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The Vilnius Yiddish Institute Newsletter, No. 10
In this issue:
Mendy Cahan in Los Angeles
With two audience-pleasing events in late February, VYI director Mendy Cahan brought Yiddish Vilna to Los Angeles. Sharing center stage with actress Mayim Bialik, American tv's "Blossom," Mendy launched the 2004 CIYCL series on Contemporary Yiddish culture. (CIYCL is the California Institute for Yiddish Language and Culture, whose director, Miriam Koral, arranged and presided over the Vilna evening.)
Through poetry, song, and film, Mendy, in tandem with Bialik, led his listeners on a journey through Vilna's past to its present. Interweaving Yiddish and English texts, their performance created a multicolored tapestry of Vilna history. The pre-war city of poet Moshe Kulbak was nostalgically recalled; destruction and resistance during the Shoah were powerfully evoked; and Jewish renewal in postwar Vilnius was portrayed in excerpts from the 2002 documentary film "Nemt!" by Isabelle Rozenbaumas and Michel Grosman. As the film showed, the VYI's Summer Program in Yiddish has played a key role in this renewal.
The Vilna evening was preceded by an event for which Mendy Cahan has become widely known: his song and story-filled shabes tish, enhanced by a festive dinner. Some 100 persons gathered at UCLA Hillel to enjoy this rare experience-which has long been a highlight of the VYI's Summer Yiddish Program. As in Vilnius, Mendy's Los Angeles guests were sorry to see the celebration end.
Both CIYCL and the VYI look forward to more joint ventures of such high quality and interest.
Avrom-Yankev B. the tailor (b. 1914) is the last surviving Jew in the Belorussian village of Radashkovitz (Radashkovicy). Together with over 1,000 of the village's Jews, his mother and four siblings perished in the Shoah. Frail after surgery and afflicted by ailments for which he is unable to afford the medicines, he feeds himself from his produce garden and finds his strength in God. His one treasure is his Hebrew prayer book.
Sorra-Riva L. (b. 1898), her late husband and their three daughters escaped the Shoah by fleeing into Russia. When she returned to her native Polotsk in Belarus, the town was bereft of its Jews. Paralyzed and unable to pay for surgery on a nasal melanoma, she lives in deprivation with her two unmarried daughters. She yearns for some small Jewish comforts: shabbes candles and a prayer book to replace the one she ruefully left behind in 1941.
When the barber Ziska S. (b. 1918) settled in Podbrodz (Pabrade) in 1945 as a decorated war hero of the Soviet Union, he was the Lithuanian town's sole Jew- and still is. All the Jews of his native Ignalina had been murdered, and he was driven by his nightmares to move elsewhere. A widower, he lives in a crude wooden structure that was once part of a Jewish school. Now, he depends on friends abroad to send him the razor blades and other items he needs for the makeshift barber shop where he ekes out his sustenance.
Feygitchka Y. (b. 1922), born in Vabolnik (Vabalninkas) in Lithuania, lives today in Utyan. She, too, is her town's last remaining Jew. Hidden and baptized by a Catholic priest, she escaped the slaughter that claimed her father and mother. Since then, she has kept the memories of her Jewish past locked inside her and wishes that she had perished with her parents. Despite some sixty years of a "secret" life, she has incredibly retained her native Yiddish dialect and her one desire is for a Yiddish book.
These are but a few of the many extraordinary stories that Professor Dovid Katz of the VYI unearthed on his expeditions into the deepest hinterlands of Lithuania and Belarus. Although the prime aim of these trips was linguistic and ethnographic, each of them also became a humane mission. Along with modest recompense for the interviews, Professor Katz brought these last surviving Yiddish speakers of Holocaust-ravaged Lite a few hours of warm company.
Abandoned to sickness and penury in the twilight of their lives, these rural Jews are the last of their kind (and since Professor Katz's visits more than a few of them have died). Moved by their plight, three years ago California businessman S. Chic Wolk-who serves as chairman of the American Friends of the VYI- singlehandedly founded the aid project Survivors Remembered. By necessity, his plan for assisting these last village and small town Jews was simple and unbureaucratic. He compiled a list of the neediest and most destitute, and appealed to Jewish organizations, schools, youth groups, and individual donors to adopt one or more of them for direct, personal aid. Each month, participants send the person they wish to help a small gift of support in U.S. currency (which is the sole effective way to reach these isolated, scattered survivors). Also, donors are encouraged to accompany their gift with a few comforting words in Yiddish. (What better reason to revive personal and family knowledge of the orphaned language?)
