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November 26, 2012 5:23 pm
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French Writer-Filmmaker Explores Region Where Chinese and Korean Children Learn Yiddish (VIDEO)

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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.

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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:

[iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/42029484?badge=0&color=ad282a” width=”500″ height=”344″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen]

A clip from the film (in French):

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  • Jerry Hersch

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

  • Frank Maris

    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?

    • J Brown

      the article says 1 million 500 thousand

  • Sean

    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).

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