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!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • 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.