Whereas Yiddish flourished in France in the immediate post-war period, partly due to the influx of survivors from Poland and Lithuania, the failure to ensure transmission of Yiddish to the following generation led to a decline. From the 1970s a number of significant academic institutions and programmes were created and the Bibliotheque Medem became a centre of documentation and acquired the bibliographic collections of libraries that had closed. In 2002 the Maison de la Culture Yiddish-Bibliotheque Medem (MCY) was established with the task not only of preservation but also of creating cultural opportunities through projects including publications, adult and children's education, and through encouraging the use of the spoken language.
On 24 March 1935, Naye prese, the Yiddish-language daily newspaper of the Jewish section of the French Communist Party (PCF), ran a small ad for a women’s tailor on 10, rue des Filles du Calvaire in Paris’ tenth arrondissement that reads, “Working women, do you want inexpensive clothing with the latest fashion and the best production and measurements?”*1 An image of a woman accompanies the ad. She is tall and slender with short hair, and she wears a cloche hat—a fitted, bell-shaped hat, typically made of felt, that was popular during the 1920s and 30s.2 Her jacket and skirt are tailored slimly. The position of her feet suggests that she is wearing heels. According to the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, “Modern Girls [were portrayed in print media] with carefully made up faces, bobbed hair, exposed arms and backs, and bodies clad in the latest fashions.”3 These modern girls were the same “working women” featured in the tailor’s advertisement in Naye prese. Given the newspaper’s political and ethnic affiliation, we can read this interwar Modern Girl as more than just a workingwoman. She is a conscious worker aware of her class stature and trying to do something about it by engaging in contemporary bourgeois Parisian culture and lifestyle. More precisely, she dressed to subvert traditional Eastern European Jewish gender constructs that eschewed women’s economic contributions to the family. Her outfits—as promoted by the ad—embodied tensions that marked her community. Why, for example, did Naye prese—a Communist newspaper—present such bourgeois imagery within their ad copy? Even more, what role, if any, did these images play in helping immigrant Jews understand Paris and France’s interwar cultural and social context?
Remembering the Holocaust in Today’s Yiddish Song
The Holocaust was undoubtedly the single event that most influenced the course of Yiddish song during the twentieth century. Its effects on Yiddish culture were incalculable. Despite the increasing difficulty of Jewish life in central and Eastern Europe during the 1930s, this was also a period of flowering of Yiddish cultural life. Many believed that the strong network of Yiddish publications, education, cultural events and political organisations offered the promise of a secure and thriving Jewish life despite the restrictions being laid upon the Jews.
On 17 March 1996 the Knesset (Israeli parliament) passed a law to set up two national authorities, one for Yiddish culture and the other for Ladino culture. Yiddish is a 1,000– year old language based on German with words and idioms from Hebrew, Aramaic and additional European languages. Ladino is approximately 500 years old and is based on Spanish, with words and idioms from Hebrew, Aramaic, Northern African languages, as well as Balkan languages and from other countries once under the domination of the Ottoman Empire.
The last time I saw Sheila Shulman z’l was in her hospital bed, our conversation frequently interrupted by nursing interventions and closed curtains. It brought back memories of another last encounter with an exceptional and gifted woman who had similarly played a significant role at Leo Baeck College, Dr Ellen Littmann, the college’s lecturer in Bible studies since its inception. Though miles apart in temperament, both shared an intellectual curiosity and integrity; the one the product of pre-war German Bildung, the other of New York Yiddish culture. Both were ‘outsiders’ struggling for recognition in a patriarchal Jewish culture; both, in their very different ways, were nurturers of their students, their spiritual children. Both managed to retain their dignity to the end amidst the indignities of a distressing terminal illness, and both were surrounded at the end by admirers and friends.
Now that this issue focusing on Yiddish is completed it seems obvious, at least in retrospect, that this was a relevant and important topic for a journal devoted to themes affecting Jewish life in Europe. This was not so self-evident when the idea began to emerge. An early impetus was the offering of an article some years ago by Haike Beruriah Wiegand, included here, on the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. At the time it seemed too specialised and lacking in a context, so it was held in reserve. Another impetus was hearing a lecture on the unexpected topic of ‘Yiddish Tango in Argentina’ by Lloica Czackis, included in this issue, accompanied by her own excellent performances of the songs. That in turn triggered many memories of performances of Yiddish songs in Germany by excellent singers and musicians as diverse as Daniel Kempin, Shura Lipovsky, Roswitha Dasch and Katharina Muetter, the former two Jewish, the latter not, all of whom have undertaken serious research into Yiddish culture and music, and brought commitment and learning, as well as great artistry, to their work. Suddenly the obviousness of the subject became apparent.
After a time of silence, Jewish identity often appeared to be reclaimed, or redefined, through connecting to Yiddish (folk-) song. Since Yiddish songs have become a kind of musical historic archive, Jews find in this repertoire different expressions of Jewish identity. They are able to embark on a joyful learning process as opposed to the sadness or silence they have been confronted with before. Meanwhile, the interest of non-Jews for this subject teaches them about a multi-faceted Jewish life, as opposed to only learning about the Shoah or the dramatic political struggles of Israel. This kind of cultural exploration becomes a strong tool for intercultural dialogue and peace. Both Jews and non-Jews participate in an inclusive learning-experience about a European Jewish heritage, which appears to be a discovery for both, on different levels. Depending on the choice of repertoire and a specific pedagogical approach, this particular way of learning appears to contribute to consciousness and universal thinking. The usual chauvinism that might result from reclaiming one's ethnic, cultural or religious identity does not seem to occur in this case. This article details Europe's quest for Yiddish culture after the Second World War and its consequences for Jewish and non-Jewish life today, seen through the eyes of a singer and pedagogue of Yiddish songs.