In 1995, the documentary filmmaker Pearl Gluck traveled to Hungary on a Fulbright grant to work on a film on the power and origins of Yiddish storytelling in the chasidic tradition. In the end, instead of making a documentary about storytelling, she produced “Divan,” a chasidic story in the form of a documentary — about her great-grandfather’s couch. It premieres this month at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Yiddish is a map. Those with an ear for it can identify your roots by the Yiddish you speak — whether it’s from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine or Coney Island. My own Yiddish is from Rohod, Hungary, where Yiddish might not have been a primary language, but it was certainly prevalent in the northeastern region where most of the Hungarian chasidim lived. This is how I explained to the Fulbright Commission, which requires individuals to speak the language of the country they are studying, why it was sufficient for me to speak Yiddish (and not Hungarian) to conduct research on chasidic storytelling in Hungary.
The Fulbright Commission took a chance and awarded me the project. I was able to get around in the Jewish landscape of past and present-day Hungary, but in the end I needed to learn Hungarian anyway: My Yinglish (Boro Park Yiddish) was packed with English, and their Yiddish, unmoved for 50 years, was peppered with Hungarian. There were times when an interviewee and I, both of us native Yiddish speakers, could barely understand each other.
I was determined to research in situ, in the region where the stories originated and were told. I wanted to take an ethnographic look at my own heritage. In my case, that meant going to the chasidic landscape of northeast Hungary. I often found myself thinking of shirayim, the leftovers from the rebbe’s plate coveted by his chasidim. If my personal history was the rebbe and the landscape was the plate, then the stories on that plate were the shirayim.
Northeast Hungary was a hotbed of chasidic life from the turn of the 18th century until the close of World War II. The wine trade attracted Galician Jews from Poland, and they migrated south with their rich chasidic heritage and their Yiddish. This was one way Hungary accrued another “ethnic” language to add to its collection of Saxon German, Serbian and Romani dialects, while Yiddish faced a new influence of its own: Hungarian.
Unlike the Polish chasidic sects, Hungarian chasidim still keep their local language vibrant and integrate it into their traditions and language, and much more surprisingly, into the chasidic lore. The signature chasidic song in Hungarian is the famous “Szol A Kakas Mar,” rumored to have been bought from a Hungarian peasant by the first chasidic rebbe of Hungary, Reb Isaac Taub of Kalev (Yiddish for the town of Nagykallo). “Szol A Kakas Mar” is a traditional love song about a bird waiting for its love to redeem it from the lonely forest, an obvious theme for a people separated from their true love, God.
While conducting oral histories in Hungary, my chasidic past began to haunt me. The ruptured trajectory of my own family kept returning. I was raised to get married, have children and build an ultra-Orthodox home. But from the age of 15, I found myself attracted to a less traditional route, and broke away to attend university. In awe of the ruins of the Hungarian Jewish landscape, I turned the camera inward. When I finally got to my great-great-grandfather’s house and saw the famous couch upon which the Kossony rebbe slept, I saw the medium for understanding my own complex relationship with my chasidic legacy. The couch became a magical homage to the rebbes, a sacred memory object, and a concrete tool for a personal and communal cultural archaeology.
Thus, “Divan” emerged. En route to the ancestral divan, I encountered a colorful cast of characters, and the entire tale is framed by formerly ultra-Orthodox men and women in the process of actively reclaiming their Jewish culture, some even through Yiddish. “Divan” is a visual parable that crosses chasidic family heritage with the attempt to culturally re-upholster a couch.
It is ironic that only after stepping out of the chasidic community of my youth was I motivated to revisit my own Yiddish culture. And it’s only after I left the path, as it were, that I found another path paved with literary and secular Yiddish works.
I have two other scripts of narrative films in the works, both written partly in Yiddish: One focuses on the secular world of the Yiddish theater, and the other is nestled in the Carpathian Mountains in the inter-war period. If I took one of the main characters from the first and put him in conversation with a main character of the second, even though both would speak “fluent” Yiddish, these characters would not necessarily understand each other.
Precisely this phenomenon is what attracts me to the terrain of Yiddish, and it is why these projects represent what I think it means to keep a language alive.