Itche Goldberg, Yiddish advocate, dies

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 3 19:05:54 UTC 2007

from the NYTimes, January 3, 2007

Itche Goldberg, Yiddish Advocate, 102, Dies


Itche Goldberg, a champion of Yiddish who wrote and edited and taught his
beloved language in the face of all those who said keeping Yiddish alive
was a lost cause, died last Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was
102. He died of complications of cancer, his son, David, said. Passing on
the Yiddish tradition to future generations was the passion of Itche
Goldbergs life. He promoted the language in every conceivable form:
writing poetry, librettos, childrens books and essays and running Yiddish
schools and summer camps. His book Yiddish Stories for Young People is
still used in the shrinking network of secular Yiddish schools. Mr.
Goldbergs final collection of essays in Yiddish, Essayen Tsvey (Essays
Two), was published in 2004 on his 100th birthday.

In secular Yiddish circles, Mr. Goldberg is best known as the editor of
one of the longest-running journals of Yiddish literature, Yidishe Kultur.
He served as editor from 1964 to 2004, when he published the journals
final issue. Mr. Goldberg was a veteran of the heated ideological wars of
the 20th century over Judaism, Yiddish, socialism and communism. He quit a
job at a Yiddish summer camp in Canada in the 1920s after a fight with the
anarchist Emma Goldman over the Sacco and Vanzetti case. And he was no fan
of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in literature
in 1978. He published an essay criticizing Singer as failing to reflect
the humanist and social ideals that Mr. Goldberg felt were the central
themes of Yiddish culture. He never stopped championing Yiddish, in
whatever form, even in the face of evidence that fewer and fewer people
were interested in it.

We're dealing with a language that is about 1,000 years old and a
literature that is 600 or 700 years old, he once said. What developed was
an extraordinary and profound modern literature which would become the
equivalent of French or German literature. Yiddish is a Germanic language
that developed as the lingua franca of the Ashkenazic Jewry by
incorporating Hebrew and borrowing liberally from the different European
lands where Jews lived. The use of Yiddish has greatly diminished, with
the notable exception of its use among Hasidic Jews who continue to speak
the language of the European Jewish communities from which they sprang.
Mr. Goldberg was decidedly secular. But as he told an interviewer not long
ago, Just because Im secular doesnt mean Im antireligious. What was
important about Judaism, he said, was its progressive values and not its
religious rituals. He pushed for more Jewish content in the Yiddish
schools of his day, including more study of the Bible and of Jewish
holidays, to the dismay of some of his anti-religious colleagues.

Isaac Goldberg was born in Apt, Poland, on March 22, 1904. From early
childhood everyone called him Itche, a diminutive form of Isaac. In 1920
he moved to Toronto, where he taught Yiddish at the Workmens
Circle/Arbeter Ring School, which promoted a socialist ideology. Later,
when he moved to New York, he broke with Workmens Circle and embraced
communism, seeing the Soviet Union as the salvation for Jewish national
and social problems. He became the cultural and national school director
of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order, a branch of the pro-Communist
International Workers Order. Mr. Goldberg repudiated Communist ideology in
the 1950s when the Stalinist regimes horrors became apparent, particularly
the execution of Jewish writers in 1952. Although he was threatened with
deportation because of his Communist activities, Mr. Goldberg was able to
remain in the United States, and eventually became an American citizen.
>>From 1970 to 1985, he was a professor of Yiddish language and literature
at Queens College.

Two years ago, in honor of his 100th birthday, a group of Jewish musicians
performed an adaptation of I. L. Peretzs Oyb Nit Nokh Hekher (If Not Even
Higher), with a libretto by Mr. Goldberg. It was one of more than 20 works
that he wrote with the composer Moyshe Rauch. In addition to his son, who
lives in Manhattan, Mr. Goldberg is survived by his wife of 67 years, the
former Jennie Wilensky, who is 101; a daughter, Susan, of Manhattan; two
granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren. Mr. Goldberg fought to keep
his magazine Yidishe Kultur alive right to the end of his life. In an
interview in 2004 he said: I only have two dreams. One dream is that
someone will knock on the door and I will open it and they give me a check
for $150,000 for the magazine. Second dream is that someone knocks at the
door and I open it up and he gives me a corned beef sandwich. Those are my
only two dreams. Im not asking for much. Really, Im not. And I think
theyre both reachable.

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