A grandfather taught his grandson the Jewish alphabet and read him poems in Yiddish. Shortly before his death, he tied all the Jewish books into a pile, and threw them onto the very top shelf of a cabinet. He believed that nobody would ever need them. But the grandson took down this pile and started to read the books.
This is a story of a language lost and regained. And this is also a story of one man’s determination to honor his heritage with an extraordinary contribution to help revive a language of dreamers.
“My interest for Yiddish was born in my family,” says Dr. Dmytro Tyshchenko. “My ancestors spoke this language; it was as natural as breathing.”
Tyshchenko is the son of a Jewish mother and a Ukrainian father from Donbas. He is the creator of a massive new Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary, produced with the assistance of the Ukrainian Jewish encounter. The 945-page tome is being acclaimed in Jerusalem, Kyiv and elsewhere.
The Holocaust nearly destroyed Yiddish in Eastern Europe. Further damage was inflicted by Stalin’s executions of Yiddish-language writers, and Soviet government policies. The language lost its vitality and languished on the margins of society.
But the language refused to die. In 1988 Tyshchenko heard a visiting Israeli band perform in Odessa. From the stage he heard songs in Yiddish that only his grandparents had ever sing to him.
He decided to devote his life to learning the language of his ancestors to perfection, and to ensure that others could access the spiritual treasures created in this language.
Tyshchenko became a member of the activist Jewish community that emerged during perestroika in the waning days of the Soviet Union. He created Yiddish courses, and published the magazine Mame-Loshn, or Mother Tongue. In 1991, he went to Israel to study Yiddish and to write a thesis on literature in Yiddish.
Israel however, had a complex relationship with Yiddish. Many Jews associated Yiddish with the humiliated, powerless, and deeply provincial community of the shtetls, poor ghetto towns scrabbling for survival.
In contrast, Hebrew was viewed as the official state language of proud Israelis, a new breed of confident Jews who were not victims.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, however, once pointed out that the shtetl was more than humiliation, anti-Semitism, and pogroms. It was also a system of values, community ethics, mutual aid, courage, and sacrifice.
In compiling his dictionary, Tyshchenko tapped into those values.
“During the last thousand years, the folklore of the nation—its wisdom and proverbs—were formed in Yiddish,” he said. “Hebrew did not have this development.”
“I took the words that I found in Jewish literature. The soul of the nation is depicted in the vocabulary of people. The lives of people affect the language they speak. But the language also affects life.”
“Both of my parents are very dear to me, and when I was working on the Ukrainian version of the dictionary, I did my work with trepidation, trying to reveal the potential of both the Ukrainian and Yiddish languages,” said Tyshchenko.
Now living in Frankfurt, Tyshchenko is developing an online version of his dictionary, which will make the process of learning Yiddish even more convenient and affordable.
A new generation of young Jews in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere have enthusiastically embraced the study of Yiddish. They have rediscovered what the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer always knew.
In his famous Nobel Prize lecture, Singer proclaimed, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Kabbalists—rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”
– Narrated by Peter Bejger
– Brought to you by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.