Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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...

  • Blogs Book Reviews Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it. “It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    Everybody knows that cooking varies from country to country. There are Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. We associate different styles of cuisine with different languages. Do we also think of the association of different cuisines with different dialects? We should, because cooking also varies from region to region. Litvaks and Galitsyaners have their own traditions of preparing gefilte fish. Marvin I. Herzog, in his book The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mouton & Co., The […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    An analysis of New York Times wedding announcements showed that women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s last names than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies, the Times reported on Saturday. The largest gap between the two groups was in 1995 when 66 percent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 percent of Jewish women did the same. Nearly half of the women featured in the publication’s wedding pages since 1985 took their husband’s name after marriage, while about […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    JNS.org – Through appreciation of both his comedy and humanitarian work, legendary Jewish entertainer Jerry Lewis is staying relevant at age 89. The only comic to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis added another award to his trophy case in April, when he received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Gordon Smith, NAB’s president and CEO, said the organization was “honored to recognize not only [Lewis’s] comedic innovation, but also his remarkable […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli athletes marked a successful day on Sunday, as gymnasts won multiple bronze and silver medals in the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Gymnastics team won two silver medals and one bronze in group events, while Neta Rivkin, an Israeli Olympic gymnast, won bronze for the Solo Hoops event. Sunday’s gymnastics wins follow Sergey Richter’s bronze on June 16 for the Men’s 10 meter air-rifle, and Ilana Kratysh’s silver for women’s freestyle wrestling. The 2015 European Games in Baku are […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Russian-American Jews are some of the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) Radio reported on Thursday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to Jewish discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dancing, in order to have a chance of getting ahead. “They knew that if they […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    An Israeli dancer made use of Jewish props in an extraordinary routine that left judges amazed when he auditioned for season 12 of TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance on Monday. At first, the panel of judges appeared confused when Asaf Goren, 23, began his audition in Los Angeles with a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head and the blowing of a shofar, which he explained “opens the sky” for people’s prayers. However, as soon as he started his “Hebrew breaking” performance, […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    JNS.org – A fairytale ending to Jewish basketball coach David Blatt’s first season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not meant to be, as the Blatt-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night dropped Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 105-97, to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. Blatt, who just last year coached Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to a European basketball championship, failed to finish a second straight hoops season on top. But after the Cavaliers began the NBA […]

    Read more →