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Across the Former Soviet Union in the Former Cradle of Yiddish, Mama Loshen Still Speaks to Heart

The blonde pianist enters the stage first, followed by a goateed, serious-looking young opera singer, Rafailas Karpis. Hands clasped above his bright yellow tie, he belts out five songs in Yiddish, odes to love and loss.

To a North American audience, the moving, mournful melodies might trigger nostalgia, even tears, for the world of their forefathers, an existence scarred by pogroms, then snuffed out by the Holocaust.

Yet here in Vilnius, not a moist eye is seen among the mostly elderly audience.

That’s because Yiddish here is no relic of the past. It’s still a living, breathing language, having survived the decimation of a unique Jewish community, the Litvaks.

From cultural performances to reading clubs to private conversations, Lithuanian Jews are reclaiming their Yiddish-speaking heritage in the historic heart of Yiddishkeit — the city that used to be known as Vilna.

There’s talk elsewhere of Yiddish “revival,” but the Litvaks’ efforts to resurrect the mama loshen are organic, despite a collapsing demographic and the many demands on the time of younger generations.

“Yiddish is a way to preserve our identity — it’s one of the springs of Jewish culture,” says community chairman Simonas Alperovicius, 78, who attended a Yiddish-language school in Kaunas before World War II. “I feel it’s not only a matter of pride but my personal responsibility.”

Alperovicius and the board of this small community of 4,000 to 5,000, perhaps only one-third of whom actually speak Yiddish, decided early this year to actively preserve and promote the language.

The countdown has begun for the most significant move to date: In January, the Sholom Aleichem Jewish Secondary School in Vilnius, the only such state institution in Lithuania, will unveil its first Yiddish-language class with 10 to 15 teenaged students.

The Jewish community center is also planning to offer a class, and the Jewish kindergarten will start teaching an hour of Yiddish per week.

Admittedly these are baby steps, Jewish activists say.

“At the moment it’s not possible to have a revolution of Yiddish because those who know it are unfortunately passing away,” says Micha Jacobas, the Sholom Aleichem principal. He communicates in Yiddish with his 81-year-old father and his siblings, all of whom are in Israel.

“For us Yiddishists, it’s more and more painful to see fewer and fewer Yiddish speakers,” Jacobas says. “So we should make all efforts to get young people interested, to keep it alive.”

That a Yiddish-speaking communal core persists is remarkable, observers say.

First came the Holocaust, then four decades of communism and finally, as Jews here point out with irritation, was the State of Israel’s Hebrew-centric policy.

But nothing could erase the historic link between Yiddish and Vilna.

In its heyday a century ago, the city known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” drew some of the greatest rabbis, educators and scholars, like Max Weinreich, who founded the Yiddish Scientific Institute in 1925 and served as its director until it relocated to New York in 1940 as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Together with local collaborators, the Nazis wiped out 94 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000-strong Jewish community. Some estimate that the Holocaust claimed 5 million of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers.

The Soviet Union then set about ruthlessly repressing national, ethnic and religious identity as threats to central communist authority, targeting Jews and many other groups.

Moscow tolerated only Soviet culture and the Russian language. But with the strong Yiddish roots in Vilnius, far from Moscow, Jews had a bit more latitude; some Litvaks felt confident enough to speak Yiddish in certain company.

Only in the early 1950s was there “Yiddish silence,” during the height of Stalin’s anti-Zionist campaign and the so-called Doctors’ Plot, when a group of prominent Moscow doctors, mostly Jews, were falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders.

With Stalin’s death, Yiddish theater reopened in 1956. A song-and-dance troupe followed soon after.

Earlier this month, a gala at the Jewish community center commemorating 50 years of locally produced Yiddish culture drew a crowd of 800 people.

Yiddish today survives in many other ways as well. On Sundays, one finds the “Libhober fun Yiddish” — Those Who Love Yiddish. They gather to read either the classics of Yiddish literary oeuvre or copies of prewar Yiddish newspapers, discussing the events and geographic locale.

When a foreign journalist drops by looking for Yiddish speakers, a kindly octogenarian approaches and says, “I’d be happy to read for you in Yiddish!”

Down the hall, the community newspaper, “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” is published in Lithuanian, Russian, English and Yiddish.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Vilnius had a half-dozen daily Yiddish newspapers. During the political upheaval of 1989, when the community decided to unveil a new paper, editor Milan Chersonskij says there was no doubt about having a Yiddish version.

“We looked at Yiddish as the symbol of our rebirth,” says Chersonskij, 69.

He admits, though, that for proofreading the Yiddish version, he has to e-mail drafts to an 85-year-old Litvak colleague in Israel.

