Sholom Aleichem Is Alive and Well

Yiddish Crowd Still Gathers at Bronx Center Named for Writer

Bringing It Home: A New Yiddish Rep rehearsal of the one-act play “Agentn,” based on the works of Sholem Aleichem, at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx.
nathaniel herz
Bringing It Home: A New Yiddish Rep rehearsal of the one-act play “Agentn,” based on the works of Sholem Aleichem, at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx.

By Nathaniel Herz

Published January 07, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Yarmulkes are a rare sight along Norwood’s Bainbridge Avenue, a busy thoroughfare at the heart of the Bronx neighborhood once dominated by Jews and Italians.

Today, the street is lined with shops and stores owned by a new, diverse group of immigrants. Residents can get their teeth cleaned by a Dominican dentist, purchase pastries from a Montenegrin bakery or pick up groceries at a Bangladeshi market.

One building, however, still displays Yiddish’s serifed, curling script on its marble facade. And inside, members of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center can be found speaking the language with the same fluency and passion that their ancestors did, centuries ago.

“You just have the feeling that you want a link to your past,” said Paul Glasser, 54, a Yiddish scholar at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan, who has attended events at the center since the 1980s. “This is the only way I can do it, really.”

In mid-November, an audience of 50 gathered at the cultural center to see a play based on the works of Sholem Aleichem himself. Members of the acting troupe, the New Yiddish Rep, said that after having done previous performances for English speakers, they relished a crowd that was hanging on every Yiddish vort, or word.

“This is the real thing,” said Shane Baker, one of the actors. “It’s a different connection. You’re close to them — it’s not mediated through the supertitles.”

The theatergoers were primarily senior citizens; some had to grip the staircase railing with both hands as they descended to the auditorium.

“We all have grey hair,” said Rosalyn Saltzman, who would say of her age only that she’s “over 80.”

But there was a smattering of younger people, too, some from as far away as Brooklyn. Glasser was there with his wife and 7-month-old son, and a few rows up sat Amanda Siegel, 25, who has a Fulbright scholarship to translate Yiddish poetry in Argentina.

Founded in 1929 as a Yiddish folk school, the center persists as a stubborn bastion of the language — a place where it is spoken, not studied. While some of the Bronx’s other Yiddish institutions have withered, the center’s monthly lectures and performances draw an avid audience, from Holocaust survivors to students hoping to pick up a few new words.

“Neighborhoods change over time. Things shift,” said Robert Shapiro, a Yiddish scholar and professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College. “Bainbridge Avenue and the Sholem Aleichem center [are] kind of a fortress.”

In the first decades of the 20th century, Yiddish flourished among New York’s secular Jews. At one point, the language filled half a dozen different daily newspapers, and residents could tune in to more than 20 Yiddish radio stations.

There were also several networks of secular Yiddish after-school programs, aimed at teaching children the language, history and folklore of their ancestors. Each network had branches scattered throughout the city; the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center began as one of them.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Bainbridge Avenue was a hotbed for Yiddish, so much so that residents dubbed it Bainbridgivke. Several prominent Yiddish scholars raised their children there, including linguists Joshua Fishman and Mordkhe Schaechter and folklorist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.