In the city of glitz and glamour, Yiddish is suddenly becoming all the rage.
Trendsetters in Hollywood — and Los Angeles more generally — are notorious for their irreverent attitude toward tradition, but a new project is trying to change that. It aims to appeal to the young, hip crowd and convince it that the past is, in fact, pretty darn cool.
Avada, a branch of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, an organization that promotes Yiddish culture, wants to prove to young Jews that Yiddish language and culture is not a relic of their grandparents’ generation, but can be relevant to their lives. Launched last summer, Avada engages people under 35 through cutting-edge Yiddish events at alternative, often non-Jewish, venues.
According to Tali Pressman, founder of Avada, the surge of interest among Americans in multiculturalism and reclaiming their heritage is just beginning to hit Jewish Los Angeles.
“Yiddish stuff is going on all the time in New York, but now is a time of change in Los Angeles,” said Pressman, 23, who came up with the idea for Avada last year. “Twenty- and 30-year-olds in L.A. now want to search for their identity.”
Avada, which takes its name from the Yiddish word avade, meaning “of course,” is hoping to fill a niche for young Jews who are curious about their identity but want little to do with institutionalized Judaism. Pressman suspects that people who are Jewishly affiliated are already exploring Jewish and Yiddish culture. Instead, Avada wants to reach Jews who don’t feel linked to Judaism.
Pressman believes that large numbers of young Jews are moving away from synagogues and formal Jewish settings, perhaps because of negative experiences at Jewish camps or Sunday schools, and that the key is to hook them with an alternative approach. It is a demographic that many Jewish organizations are scrambling to reach, and Avada organizers are sure High Holiday seats won’t do the trick.
“I see culture as a point of entry,” said Pressman. “This is not a time when young people are defined by religion, rather there’s a lot more exploration of identity through the lens of culture and ethnicity.”
The concept of Avada came about after Pressman attended numerous Yiddish-focused events. “I began to notice that at every event I went to, I was the youngest person there by at least 25 years,” she said. “It was disheartening, because there are fabulous musicians and artists working with Yiddish today. I wanted to figure out how to get my generation involved.”
Avada launched with a flashy bang last August with an outdoor screening of the 1937 Yiddish film about ill-fated chasidic lovers, “The Dybbuk,” in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many Hollywood stars and notables are buried. Over 700 people attended the event on the rolling lawns of the cemetery, a popular alternative venue in Los Angeles that regularly shows films during the summer, projecting them on the wall of the mausoleum. “It’s certainly a bit irreverent,” said Pressman, who serves on Avada’s board. “[There’s] probably only something like it in Los Angeles.”
The goal of Avada, which for now will offer four large-scale events annually, is to help young Jews feel a connection to the past. “The DNA of Ashkenazi Jewry is Yiddish culture,” said Aaron Paley, an arts festival organizer who founded Avada’s parent organization, YiddishkaytLA, 10 years ago.
He denies that Yiddish is endangered, rather believes it boasts a culture that remains current, as well as a charming link to the past. “[Avada] is not only about the past,
it’s really to say that there’s art being created now, there’s a Yiddish culture now,” he said, referring to practicing artists and klezmer musicians.
The challenge for Avada is convincing young Angelenos of this. A chic marketing campaign has involved distributing innovative promotional postcards around Los Angeles, specifically in trendy bars and clubs. Avada is also in the process of creating its own Web site, www.avadaproject.org, which will be functional this month.
While Avada targets Jews — about 600,000 live in the Los Angeles area — it also intends to be cross-cultural. The film-screening crowd, for example, consisted of about 40% non-Jews, organizers estimated. Events are designed for the non-affiliated, so rather than convening in the social hall of a synagogue, Avada will opt for a local club.
In December, Avada hosted its second event, a hip-hop-jazz-funk-klezmer concert at the Echo Club, featuring DJ Socalled, the “magician mixologist” from Montreal. The next event will be an alternative Passover seder, focusing on the idea of liberation, which Paley says is connected to Yiddish socialist ideals of freedom.
Myriam Zekaria, a 29-year-old opera singer in Los Angeles, attended both Avada events and is hoping for additional offerings, perhaps a bit more sedate and focused. Having grown up in France with grandparents and parents who spoke Yiddish when “trying to hide something” from her, Zekaria views Yiddish as the language of the mysterious past. “Sometimes young people feel rejected by the generation still owning Yiddish, and I’m not sure that generation is aware of the needs my generation,” said Zekaria. “Now we can own that heritage ourselves.”
The concept of putting young people in touch with Yiddish is praised by many. “I love the idea that young people are reclaiming Yiddish culture,” said Rabbi Andy Bachman, the executive director of New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. “There’s a lot to be gained by reconnecting young people to these roots.”
Young Jews like Zekaria and Pressman are on a quest to discover their roots, to reclaim the identity they feel lacking in their lives. “When I go to a klezmer event, I have a feeling inside myself that the music is part of who I am and who my family is,” said Pressman. “The wailing of the violin is like that of a family member.”