"Eli, Eli, lama azaftani?" (Psalm 22:1) - "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" How many Jews echoed the psalmist's cry as the outside world abandoned them to their deaths during the Shoah? Now, in their last bleak years, or even months, the surviving remnants of murdered East European Jewry find themselves forsaken once more. Feygitcka Y., Ziska S., Sorra-Riva L., Avrom-Jankev B., and many more like them severely need the most elemental care. After the Shoah took their families and all they owned, today their plight resonates again in the plea of the psalmist: "Al tashlicheni" (Psalm 71:10) - "Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength faileth, forsake me not." Survivors Remembered enables us to respond to this plea tangibly and compassionately.
As their numbers rapidly dwindle, the time to help the survivors who remain grows still shorter. If you, too, wish to join in Chic Wolk's singular assistance project, you may contact him at Survivors Remembered / 13543 Bayliss Rd. / Los Angeles, CA. 90049 / Tel: (310) 472- 4987. He will provide you with names, addresses, and short descriptions of our destitute kinfolk in the remote corners of Lithuania and Belarus. You can prove through your help that you remember them, that today, more than ever, they belong to our family.
A student who sat next to Vilnius veteran Hirsh Perloff ('00, '01, '02) on a Summer Program bus excursion said afterward: "He named every bird between Vilnius and Trakai in Yiddish!" Indeed, London entrepreneur, avocational ornithologist, and Yiddish enthusiast Perloff has compiled and published several glossaries of bird- and other animal-names in Yiddish. And recently he produced a feature film on the history of Yiddish in Israel, Mame-loshn Kinder-loshn. Directed by two erstwhile Londoners now living in Israel, Avi Lehrer and Tommy Schwarcz, the film was shown in December 2003 at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. Through interviews with Yiddishists, educators, actors, singers, students, and just plain mame-loshn devotees, the film documents the bitter fortunes of Yiddish in the Jewish state, where Hebrew was championed as the national language; but it also depicts today's attempts there to revive the mother tongue of what was once a community of eleven million speakers worldwide. Among those pursuing this aim is VYI director Mendy Cahan, with his Jerusalem Center for Yiddish Culture, Yung Yidish. Mendy appears prominently in the film, and '01 Program member, folk singer Esti Svidensky, conveys its spirit early with her poignant rendering of the lullaby "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen." Deep thanks to our student and benefactor Hirsh Perloff for making the film possible!
In February, our VYI colleague Dr. Marija Krupoves enthused a large audience at Yale University's Slifka Center with a concert titled "Yiddish and More." Together with mandolinist Joey Weisenberg, himself an '02 Summer Program student, and contrabassist Travis DiRuzza, Marija performed a program of Yiddish songs, some of which she collected herself from survivors in Lithuania and Belarus. To illustrate the influences of other ethnic cultures on Yiddish folk music, Marija included, among others, songs in Polish, Lithuanian, and Belorussian.
Marija was introduced by Yale professor Benjamin Harshav and by Prof. John Van Doren (New York), who along with his wife, Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren, is an active supporter of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Also present were Marija's host, Hillel director Rabbi James Ponet and '01 Vilnius Summer Program faculty member Rachel Wizner.
In cooperation with the VYI, Yung Yidish of Jerusalem, under its director Mendy Cahan, presented an evening devoted to Vilna. The participants will be especially familiar to graduates of the 2003 Yiddish in Vilnius program. They included Vilna-born writer Avrom Karpinovich, who traveled to his native city last summer to read from his prose and lecture as part of the Summer Program; Rokhl Margolis, Vilna Ghetto survivor and former partisan, who returns to Vilna each year as a cherished program lecturer and guide through the Ghetto and in Ponar Forest; further, '03 student and vivacious Yiddish singer Polina Belilovsky; and, after his return from a series of Vilna events in Los Angeles, Mendy Cahan himself.
(To our deep regret, we have just learned that this was, unexpectedly, Avrom Karpinovich's last public appearance. Please see obituary below!)
The VYI and Café de Paris in Vilnius's Old Town teamed up for a Yiddish theme party. The event was one in a series arranged by the café to promote intergroup understanding in Lithuania's multiethnic capital. Recalling Vilna's now legendary Yiddish literary circle of the 1930's, it was programmed as "Yung Vilne." Through Yiddish song, the young participants from the Vilnius Jewish community brought a new awareness of Jewish culture to their receptive listeners. The promising Vilnius Conservatory student, tenor Rafail Karpis, and the always delightful vocal and dance ensemble "Fayerlekh" performed enthusiastically.
The VYI is pleased to have played a role in this innovative outreach to the broader Vilnius public.
Vilna-born Yiddish prose writer Avrom Karpinovich, an esteemed friend of the VYI, died in Israel on Monday, 22 March. He was buried in Holon, near Tel Aviv on the 24th. The entire staff of the VYI extends its sympathies to Mr. Karpinovich's wife, Dr. Sara Lapitskaya, and to all other family members. We will pay tribute to Avrom Karpinovich's life and work in the next Newsletter.
The Newsletter is produced by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University.
Editor: Professor Sidney Rosenfeld
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