After I did a double-take: “Yes. I am literate in Yiddish. I actually speak it as well. How on earth is this coming up?”
“Since my sophomore year, I have been a volunteer transcriber for the Library of Congress. Groups of people work on a particular genre or area. The campaign I am currently working on, 1930s state-sponsored theater productions, only has one record yet to be transcribed. No registered volunteer can transcribe it because it’s in Yiddish. Would you be willing to help?”
Tina and Ms. Schmidt during Spirit Week’s ‘Dress Like a Teacher Day.’ Alexandra writes, “Amusingly, the writing on the board is actually in the Hebrew alphabet, which is also what Yiddish is written in, though it is Hebrew, not Yiddish—I teach a Hebrew-language Practicum.” You can see the material in transcription here.
I was stunned. Yiddish was my grandparents’ first language, and Stanford University first offered a course in Yiddish while I was a student there. From the Yiddish at Stanford website
The Yiddish language offers a window into the cultures and history of the Jews of Eastern Europe and their descendants in the United States, Israel, and all over the world. Yiddish has been spoken for centuries by Jews in Eastern Europe, the United States and Canada, Latin America, and elsewhere. Its grammar is close to that of German (and English); its vocabulary comes from early German, Hebrew, and Slavic sources. From the sixteenth century, Jews developed a rich and multifaceted literature in this language. Today Yiddish is the primary language of some ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Among other Jews and non-Jews around the world it is enjoying a revival as a language for reading, speaking, and singing.
According to the Rutgers University Jewish Studies
department, there are approximately 600,000 Yiddish speakers in the world—that’s 0.008% of the world’s population (prior to World War II, there were approximately 11 million speakers.) Compared with Hebrew’s 9 million speakers worldwide, Yiddish is a minority’s minority language. It is uncommon to meet a Yiddish speaker, even less common to meet one who is neither Hasidic nor a Holocaust survivor. It is hard to know who was more amazed—Tina, that she’d found a speaker, or me, that my knowledge of an exceedingly niche language was about to be useful to her work.
I was also intrigued. Tina explained to me that a transcriber’s job is to accurately transfer the text of a printed or handwritten document to a typed electronic version that can then be searched in the Library of Congress’s archives. This is not a translation job; in fact, it is important not to put one’s own words in place of those in the archival materials.
Tina observed, “one of the things I love about transcribing records is that it allows you to connect with people in unexpected time periods, places, and contexts. In fact, one of my college essays discusses heavily how Spanish legal records, combined with my study of the Spanish language, brought those buried in time to life (you know, some church officials appropriating funds and villagers of Encinacorba illegally felling trees)!”
Once I began the process of transcribing the program for the Federal Theater Project’s 1938 production of David Pinski’s Der Schneider Vert a Kremer (The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper), I understood Tina’s excitement and sense of motion between worlds when transcribing. The program’s Yiddish is very Americanized, making it easy for an American-born Yiddish speaker to understand. I read characters listed as “pressers”, a “union leader”, a “boss” and a “holdup man”—and representatives of various Jewish charitable organizations! Though unfamiliar with the play, I immediately knew I was looking at a story about the heavily-Jewish garment industry, the rise of union labor, and the (sometimes helpful, sometimes not-so-helpful) social ties within the Jewish immigrant community.
The program itself hinted at the evolution and assimilation of the American Jewish audience as it transitioned from its Eastern European immigrant roots. In 1938, Jews still used “Adolf” as a first name (in fact, my grandmother had a cousin with that name). However, name changes to obscure Jewishness were exceedingly common, particularly in show business. (I remarked to Tina that she is not the first immigrant to use a different first name in America.) I found myself smiling at the names on the program, many of which are themselves relics of the era: Genevieve, Edna, Velma, Opal, Prudence, Constance, Gertrude.
Some things, of course, haven’t changed as much. The leading lady had the same (uncommon) last name as the director.
I would occasionally send Tina snippets of the transcription as I worked on it. She enjoyed running them through Google Translate to get a sense of what the Yiddish meant—another place that modern technology helped open long-closed doors.
Intrigued, I turned to Google Books for more information about the play. Joel Schechter’s Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theater Survived Adversity Through Satire devotes an entire chapter to the play and opens with the astonishing fact that it was the only Yiddish play in 1938 to be subjected to a hearing by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Although the play’s title character is in fact reluctant to join a union, and does so only as a last resort, the Committee described the play as “pro-union” and “Communistic propaganda”. As Schechter notes, “the story of the tailor also differs from earlier plays that the author set in Eastern Europe and Palestine. He portrays labor conditions that would remind many spectators in New York and Chicago [both locations where the play was performed in Yiddish] of their own garment industry work. The play was as new as the forty-four hour workweek, about which Congress debated that year.” In fact, the director of the Federal Theater Project specifically wanted to produce new American-written plays in Yiddish rather than presenting the classics of the Eastern European stage. Thanks to Schechter’s book, I knew that I was looking at a program from the Chicago production (it notes that the Chicago director was Adolf Gertner—anglicized, of course, to Gardner). Gardner’s professional resume mirrors the arc of Yiddish theater in America. Born in Bucharest in 1879, he was active in the European Yiddish theater before immigrating to the USA in 1903. In America, Gardner worked in more traditional Yiddish theater before joining the Federal Theater Project.
For me this was not just a window into a play and a place and a time, but a connection to my own family’s American story. My great-grandmother, an immigrant escaping the antisemitic ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire (then Poland, now Ukraine), widowed in her 30s with three young children, found work as a seamstress in both New York City and Chicago. As they assimilated and made lives as Americans, my grandparents and parents would all often exclaim—in wonder, delight, or cynicism, as the context warranted—“!נאָר אין אמעריקע”—“only in America!”
“Only at Emma Willard!” would a California-born math teacher be asked by her Shanghai-born student to contribute to an all-volunteer project, on behalf of the American Library of Congress, that linked her grandparents’ language with American art and history.
What incredible students. What an incredible place.