But it’s not only the older crowd that has a keen interest in Yiddish. Simon Gurevichius, 25, is a rarity in the community: His mother tongue is Yiddish.

“My grandfather insisted on it,” Gurevichius says.

His grandfather hailed from a shtetl and was openly Jewish, yet was successful, distributing food across Vilnius. His grandfather’s rationale for maintaining Yiddish, Gurevichius says, was as a means to preserve Jewish identity — and resist an oppressive regime.

But Gurevichius also learned early on that speaking Yiddish carried some risk.

He recalls his mother telling him that once while visiting Moscow, she and her mother were walking and chatting in Yiddish. A Jewish Muscovite overheard them, stopped and whispered that it would be unwise to continue — advice they heeded.

His grandfather ultimately was right: Gurevichius says that speaking Yiddish at home with his parents infused his sense of Jewishness. Today he’s executive director of the community.

Community elders seem to delight in Gurevichius’ Yiddish. Alperovicius playfully teases him about his countrified Yiddish compared to Alperovicius’ more sophisticated, urban pronunciation.

Another man, a colleague of his grandfather’s, informed Gurevichius, “In his office, we spoke Yiddish. So in your office, we can speak no other language but Yiddish.”

Another young Yiddish-speaker is the opera singer Karpis, a frequent performer at the community center. He’s also an emerging talent at the Vilnius Opera House, but says it’s through Yiddish that he expresses himself best as a soloist.

Karpis grew up hearing both grandmothers chatting in Yiddish in the kitchen. But it was a Lithuanian choir teacher who, when Karpis was 13, nudged him toward his roots.

In the decade since he’s been drawn deeper into Yiddish song, with help from his mother. As a librarian, she helps him track down original scores. As a Yiddish speaker, she helps sharpen his pronunciation.

“These melodies are the most beautiful to me,” Karpis says. “They awaken all the deepest feelings in my heart. They’re very simple but very sensitive.”

Across town, in the charming Old Town, within the history branch of Vilnius University, the 5-year-old Vilnius Yiddish Institute has become a community mainstay. The center was founded by Brooklyn-born scholar Dovid Katz, who 25 years ago also forged several Yiddish initiatives at Oxford University, including its summer program.

His hardwood, loft-style library and classroom space today is a resource for the Lithuanian Jewish community, though that’s not its central purpose.

Nor is Katz here as a “missionary,” preaching the gospel of Yiddish. Instead, he says he aims to cultivate future preservationists of Yiddishkeit “who can teach and transmit the works of the literary masters in the original Yiddish.”

Katz runs the Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish, which has drawn dozens of students and scholars the past nine summers, collects oral histories from elderly Yiddish speakers throughout the region and offers classes like “Introduction to Lithuanian Yiddish Culture.”

In one recent class, titled “Modern Yiddishism, the Hebrew-Yiddish Conflict, and the Rise of the ‘Vilna Center,’ ” only a few of the 10 students seated around a long table were Jewish, and it was the non-Jews who posed the most questions.

Later they explained what drew them to the class.

“I want to know my country, and to know only Lithuanian culture is not enough,” says Rugile Daraskeviciute, 22. “Yiddish heritage was such a big part of our history.”

“Vilnius is like a puzzle with many different pieces,” adds her classmate, Judita Neverauskaite, 22. “Learning about Jewish life gives me a more complete picture.”

A foreign student in class, Eveline Poppe, is a Belgian polyglot of East European languages who came to Vilnius to polish her Lithuanian and Yiddish. After living in a heavily Chasidic quarter of Antwerp, where Yiddish thrives, Poppe says she expected to hear the language spoken widely on the streets of Vilnius.

“I haven’t noticed any yet,” the 23-year-old says. “It’s a bit disappointing because I love the language now.”

But that’s precisely the chief hurdle to a genuine Yiddish “revival” here, Katz says.

“There is no real revival of Yiddish,” he says. “It’s a club, it’s a fetish, it’s a hobby.”

Katz notes, “A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken, where mothers are speaking that language to their children.”

That’s why the community is now focusing its efforts on youth.

After years of resistance, Jacobas says his school’s Israeli sponsors and faculty relented and will permit Yiddish to enter the curriculum.

The Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Vilnius, Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, and his wife speak Yiddish to their eight children, he says, “so they will know the language which connected Jews from all over Europe for centuries, and was a language used for the study of Jewish scholarship for hundreds of years.”

Gurevichius, recently married and planning for children one day, says he “couldn’t imagine” not speaking Yiddish at home with his offspring.

“For me this is the way to make them Jewish,” he says. “For anyone who speaks it, it speaks to the heart.”

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