Why a Specific Cultural Identity Does Not Exclude Universality in Teaching Yiddish Folksong
Lipovsky, Shura, European Judaism
After a time of silence, Jewish identity often appeared to be reclaimed, or redefined, through connecting to Yiddish (folk-) song. Since Yiddish songs have become a kind of musical historic archive, Jews find in this repertoire different expressions of Jewish identity. They are able to embark on a joyful learning process as opposed to the sadness or silence they have been confronted with before. Meanwhile, the interest of non-Jews for this subject teaches them about a multi-faceted Jewish life, as opposed to only learning about the Shoah or the dramatic political struggles of Israel.
This kind of cultural exploration becomes a strong tool for intercultural dialogue and peace. Both Jews and non-Jews participate in an inclusive learning-experience about a European Jewish heritage, which appears to be a discovery for both, on different levels. Depending on the choice of repertoire and a specific pedagogical approach, this particular way of learning appears to contribute to consciousness and universal thinking. The usual chauvinism that might result from reclaiming one's ethnic, cultural or religious identity does not seem to occur in this case.
This article details Europe's quest for Yiddish culture after the Second World War and its consequences for Jewish and non-Jewish life today, seen through the eyes of a singer and pedagogue of Yiddish songs.
'The Yiddish song is the celebration of the Yiddish language--and its obstinate determination to vanquish despair and resignation'. Elie Wiesel (Songs of Generations, compiled by E. and J. Mlotek)
A Silenced Voice
Europe has been deprived of much of the Jewish population it had until 1940. The despair and the void this has left behind in large parts of the European community is not only felt within the small Jewish community. This void is also present for many people of non-Jewish descent who, after a long period of relative silence, started to look for traces and the history of their lost compatriots. Holland knows a famous song: 'Amsterdam huilt, waar het eens heeft gelachen' (Amsterdam cries, where it once had been laughing) which was written by a non-Jewish Dutch writer and composer, Kees Manders (1913-1979) referring to the many Jews who lived in Amsterdam before the war and who never came back.
Just after the Second World War life in Europe was filled with 'silence', a silence composed of many 'colours' and different tonalities: that of not knowing, of despair, of anger, of depression, of numbness, of nostalgia, and over time of sentimentality.
The only voice that would be heard with pride within the Jewish community was the Zionist one and Israel clearly had become the only reason why one would celebrate Jewish non-religious or religious life. The voice of Jewish religion, in all its colourful variations, lifted like a wounded bird its wings very slowly over time.
Other voices like that of the Yiddish cultural heritage of Ashkenaz (Eastern Europe), with the colourful and differentiated Jewish expressions of identity seemed often as unknown to non-Jews as to Jews living in post-war Europe.
Why Sing Yiddish?
Why would a singer born in the Netherlands, a country where Yiddish was hardly ever spoken, have a wish to look into a culture that was nearly extinguished by the non-Jewish world and hardly appreciated by the Jewish world in the Netherlands, some thirty years ago?
I was born and raised in The Hague, in a multicultural mini-society as it were, with a non-Jewish mother who was deeply dedicated to retracing Yiddish culture and a (Russian) Jewish father, who had served in the French Jewish resistance and lived an assimilated non-religious life since then. I grew up in a liberal atmosphere where humanism (as in respect for any living creature) and art were the strongest components of my daily life. The combination of a Waldorfschool (Rudolph Steiner) and a liberal Jewish religious orientation in my parents' circle of friends made my view of life in dialogue with 'others' a natural state of being. …