There’s still a lot of kick in the old Yiddish mare
It was around 2002 when Philip Todres had staged the first two sold-out Yiddish Song Festival fundraisers for the Cape Jewish seniors that he had a lightbulb moment. After the Herzlia School choir’s various renditions of old Yiddish favourites, including “Rosinkes mit mandlen”, Jack Shmukler, a child Holocaust survivor, whispered to Todres (in Yiddish): “If we weren’t doing this they wouldn’t have a word of Yiddish in their mouths.”
Todres understood that this was a chance to preserve the Jewish heritage l’dor va’dor, meaning from generation to generation.
“Yiddish is not just a language,” says Todres. “It’s a culture. It’s about literature, film, theatre, song, food. There’s a cultural imperative for us to regain those voices that were silenced in the Holocaust.”
The Yiddish Song Festival ran for 10 years in Cape Town and had its 11th swansong performance in Johannesburg in 2011. It had expanded to include a three-day Yiddish immersion course, Otazay, which proved hugely popular, and continues today to give students the full cultural experience of storytelling, singalongs, eating the gerichten, as well as speaking the mame-loshn for three days every August.
If an annual dose is not enough, doyenne of Yiddish studies in South Africa, Dr Veronica Belling – who did her doctoral thesis on Yiddish – teaches a weekly Yiddish class at the Cape Jewish Seniors Centre in Sea Point. In Johannesburg Yiddish classes are taught by Tamar Alswang and Cedric Ginsburg at the Yiddish Academy.
For Belling, who has a rich and varied academic footprint and has contributed enormously to chronicling Yiddish history and translating Yiddish work during her 31 years at UCT’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, Yiddish has not been well served in South Africa despite South Africa’s being predominantly a Litvak community.
“Other than two years when it was taught in the extramural programme at UCT and Wits, Yiddish has never been taught as a subject in the universities here.” she said, adding that nonetheless there is a body of Yiddish literature written in South Africa reflecting the eastern European immigrant experience.
But does it really warrant university-level study?
“From a cultural point of view it does,” says Belling, “in order to deepen and enhance our understanding of Jewish history and culture. From a linguistic point of view it also enhances the study of the languages from which it was derived, such as German, Hebrew and Polish, as well as the languages it has influenced, such as modern Hebrew and American English in particular.”
Columbia, Oxford and Chicago are among the many prestigious universities offering Yiddish studies, and no list of resources would be complete without mentioning the prolific YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Widely known for his Yiddish research, writing and teaching, is Prof. Dovid Katz, currently at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University.
He also lectures at the Jewish Cultural and Information Centre in Vilnius while continuing to advocate for preserving and defending the Yiddish culture and history. In Melbourne, Australia, Yiddish is a matric subject at one high school.
Clearly Yiddish culture – the language, food, song and theatre – is alive, even thriving, around the world, but are we doing enough in South Africa to keep up?
Possibly with baby steps. Todres is working with producer Heather Blumenthal of Spirit Sister on a documentary on the Yiddish Song Festival. Young talents are staging their own musical shows, and the Otazay course is attracting some younger blood as well.
At Herzlia, the choirs regularly belt out Yiddish favourites under the baton of Ivor Joffe, exposing them to at least some of the language in song. As the native Yiddish speakers become fewer, it will take some effort for South Africans to preserve their Litvak culture. There is no doubt, however, that Yiddish still matters.
Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi
More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.
Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.
UJW Sewing School graduates model creations
The outfits modelled by graduates of the Union of Jewish Women’s (UJW’s) Sewing School were all the more spectacular for the fact that some of their creators had never seen a sewing machine prior to the four-month course.
They were modelled at the school’s graduation ceremony at Oxford Shul on 15 December to much excitement and applause.
UJW executive member and Sewing School Manager Ariane Heneck expressed her gratitude to Chido Tsodzo, the school’s superb teacher, and the event ended with a much appreciated lunch for graduates and their invited guests.
The self-empowerment Sewing School for unemployed men and women was started by the UJW 10 years ago. It now has a small production team of ex-students, and some of its graduates have been employed in factories, while others are selling their own creations.
