Witnessing the death of Yiddish language and culture: Holes in the Doorposts by Arnold Richards


Click Here to Read: Witnessing the death of Yiddish language and culture: Holes in the Doorposts by Arnold Richards.

This article was originally published as:

Richards, Arnold (2012). Witnessing the death of Yiddish language and culture: Holes in the Doorposts In: The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations, and Traces of the Holocaust: Trauma, Psychoanalysis, and the Living Mind, ed. Nancy R. Goodman & Marilyn B. Meyers. New York: Routledge, p. 267-286 and appears here with all requisite rights and permission.

Sholem Aleichem


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6 Comments on “Witnessing the death of Yiddish language and culture: Holes in the Doorposts by Arnold Richards”

  1. charles diament Says:

    born in kalisz ,poland in 1938 as szlama diament.father was an agitator for the workers,and got shot in kalisz,and went to jail for a year and a half.he was an atheist,born into a house of rabbis.mother spoke 4 languages.because my father was
    on a wanted list,he fled Poland into russia..my mother and I fled kalisz much later,when the germans were sending everybody to camps. my father was on a march deep into russia in which he was one of very few survivors.he ended up in
    cheboksary,on the volga river.my mother and me found him thru a method that the russian government called poste restante,which is french for stationary mail. the only thing that saved our lives was not believing in a deity ,but self reliance.we left russia in may of 1946,ended up in bielawa ,poland, then went in october to paris,france and five years later came to the US. If it was not for the kindness of the russian people
    we would have starved to death.Both my father and I have been interviewed for shoah. I spoke fluent yiddish and have read many stories by sholem aleichem and
    peretz.I have a europpean and american education ,and had many books from YIVO.
    From my perpective,many more jews would have been saved in WWII if they didn’t rely on their mezuzas,or their rabbis.

  2. Tamar Schwartz Says:

    Comment from Merle Molofsky,

    At this very moment I am looking at my well-worn copy of Image Before My Eyes. The book is opened to page 95, with the image, in the upper left hand of the page,of the chairmender in Vilna.

    I am recommending a marvelous book, Something From Nothing, a children’s book, written and illustrated by Phoebe Gilmore, 1992, ISBN # 0-590-47280-1. The book jacket blur says,”In a rich and loving portrait of shtetl life, Phoebe Gilman presents a traditional Jewish folktale about family love and ingenuity that will warm the hearts of readers young and old.” The story is set in a shtetl, and we see shtetl street life, and house interiors. On page 21, in the cobblestone street, outside the simple wooden houses, is the very same image, a chairmender. Phoebe Gilmore created her illustrations from photographs featured in Image Before My Eyes. As I read the book to my grandchildren, I recognized image after image. I have bought this book for each one of my grandchildren, as a legacy for them, and I give it as a gift to other children. The story itself is beautiful, and the book, story and illustrations combined, is a testament to a world that lives now only in these images, in these photographs — and in our hearts and souls.

    On my coffee table are several books of photographs by Roman Vishniac. (Also, an illustrated “Rumi”….)

    The children of today must learn, in their own way, what we too struggled to learn….

    I’m sure Arnie knows these songs, and their meaning… perhaps others do too… perhaps some will get to know them now… this is how we remember, this is how history imprints itself on our psyches….

    http://youtu.be/kRhVF8LGYw0 My father sang this song, “Vi iz dos gesele”. Jay Black — yes, the Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, sings this famous Yiddish song, downloaded by Albert Diner, who is helping to keep alive the musical tradition. My father sang it in Yiddish and Russian.

    Vi iz dus gesele, Vi iz der shtieb, Vi iz dus meidele vemen ich hob lieb?
    Ot iz dus gesele, Ot iz der shtieb, Ot iz dus meidele vemen ichhob lieb.
    Where is the street, where is the house, where is the little girl I used to love, gone is the street, gone is the house, gone is the little girl I used to love.

    Children, learn: Lick the honey covering the aleph-beit letters on your hornbook, lick the honey, and savor the sweetness of learning.

    http://youtu.be/jjSSspZ93S4 YouTube video of “Ofyn Pripitchik, with unbearable images of children of the Holocaust. The traditional Yiddish song is sung by children….

    These are the lyrics for “Oyfn Pripetshik”:

    Oyfn pripetshik brent a fayerl,
    Un in shtub iz heys,
    Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,
    Dem alef-beys.


    Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,
    Vos ir lernt do;

    Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:

    Komets-alef: o!
    Lernt, kinder, mit groys kheyshek,

    Azoy zog ikh aykh on;

    Ver s’vet gikher fun aykh kenen ivre –

    Der bakumt a fon.
    Lernt, kinder, hot nit moyre,
    Yeder onheyb iz shver;
    Gliklekh der vos hot gelernt toyre,
    Tsi darf der mentsh nokh mer?
    Ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
    Vet ir aleyn farshteyn,
    Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
    Un vi fil geveyn.
    Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,

    Oysgemutshet zayn,

    Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,

    Kukt in zey arayn!
    English translation
    On the hearth, a fire burns,
    And in the house it is warm.
    And the rabbi is teaching little children,
    The alphabet.
    See, children, remember, dear ones,
    What you learn here;
    Repeat and repeat yet again,
    “Komets-alef: o!”
    Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.
    So I instruct you;
    He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster –
    He will receive a flag.
    Learn children, don’t be afraid,
    Every beginning is hard;
    Lucky is the one has learned Torah,
    What more does a person need?
    When you grow older, children,
    You will understand by yourselves,
    How many tears lie in these letters,
    And how much lament.
    When you, children, will bear the Exile,
    And will be exhausted,
    May you derive strength from these letters,
    Look in at them!

