Home › VYI Newsletter
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute Newsletter, No. 4
VYI Founding Director Mendy Cahan
On 27 August 2001, in a festive ceremony at Vilnius University, Menachem Cahan-known everywhere to countless friends of Yiddish simply as Mendy-was named founding director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Mendy himself had established the new institution through a generous benefaction in memory of his father, Mr. Maier Cahan (1923-1997), whose dedication to learning and to Yidishkayt inspired many in the Antwerp Jewish community. A more fitting capstone to Mendy's still young career can hardly be imagined. Its foundation was laid in Jerusalem when he switched from study of French and comparative literature at Hebrew University and went on to earn separate B.A. degrees in philosophy and Yiddish literature. Ever since, Mendy has dedicated himself fully to preserving and expanding the Yiddish cultural legacy. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more passionate-and charismatic-proponent of all things Yiddish than him.
Mendy's path to Vilnius and his founding of the VYI was a seemingly circuitous, if always distinctive and colorful one. It began in Antwerp (Belgium), where he was born into a Yiddish-speaking family of Wischnitzer Hasidim, originally from once Hungarian, now Romanian Transylvania. From the cradle on-at home, amid Antwerp's Orthodox community, and with his classmates-he was embraced by the sounds of Yiddish. At the religious primary and middle school, Yesode-Hatora, he was instructed in both Yiddish and Dutch; but he completed his schooling in the humanities section of the Dutch-language Royal High School of Antwerp. By that time, then, at age eighteen, he was already fluent in Dutch, French, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, and to this repertory of languages he was later to add German.
In Israel, where he had immigrated in 1980, Mendy continued to follow his broad interests along the same winding path. Before enrolling at Hebrew University he pursued higher Talmudic studies for a year at Yeshivas Mishkan Hatora; and even as he concentrated his later M.A. studies on Yiddish literature, he added Talmud and German literature as minor fields. He went on to research the development of the European Yiddish drama, and the traditional purim-shpil has become one of his lecture specialties.
In his varied undertakings as a champion of Yiddish, Mendy draws productively on his rich Orthodox training. By now scores of audiences have heard him in lectures, readings, and concerts-at his Jerusalem cultural center Yung Yidish, at international conferences, and still other venues. Of them, perhaps none can testify more vividly to his rare brand of Yidishkayt than the students of the annual Vilnius Summer Yiddish Program who have experienced his acclaimed weekly Friday evening tish. At these Sabbath celebrations Mendy visibly transforms himself. He becomes one with the Hasidic rebbe chanting the blessings over the Sabbath wine and bread, and gliding into soulful Hasidic dance. But he also embodies the inventively jesting, rhyming badkhen, all the while drawing his assembled guests-Jews and non-Jews, young and less young, from East and West- into a warm, merry, spiritual fellowship. Without doubt, this feat owes much to Mendy's gifts as singer, actor, and dancer; but what raises his tish above a mere folkloric performance is his reverence for the world of traditional East European Judaism and his deep knowledge of it from childhood onward.
Known to his friends and supporters as a builder from the ground up, in 1992 Mendy founded, and since then has directed, Yung Yidish, a non-profit association for Yiddish culture that gathers and safeguards Yiddish books in Israel. Meanwhile, the collection has grown to some 40,000 volumes, a good part of which Mendy personally amassed on book-hunting expeditions throughout Israel. In 1998 Mendy also initiated the Yung Yidish cultural center in Jerusalem, where he has been producing and directing weekly Yiddish artistic events. He himself has appeared both at home and abroad with his six-person ensemble for New World Yiddish Music "Yiddish Express," and recently he performed an evening of Yiddish poetry and song with Esti Svidensky-whom students of the 2000 and 2001 Vilnius Summer Programs will remember for her inspired renditions of Yiddish folksongs. Last summer, in the role of cultural enabler, Mendy further enriched the program-and the public at large-by bringing still more outstanding musicians and singers to Vilnius for his annual Yiddish Arts Festival. But the record of his cultural and artistic accomplishments is too long to be cited in full here.
In 1998 Mendy was invited to come to Vilnius and teach in the first Summer Program. Subsequently, in late 1999, he was offered the post of director, which he accepted. Thanks in large measure to his liberal support the program was soon able to achieve the budgetary stability it enjoys today. Likewise, Mendy's steadfast devotion, creative energies, and personal dynamism have helped the program to become known internationally for the quality and richness of its academic and cultural offerings. A recent student was surely voicing the sentiment of many others when he remarked that "Mendy is the heart and soul of the summer program."
