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Where the Language of Yiddish Lives On . . .

Guiding spirit Bella Bryks-Klein ... Yiddish is the most important thing in her life

In a gentrified part of modern Tel Aviv, not far from Rothschild Blvd, stands an anomaly - a house devoted to Yiddish, in particular to the Bund - the socialist, secular,

Yiddishist ideological movement started in Poland in 1897 which, surprisingly, still exists today.

This is Brit Ha'avoda, (Arbeiter-Ring in Yiddish). The organization offers, all in Yiddish of course, a library, a sale of books and CDs, regular lectures and activities, a choir and a regular bulletin, "Vus, Ven? Vu?" (What? When? Where?) which lists all the goings-on in Yiddish around the country.

The director/muse/guiding spirit of the Arbeiter-Ring is Bella Bryks-Klein, a dynamic, engaging woman who declares that except for her children and grandchildren, Yiddish is the most important thing in her life. Her passion is to help see that the language and culture exist "for at least another generation".

A visit to Brit Ha'avoda showed me just how much time, effort and love Bella puts into achieving that aim. On what I imagine to be a typical morning, the office was full of activity. "Lebedich" (lively") was the Yiddish word that occurred to me. The telephone rang constantly with queries from lecturers, performers, what have you; a Russian gentleman dropped in to enquire about translating his book into Yiddish; Bella's desk overflowed with papers and work to be done. Yiddish, not Hebrew, was the language spoken and portraits of the great Yiddish writers hung on the wall. I felt as if I were in my grandparent's home once again.

What is the Bund? Well, think of American Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has been described as a typical Bundist in some respects – idealistic, socialist and culturally, though not religiously, Jewish. 

As far as the eye can see ... books in Yiddish at Arbeiter-Ring Tel Aviv.

By the turn of the 19th century, traditional observant Jews in Poland and Russia felt the greater world open to them. Many became socialist and devoted to Yiddish culture, with writers such as I.L Peretz, Shalom Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim representing their point of view. Some were Zionist, but they also believed that Jews should become active citizens of the country they lived in rather than maintain a separation.

After the Second World War, many Bundists came to Israel and Brit Ha'avoda was established to maintain Yiddish culture. It wasn't easy; the founding fathers were adamant that Hebrew should be the language of the country and did everything they could to discourage Yiddish. It was even illegal to perform a play in Yiddish. Nevertheless, Brit Ha'avoda thrived.

"There were as many as a thousand subscribers to the library at its height," Bella said. "There were also cooperatives organized by the association for finding jobs and for giving loans, and classes for children in Yiddish. Almost every day people met here." Today, few people borrow from the 40,000 volume Yiddish book collection. Still, Bella collects Yiddish books from abandoned collections so they won't be discarded.

The Arbeiter-Ring is less ideological today and more dedicated to preserving the language, literature and culture.

A 25-member chorus meets on Tuesdays and performs regularly in Yiddish, while the Culture Circle meets every second Wednesday for a lecture by an academic or a writer and an artistic performance. Some 70 people attend.

The Arbeiter-Ring, in addition to its activities, sends out a monthly 7-page bulletin of activities to some 900 people. It also includes all kinds of information of interest to Yiddish lovers, such as new Yiddish books printed in Israel and tours and summer courses abroad in Yiddish

The Arbeiter-Ring is not the only association in Israel that promotes Yiddish. There are others, including Beit Shalom Aleichem and Beit Leyvik. Each has its niche; Beit Shalom Aleichem, for example, offers lessons in Yiddish, while Beit Leyvik is more literary in focus. 

Another view inside Arbeiter-Ring ... with photographs, Yiddish magazines and pamphlets

As you might expect from Jews (two people; three shuls), not all the groups get along. "I'm a diplomat," says Bella. "I'm one of the only people on speaking terms with everyone in the Yiddish world."

Bella herself learned Yiddish at home in New York, from her father, a poet and Yiddishist who was an Auschwitz survivor. "That is why it is so close to my heart." Her mother, also a survivor and Yiddish speaker, came from Romania. Bella came to Israel to spend her junior year at university, and met and married her late husband, with whom she had three children and "a great love". Although she worked for a pharmaceutical company, the loss of her husband and father caused her to realize that "life was too short to do something my heart wasn't into". And so she determined to work to further Yiddish. In addition to working as director, she is completing an MA on her father's Yiddish writings.

Today, Yiddish is basically an academic language, though it is still spoken by some, mainly elderly people. True, Haredim speak Yiddish, but without the interest in the culture or the literature of the Bundists.

And the future? Says Bella, "I don't want to sound gloomy. In some ways, there is a revival. At the last Jerusalem Book Fair, I was asked to man the Yiddish stand which had material from seven different associations. It was absolutely a hit. We sold about NIS10,000 worth of books, CDs and DVDs. It struck me – there's still hope.

"The generation who lived through the Holocaust was brought up speaking Yiddish and they are going. The next generation will have academic Yiddish but it will never be the same. The dialects will disappear. I would like to think Yiddish will survive because of the literature in translation. I am doing my utmost to preserve it for another generation and trying to attract new people to the beautiful world of Yiddish. Sometimes I feel encouraged. I recently got an email that said 'You are doing holy work.'"

She laughs. "It's nice to hear a good word now and then."

Contact details: Bella Bryks-Klein
Arbeter-ring in Yisroel - Brith Haavoda
48 Kalisher Street
Tel Aviv Israel
Tel/fax: 972-3-517-6764

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Wednesday, 28 February 2024

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