Sunday, April 11, 2010

The 6,000,001st Victim

A friend wrote me today, outraged. She is a non-Jew from a former Soviet country and is spending time here on an internship. Apparently, an American friend of hers visited her over the week before leaving the country. That American is a scholar of the Yiddish language.

When the American reached Ben-Gurion airport, the security staff detected Yiddish books in his luggage. That provoked their suspicion. A young, non ultra-orthodox man reading Yiddish? They took him to a back room for interrogation. When they found out he was staying with the former Soviet girl, they pieced the different clues together and deduced that she was a fancy hooker, somehow catering to clients who have a Yiddish fetish.

The American was kept under interrogation for a while, insisting that his hostess is not a prostitute and that he's not involved in the flesh-trade. Finally, the security agents faced him with a conclusive question: "Do your Yiddish books contain stories that portray Ultra-Orthodox Jews as involved in Human trafficking?"

I can't swear by this story because I wasn't there, but this is how it was told by my friend, and it's not all that implausible. Ben-Gurion security personnel are as known for their strange questions as much as they are for ethnic profiling.

Moreover, Yiddish does threaten us as Israelis. It's written in the Hebrew alphabet, yet we can't read it. It's been so firmly confined to either the aged or the Hassidic, that we suspect anyone else who takes interest in it. Yiddish was of course banned by early Zionists, who sought to create a new Jewish identity. In the Fifties, protesters used to stand outside the Yiddish theatre in Tel-Aviv and throw stones at the actors and audience as they left the show.

To this day, the attitude remains the same. My Belorussian friend Vola told me that Israel's embassy in Minsk refused to host the launch of the first Yiddish -Belorussian dictionary. Their explanation: Yiddish is not Israeli.

Tonight marks the eve of our Holocaust memorial day. I'd like to take this oppurtunity and mourn one of the more unique victims of that horror: the native language of my grandparents. The Nazis murdered millions of speakers of this beautiful tongue, itself a dialect of German. Had they and their offspring been alive today, Yiddish might have lived, and with it all the poetry, humor and wisdom of East Europe's Jewry.

As it is, we're left with a precious few who are dedicated to keeping it alive, among them are certain gringo potential pimp types and a few Israeli loonies, like Tel-Aviv's own Assaf Galai. Non-Jewish Russian animation artist (and possibly prostitute) Elizaveta Skvortsova produced this amazing clip for Itzik Manger's lullaby "By the roadside stands a tree". She gave us another gift we are unable to give ourselves.

In the song, The mother sings to her child of a tree that was abandoned by birds in wintertime. The child, compassionate, wishes to turn into a bird and sing for the tree. His mother sows him warm cloths, lest he is inflicted with Tuberculosis on those bare branches. Burdened by the weight of wool, the child can't take wing. "You love me so much mother," he sings, "that I can't become a bird."

I dedicate this song today in memory of those massacred and of their enormous cultural legacy, which we fail to respect.


Yaelian said...

What a beautiful video clip to that wonderful song.I am very angry to hear that the Yiddish books of the American scholar led to him being treated so rudely!Did you know that in Helsinki a non jewish guy has revived the interest in Yidddish there?

Rami said...

Thank you so much Yuval! I was so deeply touched by your article! (Especially as a father to a boy which is doing his PHD on Yiddish literature in Columbia NY... )
dash lahorim

Rami Elhanan

Paula said...

Great clip, a combination of visual arts and poetry... touching..

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