French Writer-Filmmaker Explores Region Where Chinese and Korean Children Learn Yiddish (VIDEO)

November 26, 2012 5:23 pm 10 comments

Marek Halter in 1991. Photo:Wikipedia

Yiddish was once the primary language of Ashkenazi Jews, spoken by millions in Europe; then it scattered elsewhere around the world as anti-Semitism exiled many native speakers to far away lands. Now only about 1,500,000 people in the world speak the language. A few words have taken root in everyday speech: “chutzpah” and “nosh,” for example, but unless you’ve a discerning ear and a familiarity with the language you’d be hard-pressed to have ever heard Yiddish spoken fluently.

In Russia’s Far East, however, sits the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area created by Stalin as a Jewish homeland, where schoolchildren still learn the language and citizens converse in a tongue that is mostly alien to the rest of the world.

Marek Halter, a respected French-Jewish novelist, has made a film about the region,“Birobidzhan, Birobidzhan!”, named for the region’s capital, that explores the peculiar situation. Russia Beyond The Headlines translated an interview he did in Russian with Ogoniok magazine.

Halter was asked why, considering that the Jewish population of the area hovers around five percent, anyone in the region would want to learn the language: “They’ll talk to each other. I was in one school in Birobidzhan where many of the pupils are Chinese and Korean, and I talked to a Chinese mother waiting for her son by the school gate. I asked her why she thought her son needed to learn Yiddish. Her answer was simple: ‘You can never tell what will come in useful later in life.’”

Birobidzhan’s culture has been artificially perpetuated by the Russian state, so much so that even its history is that of false beginnings: “In Europe people generally build a church first, and then a town or a city. Along with Manaus in Brazil, Birobidzhan in Russia is one of just two cities in the world that were built up around theaters.”

Halter harbors little ill-will towards the Russian state whose anti-Semitic policies made life difficult for so many in the 20th Century. He doesn’t see this as a political film, but rather one of a curiosity captured and shared: “I never set out to make a political film. I just wanted to share some of my memories. When I was born, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. And then I come to Siberia, where signs on the houses are all written in two languages and children are taught Yiddish at school. I saw Jews, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in 50 years. The very same. With the same accent. With the same songs.”

Below is a film Russia Beyond The Headlines made of the capital city:

A clip from the film (in French):

10 Comments

  • For many who read and write in these columns English may be a fifth or sixth language…
    Worrying about colons ??

  • The article and words/movie of Russia’s Jewish “state” is
    mind-blowing, exciting to me. It shows a live continued history of Jews in Russia. Marek Halter,”When I was born, 11 million people spoke Yiddish. And then I come to Siberia, where signs on the houses are all written in two languages and children are taught Yiddish at school. I saw Jews, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in 50 years. The very same. With the same accent. With the same songs.”

    It is as if families, old and young, little children–like my grandchildren– stepped out of the history books and into our homes in Cleveland Hts, Ohio, USA [VIA THE FILM and pictures.]

    Thank you Marek-your work honors the lives of so many and thank you Algemeiner.
    FRANK MARIS, 72, non-descriptive “christian”, wife and 2 children are Jewish, 2 granddauighters [7 8] are MUSLIM

  • moshe brodetzky

    yiddish is my mamme loshen = inherited from birth in Michigan City,Indiana- with a yerushlaimdiker accent = from my parents born in Jerusalem I was illiterate
    = without any grammar.But I got my first rude awakening = when my tante Badd ane bera to HALTERted me for saying HIER and not DU*** she took it as an insult **** I propose that HALTER start a drive to make BIROBIDJAN a Jewish colony of state of ISRAEL

  • Where are these numbers from: “Now only about 150,000 people in the world speak the language”…

    I heard that there are about 2,500,000 worldwide (keyn yirvu)… So maybe you meant 1,500,000?

  • This article is ridden with errors. It would be wise to proofread before submitting.The semicolon in the first sentence is not a correct use of that punctuation. I shouldn’t even have to point out the “you’ve” towards the end of the first paragraph: “…but unless you’ve a discerning ear…” Seriously, what in the world would ever compel you to think this is a proper use of this contraction? You cannot join “you” to “have” in the case of possession. “You have a dollar in your hand” cannot become “You’ve a dollar in your hand.” What kind of English is that? Even if this was the proper use of the contraction (ex. “You have ridden a bike before, right?” –> “You’ve ridden a bike before, right?”), it is still improper to use contractions in a professional piece of writing like this.

    And what in the WORLD is this?!

    “Halter was asked why, considering that the Jewish population of the area hovers around five percent, anyone in the region would want to learn the language, : ‘They’ll talk to each other…’” Where did that colon come from? Why does it follow a comma? What could you possibly be thinking?! Why do you keep using colons to introduce quotes!?!?! Why won’t you put the name of the title of the film in quotes (as is the rule in AP style journalism, as opposed to italicization in standard written English).

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.