Remembering a Legend, YIVO Marks Milestone

By Masha Leon

Published April 22, 2005, issue of April 22, 2005.
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The preservation and continuity of Yiddish culture were the drumbeats at the April 5 benefit celebrating the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s 80 years of survival and growth and the concurrent opening of its exhibition “A Brief Encounter with Archives.” Among those helping to celebrate this Center for Jewish History fete were: YIVO executive director Carl Rheins, co-chairs Mira and John Van Doren and Francesca Slovin. YIVO chairman Bruce Slovin’s declaration that YIVO is “the repository of 1,000 years of Eastern European culture,” dovetailed with YIVO board member Motl Zelmanowicz’s declaration (in Yiddish with English translation) that: “Secular Yiddish culture is not a luxury, but a necessity that uplifted the Jewish masses.”

Guest speaker professor Noah Feldman (whose extensive list of credentials includes author of “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy”), described his interest in YIVO as that of “one among the younger generation of American Jews [who has an] unexpressed… unrecognized yearning for Jewish engagement that does not focus primarily on religion or politics.” On the light side was multi-talented actor, singer director Eleanor Reissa — backed up by a trio of musicians — in an audience-pleasing, nostalgia-eliciting program of Yiddish songs. (For a full feast of Reissa, catch her on Sundays at the John Houseman Theater in her delicious “Hip, Heymish and Hot!” through May 15.)

* * *

I first met Saul Bellow in Chicago in the mid-1960s when he was the keynote speaker at a National Association of College Bookstores annual convention. “Sholem aleykhem, vos makht a yid?” I greeted him during the pre-dinner reception. “Aleykhem sholem!” he replied, surprised. As NACSers from Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, Utah and Tennessee looked on, we traded Yiddishisms. “How do you say ‘top hat’ in Yiddish?” he challenged me. “A tsilinder, vos den?” I replied. Bellow proceeded to give the managers of the country’s 2,300 college bookstores what my mother would have labeled a portzie — a lambasting — for emphasizing the sale of T-shirts, backpacks and mugs instead of books. As an arctic chill descended on the Hilton ballroom, the anemic applause that followed his unforgiving speech was fueled mainly by a handful of publisher-exhibitors (including my husband Joe and me).

Fast forward to 1996 when Bellow, by then a Nobel laureate, was honored at YIVO’s annual dinner. Present were: Cynthia Ozick, Kurt Vonnegut, editor-in-chief of The New Republic Martin Peretz, and Herman Wouk, with whom Bellow traded the tsilinder story. (He later told Wouk that it was I who solved the tsilinder translation for him.) “Saul treats his Jewishness as good luck — a stroke of good fortune,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. “It is not enough to write in Yiddish — you must have something to say,” he said, quoting I. L. Peretz.

* * *

Which brings me to the March 27 literary symposium, “The Enduring Legacy of Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz.” Sponsored jointly by the Center for Jewish Studies of Queens College, the Congress for Jewish Culture and the Forward Association, the event was held at the college’s Lefrak Concert Hall. Greetings by the center’s director, professor Benny Kraut, and by Queens professor of Yiddish Thomas Bird and the Forward’s Dr. Barnett Zumoff, set the stage for Queens professor of Yiddish Chava Lapin, who kept the remarkable evening on course.

Emanuel Goldsmith, professor of Yiddish and Hebrew literature at Queens, flashed back to the Pavillion of Judaism at Montreal’s 1967 Expo. One wall had inscribed on it the Sh’ma; the second, the prayer Ma Tovu; the third, a passage from Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic Ethics of the Fathers; and the fourth wall contained the Yiddish phrase “der tzil iz der mentsh” — the objective is humanity. Goldsmith said, “The words were the epitome of the… sentiments of Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz, the poet and visionary of the Jewish rebirth in Eastern Europe… the founding father of modern Yiddish literature.” Although Peretz was descended from Sephardic Jews, Goldsmith noted, “More than any other Yiddish or Hebrew writer, Peretz conveyed the essence of the thousand year old Ashkenazic branch of Jewish civilization.”

Dan Miron, professor of Hebrew literature at Columbia University, focused on Hebrew versus Yiddish in the battle for the souls of early 20th century Eastern European Jewry. Citing Hayim Nachman Bialik’s Zionist zeal versus Peretz’s vision of Yiddish as a people-saving ideology, Miron noted that Bialik did not see the potential that Peretz saw in the Jewish people. Ken Frieden, professor of Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, focused on Peretz’s neo-Hasidic fiction, which, he noted, “made… the tales accessible to Buber and Elie Wiesel.” The above reflects but a thimbleful of the evening’s many treasures.

* * *

The American Friends of the Hebrew University April 4 dinner at Cipriani honored Howard Lutnick, chairman and CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, L.P., and eSpeed, Inc., for his support of cancer research in Israel. Both U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg — who presented Lutnick with the Maimonides Award — and Mr. Lutnick (nearly 700 of whose employees perished in the attacks of 9/11) have lost loved ones to cancer. The $600,000 raised will support cancer research at the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The evening’s surprise was a breathtaking performance by members of Neil Goldberg’s Cirque (not Cirque du Soleil, but equally stunning). Raised Orthodox in Oceanside, N.Y., (“My grandparents were from Hungary and Poland… with [familial] connections to the Lubavitcher rebbe”) Goldberg, who started Cirque Productions in 1991, attended the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach. “I am no longer shomer Shabbes,” he told me, “but I am [still] a proud Jew.”

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