YIDDISH YESTERDAY AND TODAY: New Spertus series looks at various aspects of rich Jewish culture

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Yiddish isn’t just some fading memory of one’s bubbie switching from accented English to her immigrant’s language when she did not want eavesdropping on her private phone conversations.

The language of many Jews’ forebears is being brought alive through Dean Bell’s commitment to present it to a curious public and Karen Underhill literally living much of Yiddish culture.

Bell’s involvement in an upcoming series covering almost all aspects of a rich Yiddish lifestyle in both Europe and early 20th century America makes perfect sense. He is provost and vice president at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.  Part of the downtown Chicago-based educational institution’s mission is to explore all aspects of Jewish history.

Karen Underhill

But Underhill is a most unlikely purveyor of prime elements of a culture going back 1,000 years. To be sure, she is an assistant professor of Polish and Yiddish Literature and Polish Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a board member of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Her personal lineage, though, is of Protestant ancestors who go almost all the way back to the Mayflower.

Underhill’s three-part program, “Itzik’s Midrash: Bringing Past and Present through Modern Yiddish Literature,” is one of the highlights of “Yiddish Yesterday and Today,” presented by the Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative.  The initiative is a partnership of a dozen local Jewish organizations spearheaded by Spertus. The “pop-up” programs, running at locations in Evanston and Skokie from May 10 to June 12, explore Yiddish through history, literature, music and films.

Underhill will present Itzik’s Midrash at 7 p.m. on three consecutive Wednesdays – May 30, June 6 and June 13 – at Hilton Garden Inn Chicago North Shore, 1818 Maple Avenue, in Evanston.  She will focus on widely-read collections of Yiddish poetry authored by Itzik Manger, who presented secular retellings of the stories of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Genesis updated to between-wars small-town Europe.

Underhill completely immersed herself in the environment in which Manger brought to life the European Jewish world before the Holocaust wiped out almost all the established Jewish linkage of generations.

A scene from the Israeli TV series, ‘Shtisel.’

“My own relationship with Yiddish and with East European Jewish Studies is both academic and personal,” Underhill said. “In college at the University of Michigan, I met a wonderful man, David Miller. It was the early 1990s, the wall had just fallen in Eastern Europe; we were idealistic young socialists, and it was important to him that we raise our children Jewish.

“We decided to move to Eastern Europe to take part in the transition to democracy, and we opened a bookstore and café in Krakow, Poland – Massolit Books. Our son Elijah was born in Krakow, and we became very involved in the Jewish revival in Poland. 

“I had done graduate work in Jewish Studies and Yiddish language and literature at the University of Chicago. I had the impossible good luck to study with the amazing Howard Aronson, who introduced me to Itzik Manger’s work, and changed both of our lives, mine and David’s. Reading Manger does that to people. Professor Aronson’s classes in Yiddish culture were revelatory.”

In addition to running the bookstore in Krakow, Underhill and Miller began giving talks on East European Jewish history and culture, and on Yiddish culture, to Jewish visitors to Poland whom they met at the bookstore.

Reading ‘A Bintel Brief’ in the Forverts Yiddish newspaper.

“We realized that there was such a need to learn about the Jewish world and culture before the Holocaust – rather than just visiting the camps, and immersing oneself in the loss,” Underhill said. “I began to work with the Taube Foundation for the Revival of Jewish Life in Poland, and helped them to develop Jewish educational heritage tours for groups – students, educators, Hillel and other groups – that were starting to organize heritage trips to Poland.”

Her first marriage eventually ended. Underhill returned to the U.S. in 2008 to pursue an academic career.  Second husband Rick Meller shares her love of Yiddish culture, and of Manger. Meller is also a board member of Chicago YIVO, the branch of the New York-headquartered organization dedicated to preserving Yiddish culture.

“Rick is a translator of pre-war Yiddish drama and essays,” Underhill said. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to recover the rich landscape of pre-war Yiddish culture – and it has so  much to say, so much relevance, to our generation.”

And such relevance amid turbulent times today was a spur to Spertus’ coordination of a number of Jewish organizations to produce  “Yiddish Yesterday and Today.” Although Yiddish as an everyday language is largely confined to Orthodox Jewish urban enclaves, younger secular Jews have discovered an affinity for their ancestors’ culture. Yiddish language classes are now offered at YIVO, as an adjunct to the German department of the University of Chicago and at Northwestern University.

