On the 5th July, The Yiddish Open Mic Café in collaboration with Yiddish House London and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities held their 28th Yiddish Open Mic Cafe – celebrating Yiddish heritage in Belarus. The online event brought an audience of over 100 people together from all over the world.
Delivered in Yiddish, with English and Russian on the screen, the event was accessible, fascinating and hugely enjoyable. The introduction was delivered by Yiddish musical artist Hilda Bronstein, who explained that ‘in Contrast to better known Jewish organisations, The Together Plan does more than provide humanitarian relief. It attempts to create deep personal relationships that are both socially and Jewishly meaningful so that Jewish communities can better organise themselves vis-a-vis the values and interests of the local Jewish population.’
The programme was a superb mix of Yiddish past and present. Special guests from Belarus included Minsk Ghetto survivor Frida Reizman, speaking in Yiddish about her life in the ghetto and the important work that The Together Plan is doing for Jewish Belarus. A powerful highlight was her spontaneous rendition of Tumbalalaika from her childhood. Also from Belarus, we met with Alexander Astraukh – the author of the Yiddish-Belarusian Dictionary who also regaled us with Yiddish song. We heard from 17-year-old Ulyana Babko, a member of the Polotsk Jewish community in northern Belarus, who is today researching the story of the Jews of Polotsk as part of the Together Plan’s Jewish Cultural Heritage Trail. Guests from around the world gave us an insight into the Yiddish influencers of days gone by, explaining who these people were and how they are still relevant in today’s Yiddish circles, among writers, academics, historians and heritage aficionados.
We were transported to the Belarus of yesterday, the world of:
- Anna Margolin (pen name of Rosa Harning Lebenboym) the modernist Yiddish poet who was born in 1887 in Brest, Belarus, in the Russian Empire whose poetry in the most part was penned in New York.
- Moyshe Kulback, a modernist Yiddish language writer born in 1896 in Smarhoń, Belarus. Kulback wrote poems and fantastical or “mystical” novels, based on folklore roots. His novel, ‘The Zelmanyaners’ depicted with some realism, the absurdities of Soviet life. He was arrested during a wave of Stalinist purges in 1937 and executed a month later near Minsk.
- The Yiddish poet and Lector in Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University of Oxford Beruriah Wiengard spoke about the poet Avrom Sutskever, born in Smarhoń in 1913, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a member of the ‘Paper Brigade’ saving numerous books and manuscripts from the Nazis. Sutzkever is one of the most well regarded of all Yiddish poets.
- Hinda Burstin, a Yiddish writer and translator, talked about Avrom Reisen, a poet born in 1876 in Koydenev, east Belarus and she recited his poem “In a Tog Fun Regn” (On a Rainy Day) because she said, ‘it speaks to the challenging times we face today and gives guidance and hope for the future:’
On a Rainy Day
Translated by Hinde Ena Burstin
On a really rainy day
When the whole world cries
Sing of sun shining your way
Sing of wide, blue skies.
On grey days full of gloom
When hearts fill with pain
Sing of trees in bloom
And fields growing green again.
When a bad day blows a gust
Of wild hatred everywhere,
Sing of people who are just
Sing of people who care.
We heard about Celia Dropkin, born Dec 5th 1887 in Bobruisk. She was a poet and admired and gifted writer, widely recognised for her intensely erotic poetry and was among the best known of the Yiddish women writers.
Shalom Ansky, the Yiddish folklorist, socialist, actor and writer best known for his play “The Dybbuk” or “Between Two Worlds,” written in 1914 (watch a clip here from the 1937 film version) Ansky was also famous for his song “Di Shuve” the hymn of the Bund. The Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite Polyn un Rusland (the General Union of Workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia) founded in 1897 in Vilna, often faced discrimination in non-Jewish Marxist groups. The movement was very active in many cities (which are today a part of Belarus). The Bund realised the importance of Yiddish culture to the Jewish identity.
The event, which was free to attend, was recorded and can be watched here. There is a link for those who wanted to make a donation to The Together Plan and the fundraising page is still open. Donations can be made here and funds raised are being used for Yiddish research and education around the Jewish Cultural Heritage trail project. So far almost £400 has been raised and we are hugely grateful for this support.
If you would like to hear more about Yiddish in Belarus, join us on August 2nd at Zoom in to Zoymen 2020 where Tamara Gleason Freidberg and Arturo Kerbel-Shine of Yiddish House London, will be joined by Gleb Rodionov (Minsk) presenting a talk entitled “ Yiddish: The Central Element of Judaism in Belarus”.
The talk aims to reveal the intimate relationship that exists between the Yiddish language and the overall history of Judaism in Belarus. Yiddish was the most widely spoken language by Jews in Belarus throughout the centuries, making it imperative to understand the Jewish experience in the country.
See you there!