers around the world has seen a huge decline because of the Holocaust and the revival of spoken Hebrew in modern Israel.

Three years ago Vilnius University, in association with the Jewish community of Lithuania and Yung Yiddish of Jerusalem, started offering an intensive annual month-long summer course in Yiddish language, literature and culture open to people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.

"I never ask anyone in the course what their background is. Often, they've raised a few eyebrows just by studying and being interested in Yiddish and the last thing a student needs is to have the instructor ask what he or she is doing in a Yiddish course," said Dovid Katz, a former Oxford professor now at Vilnius University and also the summer program's academic director.

Ilona Gaulyte is a Lithuanian economist participating in the program.

"I became interested in Yiddish culture through my interest in religion in general. Some of my friends are wondering if there's something wrong in my head because I signed up for this course. But I'm astounded at the richness of Yiddish, it's a more beautiful language than I expected," she said.

The language component sees students divided into four groups according to ability.

"After two weeks in basic Yiddish, with no previous knowledge of the language I can hold a conversation. I'm still making mistakes but I have a command of the three main tenses," said Gaulyte.

Anna Verschik is an Estonian linguist and translator and one of the four language instructors.

"We never use English or any other language in teaching Yiddish, even in the introductory class. It wouldn't be fair as the students come from so many backgrounds. The methodology we use is Yiddish in Yiddish. I use hand gestures, drawings and intonation in teaching the language. One of the great aspects of Yiddish is the streamlined grammar. In Lithuanian and Estonian you have so many inflections that a student can't put a grammatical sentence together without making a mistake. In Yiddish you get a few building blocks and you can get started in speaking it," she said.

After spending the morning in language classes, the students can choose to attend daily lectures in various languages given by leading scholars in Yiddish and Judaic studies. Hermann Suss from Germany presented a lecture on Yiddish bibliography. For most of his working life he was a railway conductor for the German

railways. Katz met him in London in 1979 when he was working in the British Museum. He became an international star at a conference in Oxford that year when his sensational discoveries of unknown or presumably lost Old Yiddish books and manuscripts in obscure German libraries catapulted him to international prominence in the field.

Katz has dedicated a large part of his life to studying, preserving and promoting Yiddish language and culture.

"We don't believe for one minute that you can master Yiddish or any language in one month but the impetus of the intensive course and the temporary speech community created has proven historically capable of inspiring each year a handful of young scholars who go on to dedicate their lives to Yiddish and to make major contributions to the field in the years and decades ahead. That has been my experience in the 20 years I've been teaching at intensive Yiddish summer schools," he said.

Because of its Jewish history, Vilnius is the ideal place for a Yiddish program.

"For the first time ever, we have a Yiddish summer course in the historic pre-war homeland of the Yiddish language, where students of so many backgrounds and countries can inhale bona fide East European Yiddish from older members of the Jewish communities of Lithuania and Belarus, a real-McCoy Yiddish that has not been diluted by a half century or more in the West. It is a unique opportunity for students who want to acquire the real thing all these years after the near total destruction of East European Jewish civilization during the Holocaust, and a unique opportunity for us to inspire and train new masters for the new century and beyond," said Katz.