In the noble tradition of Jewish support for culture and learning-for Vilna itself one thinks of such benefactors as Matisyohu Strashun and Benyomin Finn- Mendy also extended his generosity to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and its full-year academic degree program. Together with Vilnius University faculty members Professor Dovid Katz and Associate Professor Sharunas Liekis, a distinguished adjunct faculty, and a dedicated office staff, he is helping the Institute to achieve its unique potential as a university teaching and research department of the first order. Since mid-2002, the partnership with the tax-exempt Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in the U.S.A. has further helped solidify and secure the Institute's existence and growth. Next summer, the Institute's founder, Mendy Cahan, will celebrate his fortieth birthday-in the same month that the annual Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish Lanuage and Culture marks its sixth. May they both thrive together!
The Summer Program Faculty
Miriam Hoffman is Senior Lecturer in Yiddish Language at Columbia University in New York and is widely known as one of North America's most experienced, creative, and inspiring teachers of Yiddish language and culture.
Miriam was born into a Yiddish-speaking family in Lodz, Poland in 1936. As a child, together with her young parents she survived the Nazi Holocaust in a Soviet Gulag in Siberia, where her father had been imprisoned, and later in a forced-labor camp in the Ural Mountains. Thanks to her mother's fortitude and ingenuity, when the war ended the two escaped from the USSR, reuniting after many years with Miriam's father and then making their way to freedom through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany. When the family arrived in the U.S.A. in 1949, Miriam was entirely without schooling. Her public school classes were ill- suited to her needs, but afternoons at a Yiddish- language school set her on the path to a career in Yiddish education.
In 1957 Miriam was graduated from the former Jewish Teacher's Seminary (N.Y.) with a B.A. in pedagogy. During ten years in Israel in the 1970's, she taught Yiddish at the People's University in Tel-Aviv. After her return to the U.S., in 1981 she earned a second B.A., now in Judaic Studies from the University of Miami, and in 1983 an M.A. from Columbia University. During this time, she taught Yiddish at the State University of New York (New Paltz), and from 1991 to 1994 Yiddish and Yiddish Dramatic Arts in the Oxford University Summer Program. She is entirely fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, and commands a speaking knowledge of Russian and Polish.
For over twenty years Miriam has been a columnist and feature writer for the Yiddish Forverts (N.Y.), where she has published more than two thousand articles. As a playwright and lyricist she has ten Yiddish plays and musicals to her name, most of them performed, among other stages, at the N. Y. Shakespeare Festival, the Joseph Papp Theater, and the 92nd St. Y, with productions abroad in Canada, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and Poland. In 1992 she won the Tony Award for her translation into Yiddish of Neil Simon's "Sunshine Boys."
Miriam's research and academic writing activities were foreshadowed early. At the age of ten, in the Displaced Persons camp in Ulm (Germany), she collected songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and Russian, and today her collection is stored at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. In the 1960's she published a series of Yiddish children's books with the Congress for Jewish Culture, and she has developed a variety of Yiddish teaching materials for all levels of instruction. Also, she has published, among others, a scholarly article, "Lodz: Yiddish Dialect," in the journal Di Goldene Keyt (Israel), an entry on the history of the Yiddish theater in the Encyclopedia Americana, and articles on theater history and Yiddish fiction in the British journal Oxford Yiddish.
Together with her late husband, Mendl Hoffman, Miriam served on the Board of Directors of the National Center For Jewish Cultural Arts founded by their son Avi. He himself is well-known as a stage and film performer and director (in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew). Avi's younger brother Benjamin is a computer scientist.
With pleasure and satisfaction the VYI welcomes Miriam Hoffman to its Summer Program faculty.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: Lithuanian student's immersion into Yiddish
My first encounter with the Yiddish language took place about fifteen years ago, when I was eleven or twelve. I remember an old courtyard in Vilnius, on St. Stephen's Street, which I used to pass in those days. A glimpse into that desolate yard revealed a crumbled wall with a long Yiddish inscription. Somehow it survived until the eighties, along with several houses in that block that stood unoccupied after the war. Naturally, I didn't know what the inscription said, but I was attracted by the forms of the unknown letters. "Alef," "lamed," "ayen," and "kuf" seemed the most exotic and beautiful to me. Some years later the inscription disappeared without a trace.
