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The Yiddish renaissance: Professor joins forces with the owners of a Miami Beach hotel to revive an endangered ancient language

The Yiddish renaissance: Professor joins forces with the owners of a Miami Beach hotel to revive an endangered ancient language

April 6, 2018 at 10:13am

Asher Milbauer has never been ashamed to speak aloud in Yiddish.

The child of Holocaust survivors, Milbauer was born in post-World War II Soviet Union. He never met his grandparents. They were all killed in concentration camps. Many of his aunts and uncles were, too. He knows the life of exile. As a child, his parents taught him and his two brothers Yiddish even though it was suppressed in the Soviet Union. For them, it was a matter of pride, a matter of preservation.

“They instilled in me a love for this language,” Milbauer said. “That love – as a language of resistance and language of exile – has stayed with me all my life.”

But Milbauer knows many Jews who were once ashamed or afraid to speak in their mother tongue. With the help of the owners of The Betsy South Beach hotel, he is reintroducing Yiddish into the lives of those who dared not speak it for decades.

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On a recent rainy Sunday morning, people casually walk into The Betsy South Beach hotel for a conversation. They don’t speak Yiddish to one another. Many don’t speak Yiddish very well, some not at all. Most are eager, however, to say hello to Milbauer. The soft-spoken English professor with a faded Eastern European accent is not one to call attention to himself. But those arriving at The Betsy for the monthly Yiddish salon look upon Milbauer with admiration and affection. After all, he is helping them regain something they once thought lost.

Prior to World War II, approximately 11 million people spoke Yiddish worldwide. Of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, as many as 5 million were Yiddish speakers. After the war, some continued to speak the language — many stopped, some in fear of antisemitism and others because they chose to assimilate, conversing instead in the language of the countries where they found refuge. Over time, the number of Yiddish speakers dwindled, and today fewer than 1 million people speak the language, about 250,000 in the United States. Most of those are from Orthodox Jewish communities. UNESCO currently defines the language as “definitely endangered.”

The Yiddish salons at The Betsy are part of FIU’s Exile Studies Program. Milbauer, fluent in Yiddish, Hungarian, Russian, Hebrew and English, founded the program within the College of Arts, Sciences & Education seven years ago. The owners of The Betsy hotel have long been supporters of the program. Jonathan Plutzik and his sister Deborah Briggs are resolute advocates for arts and culture. They are the children of Tanya Roth Plutzik and the late poet and Pulitzer finalist Hyam Plutzik, who was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants.

During a conversation in 2015, Milbauer shared with Plutzik and Briggs his love of all things Yiddish, a language the siblings often heard their parents speak to each other but one they were never taught as children. Plutzik was quick to suggest they create the Yiddish salon series at The Betsy.

“I told them to just schedule it. Schedule the first one,” he said. “If only eight people show up, it doesn’t matter.” Ten showed up.

Two years later, the gatherings are growing in popularity and drawing 50 or more people, sometimes as many as 90. While those attending still largely represent the older generations, Briggs says they are seeing more and more young faces in the crowd. The gatherings celebrate Yiddish language and culture with artists and scholars who frame the conversations.

On the recent rainy morning, the audience is somewhat diverse. Seated in the front is David Schaecter, who at the age of 11 was sent to Auschwitz and is the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. In the back are a few young people. But most in attendance are from the generation born after World War II, the children of families who lived in exile.

Milbauer begins the program by welcoming everyone, alternating English and Yiddish with great ease.

“German is spoken in Germany. French is spoken in France. Yiddish is spoken all over the world,” Milbauer said. “That makes us one big people speaking a language that defies borders.”

Some easily follow along with Milbauer’s Yiddish, laughing at all the right moments and nodding in unison. Others lean in, listening intently, trying to learn.

Lucy Felcher understands Yiddish but only speaks a little.

She was born in Poland in 1946. Her parents met while boarding a train bound for Poland at the end of World War II — her father was in the Polish Army and her mother spent part of the war in a Russian labor camp. They hid their Jewish heritage even from their own children. When 7-year-old Lucy made
an offhand remark about Jews, her mother revealed the truth. She was devastated. She didn’t want to be a Jew.

Today, the Hollywood, Fla., resident feels very differently. She is proud to be called a Jew. She is eager to learn more about her family’s heritage. Felcher and others in attendance at the recent salon were there to listen to Miriam Hoffman, a writer, Yiddish playwright and retired scholar of Germanic languages.

She sometimes translates famous works into Yiddish, including Neil Simon’s play “Sunshine Boys,” her translation of which earned the Israeli equivalent of a Tony. She also dabbles in Shakespeare and offered a little “Hamlet” at the recent salon, first in English.

“To be or not to be, that is the question …”

Then she switched to Yiddish, which brings out some giggles among the attendees and full-blown laughter by the time she’s done.

“Ah, there’s the rub,” she says.

Yiddish is full of rich expressions and terms of endearment. It also offers some very colorful complaints and even more colorful insults. Often metaphors are involved.

Hoffman later does her best to translate her Yiddish Hamlet back into English.

“To be or not to be. That’s where the dog is buried. It’s a common way of saying in Yiddish, ‘that’s the problem,’” she said before a brief pause. “I didn’t say it was academic Shakespeare.”

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There are many efforts under way to carry Yiddish into the 21st century. Two language conservationists recently published an English-to-Yiddish dictionary, adding words for things like email and binge watch. Facebook is adding Yiddish translations to the social media platform. Some universities are adding Yiddish to their language offerings.

Efforts are being made to produce more songs in Yiddish and publish new Yiddish literary works. Earlier this year, a Yiddish-language film, “Menashe,” was released in the United States.

In South Florida, a member of Temple Menorah Miami is teaching Yiddish classes at the synagogue, an idea he got after attending the salons at The Betsy. As for the collaboration between FIU and The Betsy, the popularity of the salons has led to the creation of an annual daylong Yiddish symposium dedicated to topics pertaining to exile.

Though the language nearly disappeared in the last century, Yiddish is making a comeback, primarily in the United States, Israel and Russia. For the foreseeable future, the monthly Yiddish salons will continue at The Betsy. For Milbauer, Plutzik and Briggs, they are doing their part to ignite a Yiddish renaissance.