[lg policy] Yiddish finds its homeland in Russia=?windows-1252?Q?=92s_?=Far East

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 26 16:07:56 UTC 2012

 Yiddish finds its homeland in Russia’s Far East
November 26, 2012 Yulia Larina <http://rbth.ru/author/Yulia+Larina>,
Ogoniok magazine

 In Russia’s Jewish autonomous region, Chinese and Korean students help
keep alive a language identified with European Jewish culture .
  c <http://rbth.ru/tag/customs>

 [image: Yiddish finds its homeland in Russia’s Far East] Writer and
director Marek Halter: "When I was born, 11 million people spoke Yiddish.
And then I come to Siberia, where signs on the houses are all written in
two languages and children are taught Yiddish at school." Source: AFP /
East News

Yiddish may be dying out in Europe, but it is still very much alive in
Russia’s Far East. In the Jewish Autonomous Region, a territory along the
Russian-Chinese border created by Stalin as a Jewish homeland, all
schoolchildren learn Yiddish as part of the curriculum, even though
students of Chinese and Korean descent often outnumber Jewish ones.

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In an interview with Yulia Larina of Ogoniok magazine, Marek Halter,
writer-director of the film “Birobidzhan, Birobidzhan!,” filmed in and
named for the regional capital, discusses this incongruous situation.* *

*Ogoniok: Why do people learn Yiddish in Birobidzhan? Who are these people
going to speak Yiddish with?*

*Marek Halter:* They’ll talk to each other. I was in one school in
Birobidzhan where many of the pupils are Chinese and Korean, and I talked
to a Chinese mother waiting for her son by the school gate. I asked her why
she thought her son needed to learn Yiddish. Her answer was simple: “You
can never tell what will come in useful later in life”.

I thought: There are 1.4 billion Chinese people on the planet, and 14
million Jews at the most, and of them, only about 150,000 speak Yiddish.
And this Chinese lady thinks that 20-30 years down the line her son might
need Yiddish. But she’s a clever woman. For example, there are no longer
any Yiddish-speaking Jews in France, but Yiddish words often crop up in
French jokes.* *

* *
* * Marek Halter's profile:

Marek Halter, a French Jewish writer and human rights activist, was born in
Poland to a mother who was a Yiddish poet. During World War II, his family
was sent to Uzbekistan, although they later settled in France. Halter’s
Jewish identity has featured heavily in his work. His novels include The
Wind of the Khazars (2003) — a piece of historical fiction about the
Khazars, a nomadic kingdom of Turkic people in the Caucasus who converted
to Judaism.
* *

* *

*Ogoniok: Over the years Yiddish has been artificially kept alive by the
state in the Jewish Autonomous Region. It is thanks to government support
that the language has avoided extinction.*

*M.H.:* You are right. It is quite a strange situation. When the film was
aired in Russia, a piece about Jewish theater was not included, and for me
this was quite an important part of the film. In Europe people generally
build a church first, and then a town or a city. Along with Manaus in
Brazil, Birobidzhan in Russia is one of just two cities in the world that
were built up around theaters.

People lived here in huts, but the first proper building was a national
Jewish theater. Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin’s Minister of Railways and the
principal Jewish figure in the Soviet political elite, came to Birobidzhan
in 1936 to officially open this theater, and he spoke Yiddish. The theater
is still in operation although today the plays are performed in Russian.* *

*Ogoniok: Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar says in the film that the
project for building Birobidzhan was wrong, and that a person should live
somewhere comfortable. Does it not seem to you that creating the Jewish
region so far away from Moscow and in such harsh conditions was a form of

*M.H.:* You are right. Jewish people wanted the Autonomous Region to be
built somewhere they were already settled. It was wrong to send Jewish
people so far away. But still, for me, Stalin and Hitler are very
different. I was born in Warsaw. My first memories are of the Warsaw
ghetto. We managed to escape the ghetto and get to a part of Poland
controlled by the Red Army. I am alive today only because the Soviet Union
helped us.

I never set out to make a political film. I just wanted to share some of my
memories. When I was born, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. And then I come
to Siberia, where signs on the houses are all written in two languages and
children are taught Yiddish at school. I saw Jews, the likes of which I
hadn’t seen in 50 years. The very same. With the same accent. With the same



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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