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Around the Jewish World with Tape Recorder and Fellowship, Yiddish Scholar Recreates Lost World

It was 1998, and Dovid Katz was in a tiny Belarussian village recording the personal tales of a frail 79-year-old named Elli Goldfand.

After World War II, Goldfand recounted, he returned home to discover he was the town’s only surviving Jew. He visited the local cemetery to recite Kaddish for his parents and four siblings, who had been slaughtered like virtually all of the 2,400 Jews in Amdur.

When he saw local peasants allowing their cows to graze over the graves, Goldfand couldn’t control himself: He shot three cows and was promptly arrested. Despite his protests, cows continued to graze at the cemetery for two more years, until 1948, when lightning struck and killed 12 cows in the cemetery, he said.

"No other cows were struck in all of Amdur," Goldfand recalled. But after that, "I knew there was a God. Not a great one, but a very little one. A great God would have saved the Jews of Amdur.’ "

Such tales are what Dovid Katz’s work is made of. Based in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, Katz has spent much of the last decade searching for "the last of the Mohicans," or Yiddish-speaking Jews like Goldfand.

Katz muses that his 70 expeditions have turned up about 1,000 elderly Jews. The outings comfort poor, aged Jews and help preserve a language — Katz digitally records the precious encounters — that nurtured renowned scholars, writers and philosophers for 1,000 years.

"Usually they’re thrilled that some Yiddish-speaking person found them in their hick town," Katz says. "They feel like an angel has come. They’re somehow hypnotized in a nice way back into their happy Yiddish youth."

Once self-financed, Katz’s expeditions now are backed by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, which he co-founded in August. The institute is an offspring of two of Katz’s previous creations — the Center For Stateless Cultures at Vilnius University, which opened in 1999, and the Vilnius Summer Program, which he started in 1998.

Besides supporting such trips, the institute offers Yiddish classes, a 2,000-book library and cultural activities aplenty. It’s the first academic Yiddish institute in Eastern Europe since the Holocaust.

Before the war, Vilna, as the city is called in Yiddish, was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" and the capital of world Yiddish culture. It housed the first Yiddish academic institute — YIVO, now headquartered in New York — some 100 synagogues and six daily Jewish newspapers.

It also had Yiddish theaters, libraries and schools, nearly all of which were destroyed when 94 percent of the country’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Housed in and affiliated with historic Vilnius University, the institute enrolled 30 Eastern European students this fall in its Yiddish credit courses. This summer, 68 students from 16 countries took part in its one-month intensive program, which splits its agenda between classroom and culture.

Curious minds can refer to video archives of Katz’s expeditions. If he can raise more money, he aspires to publish and republish Yiddish literature.

The institute was established thanks to $80,000 in private donations. But to carry out all their plans, the institute will need $250,000 annually, says its co-founder and director, Mendy Cahan.

"Now that there’s an institute and not just a Don Quixote, my hope is there will be an organized infrastructure with more students going out on the road," Katz says.

As the institute’s research director, Katz works closely with Cahan. A native of Belgium, Cahan came to Vilnius from Israel, where he started Yung Yiddish, a grass-roots cultural center that boasts 36,000 books and 700 members.

The start-up process is nothing new for Katz, who in 1978 launched the Yiddish program at Oxford University, where he taught for 18 years. Katz has published three collections of Yiddish fiction, a Yiddish style guide and a map of prewar Europe that uses Yiddish names of cities and villages.

Born in Brooklyn, Katz, 45, long has been drawn to Yiddish. His Lithuanian-born father, the Yiddish poet Menke Katz, raised little Dovid in a Yiddish-speaking household, unlike many immigrant families.

"After the Holocaust, it seemed only natural that people should want to preserve their culture," Katz says. But "in Western Jewish culture, after the war, there was a fear that children might not have perfect English accents. American Jews had other things on their minds, like commercial success."

At age 16, when most Brooklyn boys were immersed in baseball, Katz was busy taking his Orthodox Jewish high school to New York’s State Supreme Court. Though he lost his bid to force the school to offer a Yiddish class, he says the revolt helped shift attitudes toward Yiddish — from outright animosity to mere apathy.

But don’t be fooled by such passion and dedication. Katz, who doesn’t think of himself as a radical, doesn’t aspire to recreate prewar Vilna.

"Yiddish was destroyed in its native territory. My goal has been to train masters, in small numbers, to create little islands of survival where people write and publish in Yiddish," he says. "The dream is for modest but serious survival. We cannot reverse history, but we can make a dent in it."

He points to one of his former students, Dov-Ber Kerler, who recently was appointed to a tenured professorship in Yiddish at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. While there has indeed been a resurgence of interest in Yiddish around the world — primarily in Yiddish music, theater and humor — there are only a handful of serious Yiddish studies programs at the university level, Katz says.

"The future of the language depends on it going beyond sentiments and warm feelings. There are too many dabblers in Yiddish now," Katz says.

In traditional Chasidic communities, Yiddish is growing at a rapid rate. But Katz fears for its future in the modern secular world, where many Jews retain only a few crumbs of the language their great-grandparents spoke.

A combination of German, Hebrew and the different Slavic languages, Yiddish was spoken by more than 90 percent of world Jews before World War II. Today, fewer than 1 million people speak the language.

"We’re feeling the Holocaust only now with the disappearance of the last master writers," he says. "It’s tragic to us, a huge blow."

Katz recently was awarded a Guggenheim Writing Fellowship for Yiddish fiction, the first Guggenheim ever given for a Yiddish book. The book, he says, is set in 19th-century Lithuania — and Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, plays a large role.

In addition, Katz is working on a large volume on the 700 years of Lithuanian Jewish civilization. He also is working on a new atlas of Lithuanian Yiddish geography.

Katz already has covered many shtetls in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Belarus in his search for Yiddish-speaking Jews, and now is planning a trip to Ukraine.

Although some trips are based on a hot tip, he says the best results come from going blind. Often, that means standing on a street corner and asking, "are there are any good Jews in town?"

"People keep saying there’s nothing left but 500 Jews," he says. "But that’s 500 more than zero, for God’s sake. And they can show me every bit of Jewish life."

Katz is right. The videotape of Elli Goldfand, who died in 1999, is living proof.

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