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Japanese Becomes Yiddishist

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“I am the only Yiddishist in Japan!” says Kazuo Ueda jokingly, but he becomes very serious when he discusses his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This 28-year-old university lecturer from Matsuyama City in western Japan is fascinated by the Yiddish language and its literature. He has received a grant from the Israeli government to spend one year at the University in order to pursue his interest. Kazuo Ueda, a Japanese student of German who received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Tokyo, has taught for two years in the German department at Uni Ehime University in Matsuyama.

While still in graduate school, he was introduced to Yiddish through the diary of Franz Kafka. Since then he has been intrigued by the language “of whose existence most Japanese German scholars are unaware.” Ueda began by studying biblical Hebrew in 1967 at Tokyo University and then modern Hebrew at the Jewish Community of Japan in Tokyo. For the past four years he has been teaching himself Yiddish. Often he went to the only synagogue in Japan in search of assistance which he found in the person of the young rabbi there. Since July, 1971, when he arrived in Israel, Ueda has been concentrating on his Hebrew at an ulpan given by the Hebrew University.

When he returns to Japan he would like to translate some of Singer’s works into Japanese, and is also considering the stories of Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, Ueda said, He is confident that Yiddish literature will be well received in his home country: “American Jewish writers are very popular in Japan today, and it is said that their books reflect a strong Yiddish influence, especially (Bernard) Malamud’s – I think in some respects my work would contribute to a deeper understanding of these writers.” Ueda’s hope is to be able to “convey the spirit of the Yiddish language.” Because “Yiddish literature is connected with Hassidism and Haskala,” he has read in Japanese some Jewish history and philosophy including Martin Buber.

Ueda is constantly looking for an opportunity to speak Yiddish. During the months he has been here he has attended meetings of Yiddish clubs both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But he notes that when he tells people he is studying Yiddish they make strange faces and query “Yi-iddish?” He sadly points out, “It is very regrettable for me that so many people here don’t appreciate Yiddish; perhaps it is because Yiddish reflects the tragic history of the Jews. I think one must not mix the value of the language and literature itself with the fate of the Jewish people.”

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