‘An Entire Cultural World Focused Through Her Voice’


From the beginning to the end, it was about family.

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, the Yiddish poet, songwriter, singer and artist who died on Thanksgiving Day at 93, inherited her love of the Yiddish language from her parents and passed it along to her children and to an extended family of younger Jews that will stretch for generations.

The National Endowment for the Arts recognized her reach when it awarded her the National Heritage Fellowship in 2005, the highest honor the federal government can bestow upon traditional and folk artists. She was the first to receive the award for work in Yiddish culture.

“Heritage” was a key word in her career. As she told The Jewish Week after receiving the fellowship, Schaechter-Gottesman learned her Yiddish and her love of poetry and music at home.

“My father used to read to us, my mother was a beautiful singer and she used to sing to us,” Schaechter-Gottesman recalled. “This was before radio or television and that was how we entertained ourselves.”

Not surprisingly, it was a family need that led her to write her own poetry, songs and plays in Yiddish.

“She first started writing children’s poems and skits, basically to keep us speaking Yiddish,” her son Itzik Gottesman, formerly the associate editor of the Yiddish Forverts, said in a telephone interview last week. “These were performed at the Sholem Aleichem Yiddish shul and the Workman’s Circle, where she was teaching,” he said.

As the children grew up and left the home, Schaechter-Gottesman continued writing for her own pleasure, then publishing and recording her work.

“I didn’t plan it,” she said. “It just came and I did it.”

Despite the label of “folk” artist, as a writer she was anything but naïve or primitive. She noted that literary critics in the Yiddish world called her a post-Expressionist and that “I have a definite style and influences.”

Her son concurred.

“She celebrated Yiddish creativity in the Yiddish language,” Gottesman said. “Everyone is aware of the uncertainty [of the future] of Yiddish culture, but she emphasized that we shouldn’t think about that, we should just do what we do, create and contribute to the culture.”

Virtually alone among contemporary Yiddish poets, Shaechter-Gottesman wrote about the world as it came to her in the new century. She created poems about 9/11, about street scenes she encountered in the Bronx, a sax player on the subway.

“The singers appreciated it,” Gottesman said. “It was a new world for their repertoire.”

It was a very different world from the one in which Schaechter-Gottesman grew up. Although born in Vienna in 1920, she was raised in Czernowitz, then Romania, now Ukraine, a town with a distinguished legacy of Jewish creators that included not only Schaechter-Gottesman and her brother Mordkhe Schaechter, an important Yiddishist in his own right, but also poet Paul Celan and Georges Perec, a novelist and filmmaker.

“It was very much a [town of the] Austro-Hungarian empire,” her son noted. “The Jews spoke German and Yiddish and it was a vibrant place for them right up to the Second World War.”

In 1951, the remnants of the family ended up in the Bronx, where she would live for the rest of her life. Even then, it was the twin values of family and Yiddish culture that dictated living arrangements.

“That’s the story of our street, of Bainbridge Avenue,” Gottesman said with a laugh. “Bainbridgifke, they called it. Three families that chose to live next to each other in one apartment building so that the children would grow up speaking Yiddish – the Gottesmans, the Schaechters and the Fischmans. And the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, across the street.”

It must have worked. Itzik Gottesman is a Yiddish writer and folklorist. His cousin Binyumen Schaechter is director of the Yiddish People’s Philharmonic Choir and father of the “Schechter Tekhter,” the Schaechter daughters, his two Yiddish-singing offspring. David E. Fishman, son of the Yiddish linguist Joshua Fishman, is a professor of modern Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary and author of such books as “The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture.”

Even the Sholem Aleichem center continues on, “the only place in New York City where you can regularly hear a talk in Yiddish,” Gottesman said.

But Schaechter-Gottesman’s heritage doesn’t end with her bloodlines or even her next-door neighbors.

Pete Rushefsky, the executive director of the Center for Traditional Dance and Music, worked with Schaechter-Gottesman frequently. Earlier this week in an e-mail he noted, “The Center … presented Beyle a number of times since the early 1990s, and she was one of the central figures involved in our An-sky Institute for Jewish Culture.”

Rushefsky vividly recalled her presence in more intimate settings.

“To listen to Beyle sing at a zingeray (a traditional Yiddish song sharing session), around a long picnic table in her backyard in the Bronx was nothing short of magic,” he wrote. “One could feel the power of an entire cultural world focused through her voice, conjuring tragedies, tribulations and sketches of life from long ago and more recent times. She was a treasure who brought boundless energy to her advocacy for Yiddish language and culture.”

Theresa Tova, the excellent Toronto-based Yiddish singer, is representative of another generation of performers and writers nurtured by Schaechter-Gottesman. She was a frequent guest on Bainbridge Avenue and recorded an album of Schaechter-Gottesman’s songs. Speaking at the funeral, Tova recalled — in Yiddish, of course — a conversation regarding the younger singer’s translations of some of her lyrics into English.

“Beyle’s lyrics are so profoundly beautiful, they warrant being translated so that non-Yiddish-speaking audiences can hear their brilliance,” Tova wrote in an e-mail afterwards. “Yet when I showed her the translations we were working on, Beyle told me, ‘As long as I am alive, I don’t want my songs sung in English. English speakers have enough of their own songs.’”