By invitation of my friend Christiane last spring, I had a rare opportunity to go to a musical production in Yiddish called “The Yiddische Mamme” in Netanya. It was only last night that I discovered this treasure of a draft in some obscure folder on my computer, and decided better a late publication than not at all. I’ve learned bits and pieces about the history of Yiddish theatre when I was a college student, but never in a serious way. I went to Mt. Holyoke College, which is just next door to the Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College Campus. They would host lectures and cultural events, and I was fortunate to have a friend on a fellowship who would sometimes slip me historical recordings from the Golden Age of Yiddish in America. I remember how inspiring I found the efforts of early Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, who helped to build a modern American Jewish life through the arts. I felt a sense of pride knowing more about my people’s successful endeavors. (The history of Jews in American theatre and cinema is a long and dynamic one. Feel free to sort through the abundance of reading material with books like this.)
Christiane and I were the youngest in the audience by about 50 years. Asking a long row of elderly folk to stand up so we could make our way to the middle of the aisle made me feel guiltier than usual. We took a selfie sitting together in our red velvet seats, and chatted until the director took the stage for the introduction. When the lights dimmed, and a familiar air of excitement filled the theatre. We were about to enjoy drama played out in it’s oldest and most intimate form, anyone who grew up going to the theatre may understand this special genre of anticipation.
But for me, there was something else I was anticipating to take the stage. My previous exposure to the language was through the Book Center in an academic setting, and my curious eavesdropping on Chassidic people I see in places like Brooklyn and Jerusalem. On the street they speak it quietly amongst themselves, usually walking briskly with the wisps of strollers and plastic bags to mute their voices. In my family, I am the third generation non-speaker of Yiddish, and for most Ashkenazi Jews, it is a part of our culture that has nearly disappeared. The elders that surrounded me in the audience were among the last people in the world to be personally connected to the Yiddish. What I was really waiting for behind those curtains was the opportunity to hear the voices of my ancestors.
Yiddish died in three places: it melted in the forever bubbling cultural “chullant” of North America, it was muffled by the new Hebrew national identity of the State of Israel, and it was murdered by the Nazis. This is not to discredit the great efforts of young people today who are reviving the language, but Yiddish, as an expression of ethnic identity is no more. These thoughts led me to ruminate on my work as a private memoir and biography writer.
On several occasions, I have written entire passages of my client’s book with a certain song he mentioned on repeat. “I have no picture,” he would say, “but this is the song we sang on the day it happened.” Similar to the theme of the Yiddish musical, I find that encouraging people to express straightforward memories of their mother can be one of the most challenging points in an interview. Those memories are so often steeped in complexes. Using mediums such as music is a gentle yet powerful way to guide someone into memory. This method has shown to work wonders with those suffering from things like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
When one of the actresses took the spotlight for her solo, she sang a classic lullaby called “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen“, a song that many Yiddische mammes once sang to their babes. Slowly, the hum of low voices began to rise from the audience, sometimes broken by weeping, as the memories of their Jewish mothers began floated up into the theatre air. That night in the Yiddish Theatre, the voices of millions of mothers, gone for generations, were brought back to life in a lullaby graced by their surviving children.