Skip To Content

The Work of a Worthy Diarist

The Journals of Yaacov Zipper, 1950-1982: The Struggle for Yiddishkayt

Translated from the Yiddish and edited by Mervin Butovsky and Ode Garfinkle

McGill/Queens University Press, 192 pages, $39.95.

* * *|

The appearance of the random, private journals of the obscure principal of a Canadian Yiddish school does not suggest an auspicious literary event. But Yaacov (known as Yankev) Zipper was no ordinary Yiddish educator, nor was he really Canadian: In other words, he was neither archaic nor boring.

Zipper was a Polish émigré Yiddish and Hebrew poet and novelist, passionate Labor Zionist, communal activist and public intellectual. He dedicated almost 50 years of his life in Montreal — where he immigrated from Tishevitz, Poland — to Yiddish education and literature. Zipper was animated by a mission to keep alive in the New World his idealized memory of the civilization he had left behind, primarily through imbibing a new, mostly Canadian-born generation of Jews with a secularized version of the culture and core values of Eastern European Jewry. That lifelong mission, captured in this book’s subtitle — “The Struggle for Yiddishkayt” — began long before the total destruction of the Eastern European Jewish civilization: Zipper arrived in Montreal in 1925, and by 1928 he already had become the principal of the I.L. Peretz Folk School (originally called the Radikale Natsionale Shule).

But by the time Zipper had begun recording his innermost thoughts in these journals (the first entry is from June 1950), the mission of preserving Yiddishkayt had become a matter of Jewish

national emergency for him and his fellow Jewish educators in North America. The first entry is typically laden with a mixture of hope and uncertainty regarding the destiny of the Jews:

I have experienced two world wars and a third is at the door. I have participated in the movement toward the secularization of Jewish life, lent a hand in the creation of a new type of Jew; was a part of the beautiful thing created by our generation: the chalutz in Israel and the cultural activists here in this region where Jews are wilting in the Diasporas. Lived through the greatest destruction and lived to see the redemption: the State of Israel…. I’ve experienced considerable hunger and barely managed to subsist in my Canadian home. I was humiliated and diminished more than once during my almost 30 years of teaching… I wanted to build a new world, but in the meantime all I witnessed was catastrophe….

Thus the 49-year-old Yaacov Zipper begins his journals, sounding like an exhausted man at the end of his days. But as the reader soon discovers, his life’s battles have only just begun. This rich volume affords the English reader an entrée into Zipper’s sharp, doubting, mordant and ribald — that is to say, quintessentially Yiddish — mind. Tired, cynical and hopeless one evening, yet filled with determination, energy and hope the next morning, these memoirs document a life of endless angst and total devotion to Jewish cultural survival, typical of a generation of Eastern European Jewish activists that no longer exists.

Zipper’s quandary was that his devotion was to “replant” in Canadian soil a hybrid, utopian version of Yiddishkayt that never actually existed in the old country. Thus, while never despairing of his mission, he is never quite satisfied. Zipper’s multiple frustrations are fueled by a host of impossible Jewish self-contradictions. A good example is his brooding entry about the experience of having forced himself to go to shul on the first Tisha B’Av after the liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War:

Tisha B’Av 5727:

Went to Lamentations services. First of all, because in historically significant days, one should be among Jews. Second, I wanted to see how the Orthodox feel and behave on the first Tisha B’Av in 2,000 years since Jerusalem and the Western Wall were in Jewish hands.The Rabbi deemed it necessary to draw to our attention that there are those who think that we no longer need to recite Lamentations. He naturally says that we should…. He did not feel the significance of the whole historic event, and no one else sensed it either. The niggun of Lamentations was somewhat feeble. The Lamentations mood of old was gone, nor was the new one a replacement. There is nothing in that synagogue for me to return to…. They can’t, nor do they wish to, change.

Zipper’s frustrations that evening, reflective of dozens of similar entries, are the consequence of his irresoluble double-edged pain: He yearned for the correct traditional niggun of his martyred shtetl, Tishevits, while demanding religious reform in response to the march of Modern Jewish History. Everything about what he experienced in the Canadian shuls is wrong. Zipper’s plaint is reminiscent of the Jewish lady’s report about her vacation at a Catskill’s resort: “The food was terrible and the portions were much too small.”

Contradictions and dialectical tensions of all kinds abound, especially regarding the “correct” Jewish education. Although totally dedicated to a proper Yiddish curriculum — to the point of resisting for years the amalgamation of his struggling school with the more affluent Jewish People’s School (Folkshule), accusing its principal (Zipper’s colleague and nemesis, Shloime Wiseman) of having ceded linguistic priority to Hebrew over Yiddish — he still imbued his students with a love of the State of Israel, and himself taught Hebrew rabbinical texts. Despite having abandoned the traditions of his father, who was a rabbinical scholar and shoykhet, for a secularist vision of the Jewish future, he dutifully went to an Orthodox shul thrice daily to recite the Kaddish in his memory.

