Israeli Yiddish fest proves mamaloshen is still vibrant

In December, when Yiddishist Ella Gaffen launched a weeklong Yiddish festival at the Neveh Ilan resort hotel where she is the sales and marketing manager, she was pleasantly surprised by the local response. People came from all over the country to the Yiddish cabaret night and expressed that they were eager to see in the mamaloshen (mother tongue) entertainment throughout the year.

Gaffen, who was recently elected chairperson of the Yiddish Dor Hemshech ("Next Generation") group, had not until then realized what a craving there is for Yiddish.

After the second annual Yiddish festival, she plans to organize a series of Yiddish musical and cultural events — not just in Neveh Ilan, but in every city and town with a sizable Yiddish-speaking population.

Although people came to the festival from several countries, she says, attendance was much lower than initially anticipated because foreign tourists are bypassing Israel this year.

"The Yiddish festival is going to be an annual tradition," she predicts. "People [will] know that there's a Yiddish festival in Israel in the last week of December, so if they don't make it this year, they'll come next year or the year after."

The festival, which ended Jan. 3, is more than just entertainment. It includes tours around the country and visits to historical sites, museums and other places of interest.

The difference is that the guides all speak Yiddish.

While most other tourist groups visit Jerusalem's haredi neighborhood of Mea She'arim, Yiddish festival participants go there because it's one of the few places in Israel where children converse in Yiddish at home, at school and in the street.

But Mea She'arim, according to Gaffen, is not an isolated example. She notes that classes and retreats are springing up all over, and cites Yiddish-language projects at Columbia University, Oxford and several other institutes of higher learning.

Thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union speak excellent Yiddish, and are making an impact on Yiddish culture both in Israel and the diaspora.

In Canada, where Gaffen was raised, a mamaloshen organization operates in Montreal and Toronto has a Friends of Yiddish group.

During a recent visit to her family, Gaffen was rebuffed when she asked the Canadian Yiddish groups to help with the festival.

"Why should we help," group leaders asked, "if Israel pushed Yiddish away and tried to get rid of it?"

Gaffen's answer was that in the beginning this had to be the policy so that Hebrew could come back into its own glory. But as the homeland of the Jewish people, Israel is the most logical place in which Yiddish should be preserved and nourished, she told them, "so that we can keep its vitality."

Many non-Jews are learning Yiddish to get a better appreciation of Yiddish literature and of pre-Holocaust Jewry, Gaffen points out. She adds that among the festival participants is a group of non-Jewish Yiddish students from Germany.

This will be their second appearance.

The festival offers something for everyone: Yiddish prose and poetry readings; anecdotes by storyteller Yossel Birstein, reminiscences by a veteran Jerusalemite and recollections in Yiddish of illegal immigration by Murray Greenfield, who has told the story many times in English.

Also on the program are variety and musical performances, simulation games in Yiddish and a Shabbat celebrated almost entirely in Yiddish.

The guide accompanying participants on most of the tours is Asher Haimovitz, the cantor of Jerusalem's Yeshurun Synagogue, who interrupts the bus journeys with bursts of Yiddish song.

The participants also visit the Knesset, where they are given a guided tour in Yiddish by former Knesset member Shevah Weiss.