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By the 1980s, though, the number of young Jews in the area had dwindled to the point that the school could no longer sustain itself, and the building was converted into a center for Yiddish language.
Norwood has seen its Jewish population plummet, like other neighborhoods around the Bronx. A 2002 survey estimated there were just 45,100 Jews in the borough, down from 600,000 in 1945.
Some pockets remain, in neighborhoods like Riverdale and Parkchester. But the vast majority of the city’s estimated 88,000 Yiddish speakers now reside in Brooklyn, and many of those are members of Orthodox communities.
There’s little nostalgia or pessimism about the language among the members of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, though — they’re too busy speaking it.
“There are other places that have things about Yiddish. This is in Yiddish,” said Itzik Gottesman, 54, who grew up on Bainbridge Avenue as one of Schaechter-Gottesman’s children and is now associate editor of the Forverts — and the center’s president. “The very fact that it’s in Yiddish implies our approach, that this is a living language and not something of the past.”
Each month, the center holds a cultural program exclusively in Yiddish — usually a 40-minute lecture followed by a musical performance, though the center will also host theater or films, with English supertitles for non-Yiddish speaking visitors on very rare occasions. Lecture topics have included the psychology of Jewish humor; the history of the Morgen Freiheit, a defunct communist Yiddish newspaper and even the broader points of Maori culture.
The not-for-profit cultural center is on sound financial footing: It owns the building it’s housed in and rents space to the continuing medical education department of nearby Montefiore Medical Center. Its lecturers and performers are compensated with a “reasonable fee,” Gottesman said, and the center pays travel expenses for some of its guests.
Events take place in a basement auditorium filled with vestiges of Yiddish art and culture.
At one end of the hall, shelves are stacked with hundreds of Yiddish books with peeling dust jackets; at the other is a narrow, warmly lit stage, with boxes of Montefiore’s files hidden behind a black curtain. The setting, to borrow a Yiddish word, is “haimish,” said Aviva Astrinsky, 73.
“It feels homey,” she said.
Astrinsky, a Manhattan resident, said she has been coming to the center for 12 years; she learned Yiddish “by osmosis” from her grandparents when she was growing up in Israel.
“I love the language, and I think it deserves to be alive,” she said.
Nathaniel Herz is a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.