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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian City Boasts Yiddish Past, but Future of ‘mother Tongue’ Uns

January 28, 2003
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Ten years ago, a telephone call awakened Ukrainian engineer Leonid Fuks in the middle of the night.

The caller quickly introduced himself as an Israeli diplomat stationed in Kiev. He made Fuks, the chief manager of a quarry, the most unlikely proposal.

"He said a huge group of Chasidic Jews from all over the world was going on a pilgrimage in Ukraine, and he wanted me to interpret for them in Yiddish as they go through customs," Fuks recalls.

He had never served as an interpreter before, and had no contacts at the Israeli diplomatic mission.

He was ready to hang up once he realized that the job would start in a few hours, hundreds of miles away from his home. A promise that he would be picked up soon — along with hefty pay in hard currency — changed his mind.

Even now Fuks, who has become the director of Hesed Shushana, the Chernovtsy regional welfare center, isn’t sure how he got his first — and so far only — interpreting job.

Chernovtsy is a six-hour drive from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, so it is surprising that the Israelis couldn’t find anybody living closer to do the job.

Yet Fuks, now in his 60s, wouldn’t argue with the idea that if there was only one Jew left in all of Ukraine who could speak Yiddish, it could easily be a Jew from Chernovtsy.

As is true throughout Eastern Europe, Yiddish is no longer in much use in this once-thriving community.

But unlike many other places in the former Soviet Union, Yiddish is not just a distant memory in Chernovtsy, home to 3,000 Jews among its 190,000 people.

If other Jews in the former Soviet Union had Yiddish-speaking grandparents, "to us in Chernovtsy, Yiddish is the language of our parents," says Bronislav Tutelman, a local artist. Like most of the generation born after World War II, he understands a little bit of Yiddish.

Josef Burg knows a bit more of the mama loshen, or mother tongue.

He is reciting this week’s portion of the Torah as he remembers his melamed at the heder — his teacher at the elementary school– doing. At his desk, he sings in Ashkenazic Hebrew and then switches back to Yiddish. It was that poetry of his childhood, he says, that awakened his calling for Jewish literature.

"That’s why I became an Yiddish writer," says Burg.

When Burg first entered the literary scene in the 1930s, the city had a buzzing Yiddish cultural life.

The name of the city resonates in the history of Yiddish: the first conference on the status of Yiddish as a national language was held here in 1908.

The conference in Czernowitz, as the city was then known, had a great symbolic impact in resolving the culture clash between Yiddish and Hebrew.

In the wake of the conference, the Yiddish language was accepted as one of the national languages of the Jewish people, a historic breakthrough for a language that had been routinely referred to as a dialect.

By the early 20th century, Yiddish became the vehicle for a growing body of the press and literature.

The city was a scene of lively and diverse Yiddish cultural, literary and political activities. With 20 Yiddish periodicals, the prewar Czernowitz — renamed Cernauti when it was incorporated into Romania after World War I — boasted the world’s largest number of Yiddish periodicals per capita.

Burg, who lived in eastern Russia throughout World War II, returned to Chernovtsy in the 1960s. He actively participated in the official Yiddish culture that created an illusion that Yiddish had some future in the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse and Ukrainian independence in 1991, attempts to revive Yiddish culture were among the first efforts aimed at restoring Jewish life in Chernovtsy.

The newspaper Tschernovitser Bleter, whose origins date back to the prewar era, was relaunched with Burg as its editor. Today, less than half of the monthly publication is in Yiddish; the rest is in Russian.

The few elderly Jews who still have not abandoned the efforts to revive the language believe they are clinging to a mostly bygone culture.

Boris Slobodyansky is among a group of pensioners that put out a Yiddish broadcast, Dos Yiddishe Wort, or the Yiddish Word, on the airwaves of a Ukrainian state company.

"We have the only Yiddish radio in the world," he says, unaware of several Yiddish radio shows in other countries.

The airtime of the monthly show that started in 1991 was recently cut from a half-hour to 20 minutes.

Ten years ago, Burg and other enthusiasts of Yiddish pinned their hopes for Yiddish revival on the newly opened Chernovtsy Jewish day school.

"I had hoped they would include Yiddish in the curriculum. That way we could have some continuity. Not many — just a couple, even a single student who would have taken my place," Burg says. "But no one at the school was interested."

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