Yivo Summer Yiddish Institute, Week One

It’s Saturday of a three-day weekend. I was just in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Had a look at their Byzantine collection. No one seems to pick Byzantine Art as their first choice, but there is some splendid stuff there, particularly the mosaics and carvings. Then to European paintings. Meanwhile, what I really wanted was to get back to the apartment and get started on my homework. And to tell you about the highlights of my Yivo Summer Yiddish Institute, Week One.

The first day the highlight was just being there. Beginnings are magic. The second day was a first day, too, because it was my first (brief) day doing research in the Yivo Archives. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, I found a small treasure there right off the bat. Classes are at a very challenging level for me, nearly all of them with the instruction entirely in Yiddish. But understanding is no problem, really. The real challenge is when I try to speak, or write, or do the grammar exercises. Hence my need to start Tuesday’s homework on Saturday. My fellow classmates are an interesting lot, from Ukraine, Poland, Russia, China, Brazil, and various parts of the US. I can’t possibly tell you everything, so I’ll emphasize three highlights.

Kin Kotsk

On Monday, I got up and out early so I could walk down from my father’s apartment on 58th street all the way down to 16th. I’m going to be sitting all day every day, and I needed the exercise. Plus, I love walking in New York City. I left what I thought was way more time than I needed, but my laptop and my book bag slowed me down in the thick pedestrian traffic. And, when figuring how long it takes to walk a mile, I’d neglected to include traffic lights. So instead of being crazy early, which I wanted, I was just going to be on time. I tried to speed up, but in the second mile with those bags, that made me sweatier and my shoulders tireder. I wondered why I was even doing this. Then, I remembered the song from my (Arberter Ring) online class with Sheva Zucker. “Kin (Keyn) Kotsk fort men nisht. Kin Kotsk, geyt men.”

To Kotsk, one does not ride. One walks. She used the song to distinguish the verb ‘geyen’ from the English ‘to go’. Geyen is only used for walking, not for riding. On a pilgrimage, one goes by foot.

“Is the song,” Zucker asked, “honoring or making fun of the Hasidm?” Both, I think. The best of them work both ways. Those who yearn for the spirit of ecstatic believers, and those who consider them to be naïve and somehow charming. Thinking of it cheers me up. I amuse myself, and I also have been pointing myself towards this for a long time. Why shouldn’t I treat it as a pilgrimage?

I meet my fellow students and the first of my teachers. Our required classes are in literature, grammar, and conversation. Though this is actually still unclear to many of us, a fourth class will have to be chosen: either one of the two literature classes, or else “Shteyger”, a class on Jewish religious life and customs. There are electives on theater, archival research, how to read Yiddish handwriting, and one called ‘Two Cities’, about Yiddish in Vilne and in Warsaw, particularly between the two world wars. I won’t go into the tangle of figuring out which classes I was supposed to be in. There was a certain amount of administrative tummel, but I suppose that’s inevitable.

Three Languages (at Least)

I wish I were better at documenting as I go. There were lots of introductions on that first day, and, as I said, a little confusion, too. Most texts were provided as photocopied packets, so I felt flush enough that when my literature teacher suggested we really must have Yitskhok Neborksi’s dictionary of Hebrew words in Yiddish, I went ahead and ordered it (from the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst). In the first couple of days we were also supposed to get ready for a lecture by Chaim Grade’s translator on Wednesday evening. We had three excerpts to read, in Yiddish or in English. As the first few days went on, I realized that I was in the right level. Behind on grammar, and probably a little ahead on vocabulary. For speaking, we are a mixed bag, with a few students more confident or more competent than me (not always the same ones), and a few clearly struggling. For reading, I am solid.

What I could not figure out the first couple of days, was which was the right section for me as the fourth required course. Having rejected the class on gender in literature (there’s a wealth of material I have access to and can read elsewhere), I had to choose between “Emergence of Modern Yiddish (EMY)” and “Shteyger”. Erroneously, I thought that I had to choose between EMY and the Two Cities class. The Two Cities was to be taught by two very intimidating scholars, and entirely in Yiddish, and the first class meeting was not until Thursday.