“Yiddish is moving forward as a more secular cultural Yiddish, a language of culture,” said Bell. “We found a large number of younger Jews are interested in the cultural aspects. It’s a bit of a renewal, not for speaking Yiddish (in everyday life), but they still find something cool and hip about the language and culture.”

Polling 12 different organizations for their input on a Jewish educational/cultural series, Spertus helped come up with a finished product that covers the gamut of Yiddish culture.

Throughout the month-long program, attendees who cannot speak Yiddish will have concurrent English translations of printed materials or have English sub-titles on films.

Kickoff program is “A Bintel Brief: The Dear Abby Column of the Forverts” at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 10, at Room A-145-152 at Oakton Community College, 7701 N. Lincoln Ave. The program is free, but reservations are encouraged.

Writer and humorist Dr. Khane-Faygl Turtletaub, a Northwestern University Yiddish instructor, revisits the poignant and humorous letters of A Bintel Brief (Yiddish for a bundle of letters), the advice column of the Yiddish daily newspaper the Forverts. Reflecting the immigrant experience, A Bintel Brief provided a map for those drowning in a sea of strange new customs, providing guidance on everything from family to finances and romance to religion.

At 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 22, Dr. Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, will present a talk about Yiddish performances by Holocaust survivors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie.

The USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive — the largest collection of videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors —includes hundreds of interviews conducted entirely or partially in Yiddish. During dozens of these recordings, survivors sing a song or recite a poem in Yiddish. Shandler will share excerpts featuring some of these remarkable performances. Explore survivors’ powerful commitments to demonstrating the creative power of Yiddish in the midst of recalling widespread destruction. 

Then, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 29, a screening and discussion of the first two episodes of the Israeli TV series “Shtisel” will be held at the Mayer Kaplan JCC, 5050 Church in Skokie.

Winner of 11 Israeli Film Academy awards including Best Television Drama, Shtisel” is an Israeli television phenomenon, both critically acclaimed and incredibly popular, with each episode anxiously awaited by viewers from every stream of Israeli society. The storyline follows an ultra-Orthodox family and their friends in the crowded Haredi neighborhood of Geula in present-day Jerusalem.

A post-show discussion will be led by Malka Simkovitch, Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union.

A sing-a-long to the film “Fiddler on the Roof” will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 7, at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave. in Skokie.

The nostalgic evening will be orchestrated by Rebecca Joy Fletcher, an internationally recognized playwright, actress, singer, and educator. A condensed version of the Oscar-winning film will be shown, with live narration, song sheets and singing.

“Yiddish Yesterday and Today” will conclude with a film screen and discussion of “The Quarrel” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 12 at the Mayer Kaplan JCC.

“The Quarrel” is an acclaimed Canadian film adapted from a short story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. The movie follows two estranged friends, both Holocaust survivors, who meet unexpectedly in Montreal in 1948. One is a deeply religious man, the other a skeptical journalist who has turned his back on G-d.

A post-show discussion will be led by Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“Yiddish: Yesterday and Today” is a program Underhill hopes will further spur interest in Yiddish-language classes in the Chicago area.  The Chicago YIVO recently received a startup grant from the Fishman Foundation to begin offering Yiddish language courses taught by Dr. Khane-Faygl Turtletaub. The classes quickly filled up and the site – yivoChicago@gmail.com — is accepting names on a waiting list. Organizers of the initiative, Alexandra Corwin and Tom Ledford, are eager to expand the number of classes to accommodate more students and levels, but they are very much in need of additional financial support from donors.

Underhill said the University of Chicago has the strongest collegiate Yiddish program now. Classes in Yiddish language and literature are offered by Professor Anna Torres.

“At UIC, Elizabeth Loentz in Germanic Studies and I teach Yiddish literature courses in translation,” said Underhill. “UIC does not yet have funding for a position in Yiddish language. Northwestern University students are lucky to be able to study with Dr. Khane-Faygl Turtletaub, who also offers a weekly ‘leyenkrayz’ or reading circle for more advanced readers.”

“Yiddish: Yesterday and Today” will kick off on May 10 with a free program. Tickets for the remainder of the programs are priced at $10 to $30. Tickets and reservations are available at Spertus.edu/Yiddish.

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