    We must remember — even if we remember a single image, a single gesture, a song, a few words, the gleam in the eyes of a child playing….


  3. Tamar Schwartz Says:

    Another Comment from Merle Molofsky,

    I am so grateful, Arnie, that you did all this research, wrote the article, published the article, and posted the link to this forum. This article is a treasure trove.

    At the end of the article, as I read the section, “A Community Eradicated: Creative Voices Lost’, and then, when I came to “Grieving the Death of Writers Lost”, and saw page after page of names of Yiddish writers lost in the Holocaust, I wanted to rend my garments and weep.

    My parents spoke Yiddish. I don’t. I never learned. My mother taught me to read Yiddish, so that at the age of six I could read, out loud, “Buntsche Shweig” by I. L. Peretz, while she translated into English. I also read, at the age of eight, on my own The Old Country by Sholem Aleichem, in English, a book from my parents’ library. These writings formed my sense of what it meant to be Jewish, who I was as a Jew. My grandfather read the “Forvits”, in Yiddish, my parents read the “Forward” in English.

    Holes in the Doorpost. A mezzuzah, with Torah script in miniscule lettering sheltering within, may be ripped from a doorpost, but the love of learning, the love of the word, the love of the ethos discovered in study and tradition, cannot be ripped from the heart and soul. Without a temple, without an ark for the Torah, the Torah was carried from land to land, and could not be ripped from the heart and soul. I am a secular Jew, not synagogue-affiliated, a child of secular Jews, and did not grow up with a mezzuzah in the doorway. Today, in my Westchester suburb, I have a mezzuzah in my doorway, and I bring its sweetness to my lips when I enter the doorway — the sweetness of memory.

    The anniversary of Kristallnacht is upon us — and we persist — we are —

    As I write I find myself struggling with a tangle of emotion, and a tangle of thoughts. I find myself considering old, familiar themes, the persistence of cultural memory, what it means to be a Jew… and also, the persistence of various cultural memories, other ethnicities, other group identities, what it means to be an “anything”, a “whatever you are identified as”, whatever you identify as”. I wonder why certain elements remain in our awareness, why some return after seemingly becoming unimportant. Of course certain sensory memories have a hold on us — food, music, vocal rhythms and intonations. What happens when cultural knowledge is lost?

    I find myself thinking of the African diaspora, of the persistence of cultural memory among people of African backgrounds who were ripped from their homes, and who were deliberately ripped from their tribal and language affiliations, so that a group of 20 African slaves in the Americas might not speak each other’s languages. And yet, music and dance told a story, held memories.

    Drums talked. Hidden meanings were embedded in songs, like the well-known hidden meanings about escaping from slavery toward freedom in songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, follow the north star in the Big Dipper north. I am not a scholar in this area, I know this kind of general knowledge, knowledge taught in my Brooklyn public elementary school in the very late 1940’s early 1950’s.

    I find myself wondering whether the spiritual, “Steal Away”, also was an escape to freedom song, a song I learned during that time, from The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, also in my parents’ library — “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here.” The lyrics are ostensibly religious, indicating that death will free us, we will return to Jesus and go home, I am dying, and Jesus will hold me — but perhaps indicating that there soon will be a time when I am leaving, that a few of us will be stealing away, home to freedom, due north, and no one but us will know what I am singing about, only us, and “they” will think we are singing about Jesus.

    Folkloric elements persisted, so that trickster figures of African lore, like Anansi, the trickster spider, became Br’er Rabbit in America, the same trickster with a different name, and also Eshu, the Yoruba trickster who is an orisha in Caribbean religions. We find the trickster in 20th century popular music, “Signifying monkey, way up in that tree, you are always lying and signifying, but you better not monkey with me.”

    Creative voices, lost and found. Arnie, bless you for having a voice, and for offering the fragments of lost voices to new readers, so that the voices, though lost, are remembered.

    May we continue to remember those who were lost, and that we are the remnant, the fragments of what once was, and we hold the potential for what might be….


  4. frank simon Says:

    Tears come with thoughts in the mind.
    The pain is real
    That is what I feel
    I cannot leave my heritage behind
    Yddish and its culture remain alive
    in my soul where it will always thrive
    I sometmes resent and feel disdain
    for the recreated shtettl life the Hassdim gain
    then I remember the pain
    and I feel better again.

  5. Miguel Milich Says:

    I want to get in touch with Charles Diament, the first of the commentaries. I am looking for people from Kalisz where my father was born.

  6. Tamar Schwartz Says:

    His info:

    Charles Diament PHD Psychologist
    Address: 41 Reckless Pl, Red Bank, NJ 07701
    Phone:(732) 530-9330

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