Skip to content

What’s Up With Yiddish?

Yiddish culture is at the root of Judaism and American culture, and YAAANA in San Diego is going to make sure we know it.

The invitation to a Yiddish Cafe sat in my email inbox unopened for over a week. Each week a new reminder arrived about ’s YAAANA (Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America) Yiddish Cafe arrived taunting me. As a friend of Joana the organizer I couldn’t say no. As a Jew from Ukraine I shouldn’t say no. But as Sam, I really wanted to say no.

It’s not that I dislike Yiddishkite, between grad school applications, several jobs and wedding planning, I have enough on my plate. Of course that’s an excuse because these days, I think anyone could find a way to make an excuse to not go to a Yiddish event. When Friday arrived, I was looking to having some quiet time with my fiancé. She was tired, I was tired and the glimmer of hope  of an out arrived when I opened the email saw that the event was full. Great! I can text , “sorry, I can’t come.” BUT! My Jewish meter perked up! If the event is full, there may be a story about something new and popular in Jewish San Diego.

“Sorry I can’t make it since your event is marked full” I texted half relieved and half disappointed. “Come anyway!” Joana replied. “Damnit and ok” were my thoughts as I grabbed my camera, changed from my work-at-home attire and left my exhausted fiance on the couch to drive across town to this event where I knew that at least I’d see Yale Strom perform.

Now there is nothing wrong with Yiddish. It is after all my heritage. My grandparents spoke it, read it and I’m sure even went to see famous traveling Yiddish plays that Shalom Aleichem describes in Wandering Stars. But to me, a language I would never speak lest I find myself in Union City, NJ again, was not something that seemed of a good use of my time. I appreciated the academics who kept it alive and uncovered new things, but for me, it seemed kitschy at best. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I arrived at the Costa Verde apartments club house in UTC area of San Diego room was already half full. The club house is a perfect place for an event with a massive kitchen and a giant entertainment room with high ceilings, couches, tables and chairs. The granite island was filled with foods from the old country including lentil salad and kugel.  Joanna Mazurkiewicz was dressed up in a black dress with a black jacket with little rabbit feet sewed to the forearms. She was excited and stressed while Ed, her boyfriend was relaxed wearing his usual TeVa’s got me a drink and I began to mingle.

The crowd was about 20 people at this point, mostly elderly but soon young people in their thirties began to come in as well filling the room to about 30 total. Many in attendance were members of the monthly Yiddish circle held at the La Jolla JCC. Joanna began the event with a ribbon cutting after telling the story of her voyage from Poland to America and the steps she had to take to uncover her Yiddish heritage. These steps involved a then-teenager traveling to Lithuania for summer Yiddish lessons because no such lessons existed in Poland at the time and later coming for a Ph.D to University of Michigan.

“What’s in the future for YAANA” the klezmer violinist and San Diego State University professor Yale Strom asked her at the end of the Q&A. “I have two due dates, my PhD in Yiddish Theater dissertation and the baby” she pointed to her protruding belly in the tight dress,  “After that, it will be this full time!”

At this point, there was no lecture about Yiddish or its importance. Joana’s goal is to take Yiddish out of academia and make it accessible, make it normal, make it relevant, make it fun. So the next thing that happened was no different from any other dinner party: people ate, people drank, people talked with the minor exception that world renown Yale of Yale Strom and the Hot Pstrami performed klezmer tunes accompanied by fellow violinist Oliver Thompson of The Moody Jews and at the end, his singer and wife Elizabeth Schwartz joined in. The no pressure, no lecture made Yiddish feel un-heavy, unforced. I felt like everyone was there with interest in Judaism and Yiddish, not necessarily Jewish themselves, just interested in Jewish culture. We bonded as we experienced Yiddishkite as if it was just a part of life as we partook in food and shabbat and Yale played as if he was a guitar player in a corner of a college party surrounded by a few happy listeners. It was more like he was part the ambiance rather than on display as a relic in a museum.

It was then that I realized why I came here. I came for the thing inside me, what is deep down bellow the surface level annoyance. I remembered the stories I was told: that my parent’s didn’t know Yiddish because it was a forbidden language in Soviet Union. The language of which mere words said in public, could condemn an entire family to life in prison or death. Our roots, our Yiddish roots had made us outlaws, a foreign threat to the Soviet State. It was important to reclaim them, for they were not lost, they were stolen. I realized that this was a part of us and belonged to us and was at some point in time a norm, not a past. We needed to make an effort to know this part of us, for those who were no longer here. To speak their language, to see their plays, to hear their music was to bring back those family members who are not here, who couldn’t make it here because they spoke the language, because they wrote the plays and because they composed the music.

An event that I expected to be lame was anything but. I had to rush back to my fiancé as I overstayed my intended one hour “drop-in” plan. At the party I spoke with linguists and scientists about language, about Yiddish and realized that this forgotten part of Judaism is important. It is the history and part of our story, it should be no more forgotten than the ancient Romans or the ancient Egyptians. We brought something to Europe and Europe gave something to us and out of it came Yiddish language, literature, music and theater. This was part of our culture and it has become one of the building blocks of America as it eventually it was this culture which lead to influencing and creating Hollywood and Broadway.

I wondered why hasn’t anyone done this before? Well, perhaps because it is crazy. It is a crazy thing to study Yiddish as Joanna knows and even more crazy to expect others to care. But she persisted and as a result I was proven wrong, Joanna proved us all wrong: we do care, and it is something that can be fun and fulfilling.

To put one the event, Joanna procured sponsorship from Excel, University of Michigan and One Table. To keep it going, to put on plays and movie screenings and dinners Joanna plans to fundraise and seek grants. I wish her the best of luck and hope many more cafe’s like this happen, in San Diego and elsewhere. In the future, I hope to see not just on Yiddish theme, but Ladino, Mizrahi, Bnei Menashe and Beta Israel. We are all one people and we all have our stories which we tried to strip of us in order to make one Israeli or one American story. Joanna is showing us that forgotten stories are important, they are fulfilling and that here is more than one way to tell one of those stories.

More can be learned about the event at the YAANA Website and from an article in San Diego Jewish World

Leave a Reply