Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why we do what we do

Earlier this week, I was at a meeting involving “alumni” of a mainstream Jewish program which purports to encourage Jewish continuity by sending American Jewish young people on trips to Israel. The participants were well-meaning, well-educated American Jewish young people who were there to help a Yiddish organization (not Living Traditions) develop its website.

It was depressing.

These young people, who are supposedly the best and the brightest success stories of American Jewish education, literally did not know what Yiddish was, except as the butt of self-deprecating jokes. Nowhere in their years of Hebrew school, JCC programs, synagogue youth groups, college Hillel programs or their trips to Israel, did they learn about it or to respect it. The fact that their grandparents or great-grandparents likely spoke the language or lived their lives in Yiddish was lost on them. Those of us at the meeting who spoke Yiddish to each other were asked to speak Yiddish on videotape like the objects of some terribly ironic anthropological expedition.

What these young people also did not know was that the benefactor of the program which sponsored their trips to Israel was once asked if he would consider supporting Living Traditions, to which he answered that he would gladly give money to support the destruction of Yiddish. I can only assume he does not know that alumni of his program are helping a Yiddish organization.

Living Traditions and KlezKamp are means by which we treasure the legacy that these young people have been taught to ignore, as if there were no Jewish culture between the destruction of the Temple and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. We love and respect Eastern European Jewish culture and its language, Yiddish. We find our connection to the generations that came before us by honoring and passing down the music, arts, literature, foodways, and other traditions of that world and integrating them into our lives today. Two weeks from today, hundreds of us will be getting together to celebrate and honor that culture.

That is anything but depressing.