Yiddish offers a rich cultural heritage, from great theater actors and directors, such as Esther Ruth Kaminska (whose great-granddaughter Ruth would later marry the extraordinarily talented trumpet player and band leader Eddie (Ady) Rosner - Rosner's life story, which was truly something, was covered in the 1999 documentary "The Jazzman from the Gulag" - http://www.medici.tv/#!/the-jazzman-from-the-gulag) to song writers, such as Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda. Jacobs and Secunda wrote the classic "Bei Mir Bist Du Schein/Schoen," which ironically was a huge hit in Nazi Germany. Check out the Andrews Sisters and their version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vvo3MaFcxw. For more on the history of the song, http://yiddishradioproject.org/exhibits/ymis/?pg=2. But enough about jazz and more from Professor Abend-David on how he came to study Yiddish and why it is such a valuable undertaking:
"not so loud – he thinks he's learning English"
In his novel, Operation Shylock, Philip Roth includes an old anecdote about a customer who is very impressed with a Jewish restaurant on the Lower East Side. He compliments the owner on the great food and service, and the Chinese waiter who speaks excellent Yiddish. "Not so loud…" says the owner, "…he thinks he's learning English."
I will share this anecdote next semester when I teach UF’s first Yiddish Language and Culture class (HBR 4930, EUS 4930, JST 4930). But what I probably will not tell my students is that this anecdote is in some way a part of my life story. I attended both high school and graduate school in the United States and at the age of sixteen I fell in love with the poetry of T. S. Eliot and decided to study English Literature. Much like the case of the Chinese waiter in Roth's anecdote, Yiddish was an uninvited, sometime uncomfortable detour that the move from my native Hebrew Literature into English and American Literature necessitated.
As I was studying for a master's degree in English Literature at SUNY Binghamton, I couldn't help but compare the poetry of Emily Dickinson to that of a number of Modern and Contemporary Hebrew Women Poets. The conundrum of where some of the earlier Hebrew Women Poets might have read or even heard of Dickinson was solved in the most unexpected manner. While Dickinson's great acclaim only began in the 1950's, and the first translations of her work into Hebrew didn’t appear until much later, Dickinson was already translated into Yiddish in 1927 by Michel Licht. Licht in fact predicted that she would be recognized as one of the most significant Modern American Poets.
Consequently, when I decided to write a paper on Emily Dickinson, I found myself at the Institute for Yiddish Research (YIVO), then on Fifth Avenue in New York City. While at YIVO I met with the legendary Dina Abramowicz who was impressed by how little I knew about anything – but since I was a Litvak (a Lithuanian Jew, like her) she gave me the benefit of the doubt. I had the further benefit of meeting Djelal Kadir, a former editor of World Literature Today, who chose to publish one of my first papers on this stumbled-upon topic. And Kadir’s request was even more unexpected as I had presented my paper to a completely silent audience that had neither comments nor questions. With the impending publication of my paper, Yiddish no longer seemed only a detour to from my true vocation.
Looking back, I can certainly understand why my mentors in the English Department at SUNY Binghamton couldn't make heads or tails of what I was doing. My preoccupation with English, Hebrew, Yiddish and eventually German, forced me to move slightly away from the English department, and I soon found myself at the Comparative Literature department at New York University. My Mentor, Prof. Richard Seiburth, suggested that I combine my interest in Shakespearean Drama, Hebrew and Yiddish, and Theory of Translation into a dissertation that would compare the German, Hebrew, and Yiddish translations of The Merchant of Venice. With this dissertation I became a scholar of Comparative Jewish Literature and Translation Studies. The dissertation itself was published immediately as a book by Peter Lang and received the Koret Jewish Publications Program Award.
Over the past ten years I've taught Yiddish, Hebrew and English in various venues and I have found inspiration for my courses and scholarly work in the most unexpected places and texts. A famous children’s book that tells about a violent group of people who takes over the government and persecutes innocent victims on the basis of their ancestry and purity of blood, has led to my course, Harry Potter and the Holocaust, which covers a variety of issues, such as Imagism and Modern Poetry, Modern Jewish History, the Holocaust, and Children’s Literature.
The study of Yiddish language and culture cuts across many different disciplines and often reveals connections that might otherwise be invisible. For instance, I recently participated in a symposium at the University of Toronto, Jewish Literature beyond Borders (http://www.cjs.utoronto.ca/jewishliteraturebeyondborders). For this particular symposium I gave a talk on a 1923 film version of The Merchant of Venice that was directed by Peter Felner and starred a German cast. However, according to a 1924 review in the Warsaw Yiddish press, this production was presented as "our just revenge against non-Jewish persecution." The film was therefore both "translated" into Yiddish and repackaged as a Philo-Semitic production. So I ask, does this topic fall within Yiddish Studies or Film Studies? Or, maybe it could possibly be a subject for Translation Studies or a Cultural Studies course? While it is difficult to pinpoint just which discipline it should fall under, the option of so many different approaches demonstrates the wealth of diversity that Yiddish language and culture has to offer.