On Wednesday, without knowing I was actually supposed to, I went to the first meeting of the Shteyger class, because Sheva had strongly recommended the teacher Chava Lapin, especially for the beauty of her Yiddish. Though I am not sure what the course will end up being like (the students begin with a rather extreme spread in their knowledge of Yiddishkayt and Jewish customs), I found her to be dazzling. Why? Because she practically jumped up and down to tell us what she has to tell us. And because she talks a mile a minute. Like a waterfall of delight in and passion about the subject matter.

We had our lecture on Chaim Grade on Wednesday evening. His translator, Curt Leviant, spoke about Grade as a person, and about translating him, and about the readings we had read. Whenever a speaker has three topics for one talk, there’s a limit to depth. So it goes.

For my purposes, the most interesting part was what he stressed about translating. You need, he said, three languages: “Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish.” He emphasized the third aspect, talking about translators who made mistakes, sometimes big ones, because they did not know enough about Jewish life, customs, and religion, including religious history. I was amused that one example he picked concerned the word שלמה, which can mean either ‘Solomon’, or else ‘complete’, because I had used that spelling ambiguity to make a point in a blog post once [link here].

It was daunting to hear how important deep knowledge of Judaism is in translating Yiddish, and also gratifying, since I had just decided to take the Shteyger class. More to the point when it comes to his ‘three languages’, I don’t know Hebrew. Lucky I ordered the Niborski book. Oh, yeah. And he forgot English.

Letters from Leyvik

In between all this, I have SECONDS to get at the Yivo Archive. Basically, most days I have to skip my lunch break to get 40 minutes up there. Some days, there is even programming over the lunch hour. After school, on Friday, and on weekends, the archives are not open.

The second day I went up to the third floor, signed up, opened an account, and learned about their various ways of safeguarding their material. No pens, no markers, no bags, etc, etc. I gave them my driver’s license and got a locker for my stuff. No photocopying, scanning or photographing is allowed. That part is a real impediment. You can request that they copy material, and they will do it for you at something like 35 cents a page. But not right away. Fine.

There is a slightly laborious procedure for identifying and requesting material, but not too bad. Fortunately, they had a general description or ‘finding aid’ of what’s in my grandfather’s archive. Unfortunately it was 25 pages long, in Yiddish. The vast majority, nearly all of it, is comprised of lists of the names of people from whom he received letters. I decided to start there.

Not knowing what I might be able to read (handwriting in Yiddish is tough! More about that soon), I jotted down the names of the people who had the most letters. These were his colleagues in education, his publisher, family members, and others whom I don’t recognize. But there are also famous writers who wrote to him. On my first day I started with lamed. I wanted to see what he and Leybush Leherer wrote to each other, and I also wanted to see what H. Leyvik had written to him. Leyvik [also spelled “Leivick”] was a great writer, a poet and dramatist. I had just been to his play Di khasene in Fernvald, or, A Wedding in Fernvald, about the first wedding after the holocaust, conducted in a displaced person’s camp. I’ve also translated one of Leyvik’s poems [link here].

There were only a handful of letters, but that was good, because I was nearly out of time before I started. The handwriting was hard. Most of the letters were routine. One offered his congratulations to my Zeidy on the publication of a new book which was, he said, a real and important contribution, or something equivalent (as I said, not easy to read). The letters are addressed to “Dear Friend Dr. Solomon Simon.” My grandfather was a dentist. We wouldn’t necessarily have that mix of formal and informal. If someone is a dear friend, why use his title? But titles were fewer and farther between then, and commanded respect. Then there was a telegram with congratulations, on the occasion of a birthday banquet that Leyvik could not attend. Something else fairly short and routine. There was also a letter from my grandfather to Leyvik (evidently either unsent, or returned, from Leyvik’s archive), of which I could not read a single word. Trying to decipher my Zeidy’s handwriting may be the hardest thing I do this summer.

The last letter had two pages, stapled together. On the second page was a poem. “Sonet Tsu Tseyn” (Sonnet to Teeth). It appears that Leyvik wrote a sonnet to my grandfather. I wonder whether it was offered in payment for dental work, or in tongue-in-cheek honor of Simon’s other profession. I have looked in the table of contents of Leyvik’s last collection of poems and did not find it. Just a bit of light verse, such as friends exchange. Come to think of it, dear reader, how come you have not written and sent me a sonnet?

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3 thoughts on “Yivo Summer Yiddish Institute, Week One

  1. Pingback: What Kind of Fool am I, Part Five: Sonnet Tsu Tseyn | Tongue's Memory

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