Time Does Not Stop A Historian of Yiddish Culture Has His Work Cut Out

The conversation on one of Vilnius’s busiest streets would have been common enough 60 years ago. Two men are sitting over coffee, and discussing old times in Yiddish.


Before the Second World War and the Holocaust, it was hard to walk ten steps in Vilnius without hearing Yiddish. Back then, the city was roughly half Jewish, and one of the most vibrant centres in the world for Yiddish and Jewish scholarship.


But today, with so few Yiddish speakers left alive, the discussion is being recorded for posterity.


It is for this reason that Dovid Katz, a renowned professor of Yiddish, moved to Lithuania permanently in 1998. His mission is simple, yet painstaking: to continue teaching Yiddish, and chronicling the lives and stories of Yiddish speakers who are still sprinkled across the region that is known to Jews as Lita. As a cultural concept, the region encompasses roughly the borders of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, covering parts of present-day Lithuania, Poland, Bela­rus and Ukraine.


But there is one story of a Yiddish poet born in Lithuania which will always be a driving force in Katz’ life. That poet’s name is Menke Katz, and he is Dovid’s late father.


Menke was born in 1906 in a small town, a shtetl in Yiddish, known today as Švenčionys (right). After witnessing the horrors of the First World War, he later emigrated with his family to America to join his father.


It was here, on the Lower East Side of New York, that Menke would begin to write poetry.


Ravke, his second wife and Dovid’s mother, was born in Brooklyn. Menke and Ravke met and married in 1950, and Dovid was born in 1956. She was a schoolteacher.


Menke had become the only poet to achieve success in English as well as Yiddish. His works combined the shtetl life of Lithuania with the street life of New York. He would write 18 books in total, nine in Yiddish and nine in English.


Dovid grew up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood that was half Italian and half secular Jewish. While his parents were not religious, he attended a yeshiva, where the classes were held in English, and the Torah was studied in Hebrew. But his father would speak to him only in Yiddish.


“People would say, ‘Menke, speak English, we’re in America’,” says Dovid. “But he refused. It was Yiddish or nothing with me.


“For him, it was more than just speaking a language; he was passing on much more. Outside the Hasidic community, which is very religious, the secular Yiddish world didn’t pass down its history, its culture. It was a question of cultural survival for my father to speak Yiddish.”


Few people today even know the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, so complete has the latter’s removal from the European consciousness and Jewish life been. According to Katz’ latest book, Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish, whereas the modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today is a creation of East European Zionists roughly 100 years ago, Yiddish represents “a continuous language chain that antedated ancient Hebrew, progressed through Hebrew and then Jewish Aramaic, and ended up in today’s Yiddish – without interruption, seam, or discontinuity.”


Jews in the Diaspora known as Ashkenazy Jews entered the German-speaking region of Central Europe at the end of the first millennium, and their Jewish Aramaic and Hebrew fused with the native medieval German to form Yiddish. For more than 1,000 years, Hebrew was used only for the study of the Torah and reciting prayers.


Therefore, Yiddish is more than just a language, but a link with the 4,000-year history of Judaism, a legacy passed down from generation to generation by the Jews, regardless of geography or circumstances. It includes not only words, idioms and historical references, but also customs, traditions, beliefs and everyday life.


“My first passion as a teenager was to contribute to the continuation of that tradition,” says Katz.


At 15 years old, he led a “mini-rebellion” at his yeshiva, petitioning for a course in Yiddish. But the opposition was too strong. Yiddish was seen as low class, the language of the shtetl, a relic of the old world; whereas Hebrew was the language of the new nation-state, a common language which did not bear the wounds of the Holocaust. He also became the founding editor of the Yiddish-English student journal, Aleichem Sholem (Peace be upon you).


In 1978 he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in linguistics, specialising in Yiddish. He moved to London to begin his doctoral thesis at University College, and in the same week was invited to start teaching Yiddish at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies by its founding president, Dr David Patterson.


He would eventually become director of Yiddish studies there in 1982, the same year that he received his doctorate. He also became founder of the Oxford Programme in Yiddish, an annual summer programme in Yiddish language and literature. Many of his students would later go on to head Yiddish departments of their own around the world.


He served as director until 1990. Then he made his first trip back to his father’s Lithuania.


He visited the little town of Švenčionys, Menke’s birthplace, as well as Michaleshik, now in present-day Belarus, where his father spent the war years, and where his grandmother’s family lived for nearly six centuries. To the delight of his father, who suddenly passed away only a few months later, Dovid phoned him from Michaleshik, and brought home a signed bottle of vodka from the mayor, as well as pictures and videos.


“Meeting the mayor of Micha­leshik was more exciting than meeting the Queen,” says Katz. He had met Queen Elizabeth in London in 1988 at an event held by the Council of Christians and Jews.


The experience of the trip changed his life, and “opened up a whole new world”.


“It was the deepest experience regarding Yiddish I had ever had. I came as a teacher, and left as a student.”


The notion of conducting expeditions into the region, recording as much of the remaining Yiddish speakers’ lives and stories, started to develop; and for most of the 1990s, Katz would return twice a year or more.


Finally, in 1998, he decided to move the Yiddish summer course he had started in Oxford to Vilnius.


“They called me crazy, just as they had in Oxford in 1982; but I proved the doubters wrong again.”


The following year, he accepted a contract from the Soros Foundation to found the Center for Stateless Cultures, an academic institution dedicated “not to cultures without a state but to those who don’t want one”, says Katz. With funding for only two years, the centre was absorbed by Vilnius University. Today, students can take courses or enrol in an MA programme with studies in five different ethnic groups, Roma, Tartar, Karaite, Yiddish and Judaic, in conjunction with the Yiddish Institute.


Katz is quick to point out that he has no political agenda in his work. He explains that he seeks no conflict or restitution of property, and only wants to create an environment in Vilnius for learning and understanding.


“I’m trying to create an island of survival,” he says.


He rents a small flat in the centre, which, unbeknown to him when he first moved in seven years ago, was where a famous Yiddish scholar lived in the 1920s and 1930s. He owns a property in North Wales, where he spends time in the summer and during university holidays, usually writing.


In 2004, he published a massive 400-page volume complete with over 300 rare pictures and maps, Lithuanian Jewish Culture, detailing the history and life of Jews in greater Lithuania.


His book Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish discusses not only the history of Yiddish, but explains optimistically that Yiddish will live on in the ultra-orthodox Jewish, or Hasidic, communities scattered around the world. He is currently working on the second paperback edition. In addition, he has recently signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan for a new book, The Ten Lives of Yiddish, which is due out in late 2007.


But perhaps his greatest legacy will be what he calls the “gift of history”. What is now just a dark corner with a computer in the Yiddish Institute’s library, he hopes will become the central location for the digital archive of those souls who represent the unbroken chain in the heart of Yiddish Europe and in Vilnius, known before the Second World War as the Jerusalem of the North. And most of his work is done with the alacrity and purpose of a man who knows that time does not stop for stories to be told.


This sunny day, in the heart of the Old Town, Katz is interviewing 83-year-old Meilach Sta­levich, who, after hearing that none of his family had survived the war, returned to Vilnius to bid a final farewell in 1946.


Just before getting on a train bound for Russia, Meilach met a Pole who said he had recently seen his mother. Only 4 per cent of Lithuania’s Jews survived the Holocaust. The pair searched the Old Town, and they found her.


“He’s a treasure,” Katz says, his enthusiasm palpable.


Thanks to his work, this is a treasure that will not be lost.
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