Born in Russia in the 1930s, Zhenya Greshes didn’t grow up “religious.” But she did grow up “Yiddish,” speaking the language at home, attending Yiddish schools, reading Yiddish newspapers.
After fleeing with her family to Cuba, and then fleeing again to America in the 1960s, Greshes settled in Atlanta. While America became her new home, she did not feel like part of the Jewish community; she didn’t feel that she belonged in any of Atlanta’s religious institutions, and lacked any other point of connection. Then she discovered the Yiddish Lovers’ Club, and everything changed.
“Yiddish folklore is something that you can’t translate,” Greshes told the Forward, “and it’s very dear to me.”
Chana Shapiro is program director of Congregation Beth Jacob, the Orthodox synagogue in suburban Toco Hills, Ga., where the club’s meetings are held. She said her synagogue is proud to host such a group. Although the Yiddish Lovers’ Club maintains no religious affiliation, she said, there is a benefit for all members of the community, religious or not, in keeping Yiddish language and culture alive. “Not only is it a privilege, but it is an honor to have Yiddish songs, jokes and stories spoken in the halls of our shul,” she said.
The club’s existence, Shapiro noted, is a credit to the talents of Jacob Szczupak, the club’s founder and director, whose love for Yiddish, teaching ability and considerable skill as a performer combine to make a rare and dynamic experience.
Szczupak is currently a visiting professor of Yiddish at Emory University in Atlanta, although he has a long history teaching Yiddish: He taught the language in Poland in the 1950s and ’60s, until the communist government, claiming Zionism was a threat to the national government, forced Szczupak and many other Polish Jews to leave the country. Szczupak immigrated to America and settled in Atlanta, where he continued to teach his native tongue. In addition, he has acted in and directed Yiddish plays, performed recitals of Yiddish literature and led Yiddish music groups.
“There is an old phrase: dos likht zol nisht farloshn vern — so that the light will not be extinguished,” he said. “I have devoted my life to this, my language and the language of our people, for so many years, so many generations. We have to make sure that our language, like the light, will never be extinguished, so that we will never be extinguished.”
Sensing that there were others in the Atlanta area who shared his passion but lacked an outlet for expressing it, Szczupak founded the Yiddish Lovers’ Club seven years ago. The group meets once a month on Sunday mornings at Congregation Beth Jacob. Meetings officially start at 11 a.m., but participants report that the first 15 minutes are generally spent with a handful of punctual people wondering where everyone else is. Eventually, 15 to 20 regulars, plus the occasional straggler, show up, starting off with shmoozing and small talk until Szczupak is ready to get things going. Often, he’ll pass around an article from the Forverts as a means of warming up everyone’s Yiddish skills, which vary greatly. The group reads and translates the article, and then discusses related current events or politics in Yiddish. Sometimes Szczupak brings in materials for the group, like literature from such great Yiddish writers as Mendele Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Sometimes the group will watch a movie; the members recently screened the 1938 Yiddish drama from Poland, “Mirele Efros.” As Passover approaches, the group will read stories about the holiday and practice singing the Four Questions in Yiddish. But most of the time they simply converse, tell jokes and kibbitz.
“It’s our common love for the language, our language,” that binds the group together, Szczupak said. “We gather to enjoy the sounds of Yiddish, the sayings, the proverbs and, every once in a while, the songs.”
At 51, Jim Weiss is known affectionately as the baby of the group. He has been a member of the club for five years, originally having joined to learn more about the language his parents spoke when he was growing up in Milwaukee. A fan of old Yiddish theater and klezmer music, Weiss decided he wanted to understand better the language that he considers his cultural heritage: “My cultural interest takes the place of religion,” he told the Forward, “and it’s how I connect with my past.” Now fairly well versed in Yiddish, Weiss keeps going to the monthly gatherings because of the camaraderie. He says that spirit is inherent in the Yiddish language, an element that gets lost in translation — something special in the jokes, the songs, the literature that can only be captured by talking with fellow Yiddish speakers.
Maurice Belman, another member of the group, said coming to the Yiddish Lovers’ Club helps him recapture the mameloshn he heard growing up in Brooklyn, where his family rarely spoke English. “Look at the history of our people. We laugh to keep ourselves from crying, and Yiddish is a better medium for such expression,” he said. “They say Yiddish has been dying for the last 800 years. It will never truly die as long as we still get together and speak it.”