During my years at Vilnius University, I became strongly interested in the multicultural heritage of Lithuania. I was a student of literature and also a young poet, so first of all I wanted to read the literary texts of the nations that had once developed rich cultures in Lithuania. But the translations were, and still are, very few. The only way to fathom the multicultural past was to learn the languages I needed, Yiddish among them. Longing for knowledge of the local Yiddish literature can be traced in my book of poetry "Rabbi" (Vilnius, 1998), where I employed some motifs borrowed from Abraham Sutzkever, whose work I was reading in Polish translation at that time.
I have been preparing myself for this cross-cultural literary research since 1997, when I started my studies of Polish language and literature and my comparative work on the Lithuanian and Polish literary traditions. I took courses on East-European history and literature in Poland, at the University of Warsaw (1998) and at the Jagellonian University of Krakow (1999-2000). The topic of my M.A. thesis (2000) at Vilnius University was the relation between the multicultural background and literary images in Polish and Lithuanian poetry in interwar Vilnius. Gradually, as I was improving my knowledge of the Belarusian language, I also became acquainted with Belarusian literature and history, especially that of the early 20th century.
In 1999 I began studying Yiddish language and cultural history with Professor Dovid Katz at the newly established Center for Stateless Cultures and Minority Studies at Vilnius University. I refreshed my knowledge of the language and continued learning it in 2001 by attending the course taught by Egle Bendikaite at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I finally started reading literary texts in Yiddish with Mrs. Fania Brantsovskaya, the Institute librarian. Last summer I participated in the 5th Annual Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish Language and Culture, taking an outstanding language course with Professors Anna Verschik and Avrom Lichtenboym.
In 2001 I began doctoral studies at Vilnius University. The next year I was granted a one-year scholarship by the Open Society Institute and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK to pursue graduate research in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. I concentrated my studies on Yiddish literature and literary life in the Vilnius area from 1905 to 1918. I am now working on the texts and researching the activities of such writers as Leib Naydus, Dovid Eynhorn, Peretz Hirshbein and Avrom Vayter. I am also consulting with several scholars of Yiddish literature now working at Oxford (Dr. Joseph Sherman, Dr. Gennadyi Estraikh, and Dr. Mikhail Krutikov), and attending Dr. Kerstin Hoge's Advanced Yiddish class (together with another graduate of the 5th Vilnius Summer Yiddish Program, Stephanie Douglas!).
Translations of Yiddish literature into Lithuanian are still as lacking as they were several years ago. Public interest in the Jewish culture of Lithuania is rising visibly, however, and translations could be one of the best stimuli for furthering this interest. Translations are also more and more needed by students of the humanities, since multicultural and comparative studies over a broader range than heretofore are also growing in popularity. Hence, one of my aims for the future is to prepare and publish a comprehensive Lithuanian anthology of Yiddish literature created in historical Lite before the Second World War.
Soon to enrich Vilnius: Plaques commemorating Yiddish Culture
Walking in the streets of Vilnius, many have regretted the absence of signs marking the famed Jewish history of the city. Except for a dwindling number of old-time residents and still fewer younger initiates, people rarely know where the world-famous Romm Hebrew printing house once stood, where the great Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich lived, where the first YIVO (at that time, the Yiddish Scientific Institute) was located, and much more.
This year will bring reason for satisfaction! The Vilnius municipality has accepted the Institute's proposal to create commemorative plaques and to integrate them into a new series of plaques dedicated to the city's cultural heritage. The municipality will fund the first 20 plaques, and we are currently working with them on the design and proposing a list of sites to be marked.
We are pleased to have the Vilnius municipality as a new partner and hope everyone will feel enriched by the plaques starting next summer!
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute begins weekly seminars
On Thursday, 13 February 2003 at 6:00 p.m., The VYI will offer the first in a series of weekly seminars in the field of East European Jewish Studies. The seminars will take place at the VYI and will be open to the public without cost. The inaugural seminar will be presented by Rachel Kostanian, the deputy director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum of Lithuania. The presentation will deal with Judaica research in present- day Lithuania. We hope these weekly seminars will become a Vilnius tradition.
Our Executive Director teaches at seminar in Sweden
VYI Executive Director, Associate Professor Sharunas Liekis, taught at a seminar at Uppsala University in Sweden titled "Jewish life before the Second World War: Culture, History, and Politics." The seminar took place from January 16 to 19, 2003. The other teachers were Prof. Paul Levine, the main organizer and inspirer of the seminar, and Prof. Joanna Bankier.
The Newsletter is produced by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University.
Editor: Professor Sidney Rosenfeld
|2005 VILNIUS YIDDISH INSTITUTE. Solution: Neosymmetria|