Lithuanian Jews revive Yiddish

BBC News, Vilnius
By Laura Sheeter

Lithuania’s small Jewish community is trying to revive the Yiddish language, spurred on by the fear that it could disappear.

Before World War II, Lithuania was one of the most celebrated centres of Jewish culture in Europe. It was home to famed Jewish scholars, artists and writers, as well as more than 250,000 Jews, who spoke Yiddish – the language common to Jews across Eastern Europe – as their mother tongue. But that community was almost totally destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust and decades of Soviet repression. Today there are only 5,000 Jews in Lithuania, and just a few hundred of them can speak Yiddish. Choral tradition In a room at the back of an old apartment block in central Vilnius, a dozen five- and six-year-olds sit wriggling on a bench, barely able to contain their excitement. It is time for their weekly singing class, and it is clear from the sheer volume just how much they are enjoying themselves. Like any other children, they are learning nursery rhymes and traditional songs. But uniquely, among all the nursery schools in Lithuania, these children are singing in Yiddish.

It is Lithuania’s only Jewish nursery school. While they may regard the lessons simply as fun, Rita Kozhevatova, the head of the nursery school, says these children are at the forefront of the fight to save Yiddish. Their parents, who grew up in Soviet times, cannot speak the language. Rita herself is not a Yiddish speaker. Like many of Lithuania’s Jews, she heard her grandparents speaking it, but rarely encountered it outside her home. “If the children don’t learn Yiddish, the language will simply die,” she says. “If we teach them, then they’ll pass it on to their children and grandchildren. But if we let the language die with our grandparents then that will be it.” One of the few public places in Vilnius where you can still hear Yiddish is the city’s Choral Synagogue. The elderly men who gather here twice a day to pray, greet each other and chat in Yiddish, before starting their prayers, in Hebrew. Survivor The head of the Lithuanian Jewish community, Simon Alperovicius, is proud that the language has survived against the odds.

He himself studied at a Yiddish school before World War II, and then escaped to Russia when the Nazis invaded Lithuania. When he returned home in 1945 he found that in his family only one cousin had survived. Stalin’s repressions after the war almost destroyed the last of the community, but later on, he says, Lithuania was almost the only place in the Soviet Union where Jews dared to speak Yiddish in public. It was after the fall of the USSR that things became really hard, he says. Yiddish in schools “Yiddish is our mother tongue, and we are doing everything we can to save it. We’re teaching children in the nursery school, we have a Yiddish newspaper, and we hope to teach Yiddish in the Jewish secondary school too.”

If the children don’t learn Yiddish, the language will simply die
Rita Kozhevatova, headteacher

Julijus Gurevicius, 17, is one of the only pupils at the school who can speak Yiddish already. It is his mother tongue, and at home with his parents and grandparents, though they occasionally switch into Lithuanian or Russian, most of their conversation is in Yiddish. Julijus’s parents, Chaim and Mina, say they think theirs will be one of the last Yiddish-speaking families. The assimilation of young Jews into Lithuanian society is to blame, they say. But Julijus is more hopeful. “Now it’s like a small miracle, people don’t know what to think when they hear Yiddish,” he says. “But I am optimistic, I hope that my children will speak Yiddish. My classmates want to study Yiddish too, so I think the future will be bright for this language.” And for others, it is about more than just teaching the language. Rafael Karpis, an opera student at the Vilnius Music Academy, has performed Yiddish songs at concerts around the world. He learned to sing, and learned Yiddish, at the same time, he says – the love of one feeding his enthusiasm for the other. Rafael believes that the only way to make sure Yiddish survives is to interest all Lithuanians in the country’s Jewish history and art, and above all, its music. “After you hear a Yiddish song, you become interested in how it was born, and in Yiddish writers and artists who lived here.”