Monday, September 06, 2004

On modern Yiddish culture

I owe my late grandfather an apology. About a year before his untimely passing last fall, we had a conversation over Sabbath dinner where the status of Yiddish culture and language was debated. It was his contention that Yiddish language, originally the vernacular of European Jewry, was flourishing. In the minds of my “progressive”, “educated” siblings and self, Yiddish was a dead language, relegated to the occasional exclamation in a Billy Crystal or Mel Brooks movie.

Lord was I wrong. Toronto’s annual Ashkenaz Festival, now in its fifth year, is the largest celebration of Yiddish culture in the world, and while it might be a tiny bit different than life in the stereotypical Polish shtetl (village), it is clear that in the modern world, Yiddish is alive and well.

As all old cultures must do to stay relevant, modern Yiddish culture is a wacky fusion of old-world tradition and new-age values. Taking place at Harbourfront over Labour Day weekend, Ashkenz highlighted the contrast and melding of the old and the new. Film offerings took note of the ever-present change rocking the culture, with the 1923 silent film East Meets West examining the need of Jews in the roaring 20s to update themselves to modernity. Later, crowds packed the auditorium for a screening of the award-winning documentary Klezmer on Fish Street, a film that examines how vibrant modern Jewish culture is in Poland today – despite the fact that Poland has almost no Jews. Wisecracked an interviewee, “They used to ask, ‘Can a white boy play the blues?’ Today, they’re asking, ‘Can goyim (gentiles) play the Jews?’”

One of the hallmarks of Yiddish culture is in fact the Klezmer music of the film’s title. Originally played at shtetl weddings, Klezmer bands are historically composed of fiddles and other light string and wind instruments – if only because Jews living under persecution in medieval Europe figured it was easier to pick up a fiddle and run than a piano, quips my dad. Dozens of Klezmer bands rocked on the many stages the festival had running, with most events being free to the hundreds of devotees in attendance. With four to eight events running simultaneously, the hardest part of the festival was figuring out what to do when, and what to skip.

High points were many, of course. The festival grounds were veritable eye candy, decorated with kitschy banners proclaiming in English and Yiddish, “love”, “respect”, “sing”, “dance” and many others; bright Yiddish letters adorning the dock posts; and 20s era shop signs reading “Switzer’s Delicatessen” and “Jewish Old Folks Home”. The world café offered not only traditional Yiddish foods, but also Middle Eastern fare. The vendor fair offered Jewish art, books and memorabilia. The bands were rocking – I felt as though this was the only festival where you might hear a musician say “Is there enough bass on this accordion?”

It was the kick-off, of course, that made the most impact, with the traditional opening parade being to the theme of the biblical tale of Noah’s ark. Stilt-walkers in animal costumes, doves, an actual ark with cardboard animals that were later given to the children, and flag-bearers waving rainbow flags to commemorate the rainbow the rainbow the ended the flood – all served as a reminder of the diversity that is modern Yiddish culture. It was this theme that welcomed the spectators of all ages and all cultures. Said a parade leader decked out in a blue-and-green bird costume atop a pair of stilts, “We enrich the world by our differences, and we are enriched by the world’s differences.”


- Published in the York University Excalibur on September 8, 2004


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