Though he rebelled already as a teenager in Poland against Jewish Orthodoxy, Zipper retained both a personal closeness and a spiritual affinity to what he perceived as the core ethical values of traditional Judaism, Hebrew culture and Jewish nationalism, and a life-long commitment to Labor Zionism. Unlike the Jewish founders of the Secular Culture movement in New York, or the majority of his fellow Yiddishist educators in North America, Zipper sought to wed his Yiddishism with Hebrew education, Zionism and the selective study of the traditional Jewish canon. Consequently, while the purely secular and exclusively Yiddishist shules in New York, Chicago and Boston have all but vanished, Montreal remains the only Jewish community in the world that still maintains elementary and secondary Yiddish day schools.

Zipper is most often seen in these journals preoccupied, often to the point of exhaustion, with funding his school, paying his teachers and ensuring that poor Holocaust orphans are enabled by the Jewish community to receive a full-time Jewish day-school education. In order to keep his beloved school alive throughout the decades, Zipper often was forced into the terribly demeaning position of the shnorrer, appearing hat-in-hand before Montreal’s millionaire philanthropists. His impressions of most of them are terribly negative, often dripping with bitterness and disdain (the Bronfman brothers, Samuel and Alan, both of whom earned Zipper’s deep respect, are notable exceptions). Attending a benefit evening for the struggling Montreal Yiddish newspaper Der Keneder Odler, he feels the pain of its publisher, Max Wolofsky, and editor, the eminent Yiddish author Israel Rabinovitch, who must endure the humiliation of having their newspaper saved by those who could not even read it. Zipper makes a point of recording his reminiscence of that dinner on Purim, suggesting that the entire business of “saving” Yiddish had become some kind of Purim farce.

March 10, 1963: Purim 5723

A small audience attended the supper at an Orthodox club, and this was comprised, oddly, of non-Yiddish speakers….One outdid the other in making claims for their ignorance, boasting that they don’t read and don’t know any Yiddish. Despite that, they would like to support the Yiddish paper for prestige and for their poor brethren, pity on them, who need it…. Out of pity the Odler must be saved. I know how [Rabinovitch] feels, to be saved by those whom we should be saving. But the inescapable facts are that we have no other people, and we probably don’t deserve another fate. So we must swallow this with tightly closed lips and try not to choke.

Zipper’s powers of observation seem sharpest, and his pessimism deepest, either after having attended a funeral, or having heard of the death of yet another Yiddish writer:

October 10, 1954

Now Y. Opatoshu is no longer with us. The last giants of a great generation which had a lovely and glorious beginning, are passing away. Departing with question marks on their lips, and on their faces the fear that they have no successors. Their treasure remains — but for whom?

Despite the despair that accompanied knowing that his was the last generation of native Yiddish-speaking Jews, Zipper persevered. While maintaining a vibrant school, despite widespread community apathy to Yiddish education, Zipper managed to publish 17 books in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Although the recipient of numerous literary prizes in both Montreal and New York, it wasn’t until 1982 that Zipper finally was granted the international Jewish acclaim he so richly deserved: the Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature, awarded by the president of Israel. Despite his seriously deteriorating health, Zipper insisted on going to Israel with his children to receive this great honor in person. He died less than a year later.

Zipper was often dark, critical, caustically allergic to the inauthentic, especially when it came to matters Jewish. Yet he never displayed publicly the private despair that pervades these memoirs. He fought in particular to hide his dark skepticism about the world, and about the impossibility of his own utopian vision, when he had to face his students:

August 19, 1966

You wake up in the morning with a headache from hayfever and the confused dreams that convey fragments of our bloody days. The radio brings lists of new casualties — which no one can justify — in the unfortunate country of Vietnam, and simply prefigures a kind of prelude to a world catastrophe. And then, depending on the day, another broadcast of a crazed individual shooting at random from a tower somewhere in Texas… a tally of the casualties of the riots in the war for Negro rights that has transformed itself into a civil war… the incidents on the Syrian Israeli border…. The travels of Shazar and earlier of Eshkol… they chase around the world searching for help while the world is preoccupied with destroying itself. But, we have to prepare ourselves and the teachers to welcome the children to the New Year and to say: Shalom! Man is good and God is just.”

Today, more than 20 years after Zipper’s death, Montreal has what is arguably the finest network of Jewish day schools, with the highest per capita enrollment of any Diaspora Jewish community. This is largely the result of the tireless work of a handful of European-born Jewish educators, Zipper foremost among them. The Peretz Shule that he somehow managed to keep alive finally merged in 1972 with the rival Yiddish Folkshule. Known today as the Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools, along with its affiliated Bialik High School, it has an enrollment of some 1,200 students. The only school in North America that offers a full quadri-lingual curriculum (French, English, Hebrew and Yiddish), it maintains the highest academic standards of any school in Montreal. Zipper’s journals, despite their darkness and relentless pessimism, explain its — his ultimate success.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.