Israel Rugby 7s to camp with the Blitzbokke
The thrill-a-minute Rugby 7s have captured the hearts of fans around the world. The Blitzbokke, South Africa’s national Rugby 7s team, ranks second in the world, and is among the most exciting, formidable, and feared of 7s teams.
Exactly 9 191 km away are the Israelis, an emerging rugby nation that has talent, determination, and a world-class coach in South African Kevin Musikanth. Now, these two squads will meet. The Israeli 7s side will be travelling to the SAS Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch to train with the Blitzbokke.
The Blitzbokke will have the opportunity to prepare for the coming 7s rugby season by measuring their skills of play against the Israelis. And the Israelis, well, they will be rubbing shoulders with, and learning from the best in the world and honing their skills for their coming European Rugby season.
“It’s an opportunity for our boys to learn from the world’s best,” says Musikanth. The SAS Rugby Academy is run by the legendary Frankie Horn, a technical expert whose coaching guidelines and methods are second to none in World Rugby 7s.
Musikanth took over as Rugby 15s head coach in Israel in 2018, and in October 2019, he became director of rugby for the Israeli Rugby Union and head coach for the national programmes of both the 15s and the 7s.
Horn visited Israel last December at the behest of Rugby Israel and its supporting Olympic body and since then, the partnership has continued to grow. The upcoming training camp will begin in Israel, where Horn, together with Phil Snyman, the former Blitzbok captain and multiple world champion winner, will spend a week with the players and coaching staff at Wingate, Netanya, the home base of Rugby Israel. They will then all travel to Stellenbosch for a week’s camp with the Blitzbokke.
“We’ve already seen the difference through our partnership with Frankie. Two of our players were spotted by him on his previous trip to Israel, and have been training at SAS on the off-season,” says Musikanth. The two players are Omer Levinson (scrum half) and Yotam Shulman (lock).
Horn, technical advisor to Rugby Israel’s 7s, says “It is a great opportunity for both teams to derive positive benefit from the camp.”
Israel Rugby has been making considerable professional strides since Musikanth took over the reins. Israel 15s played their 100th test match against Cyprus and celebrated with a 34-22 victory.
“We’re in the top 25 in Europe in 15s and in the top 16 in 7s, the toughest, most competitive continent in world rugby,” says Musikanth, “and I can realistically see us setting our sights on the Top 15 and Top 12 respectively in the future.”
Currently, there are three eligible South Africans who are on the Israeli national squad: Jayson Ferera as flanker (Pirates Rugby Club), Daniel Stein as fly half (studying in Israel), and Jared Sichel as prop (Hamilton’s Rugby Club, Cape Town). Eligibility to play for a national team in rugby is stricter than in other sports. One does not qualify just because one has a passport. One has to have had a parent or grandparent that was born in that country or one has to have lived in the country for at least three years.
“With so much Jewish rugby talent around the world, we would be able to put a world-class Israeli national team together if not for the measures that restrict eligibility to national call ups,” says Musikanth.
The Israel Rugby development project was accelerated thanks to Musikanth initiating Bridges through Rugby. This project is the collective effort of a few South African Jewish businessmen who appreciate the long-term vision of Israel becoming a stronger rugby nation. They have come on board to assist with this most opportune tour. National financial support is fixed and, as such, is limited. While the strong players and national coaches will be attending the training camp in Stellenbosch, there will be some that will, unfortunately, have to stay behind.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players and coaches. To get to see the best upfront and feed off their knowledge is going to be incredible,” says Musikanth. “Everyone is eager to go, of course, but there is a cap to the support we have in place. We would like to take a development u20 squad as well as coaching staff who would carry the benefits of this into the future. A rugby visit to Stellenbosch can change rugby lives in many respects. Stellenbosch is rugby utopia!”
Rugby aside, with the Israelis and South Africans camping together, the question of what will be for dinner after a gruelling day’s training may be a matter of contention. A tussle for whether to serve boerewors or shwarma may result in a scrum in the SAS dining hall to determine the outcome.
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