An old way to understand Jewishness (LA TIMES) By Mitchell Landsberg 04/09/12)
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In his mind´s eye, Rob Adler Peckerar is sitting with his students on
a doorstep in the bustling heart of Eastern Europe. They are in a
town, perhaps in Lithuania, perhaps Ukraine. It is summer, and a warm
breeze rustles the trees.
The students listen, spellbound, to a story written on this very spot
a century or more ago in a language that is foreign and yet strangely
familiar. And before them, the pre-Holocaust world of Eastern
European Jews flickers for a moment to life rich, lusty, funny, sad
and achingly poignant.
This is the idea behind the Helix project, which will begin in a very
small way this summer when Adler Peckerar takes six students three
from UCLA and three from UC Berkeley on an all-expenses-paid Jewish
roots tour of Eastern Europe. Eventually, he would like to see it
grow and become a viable alternative to the Birthright program that
sends tens of thousands of Jewish college students annually to
Israel, also free of charge.
It is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.
"You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that
more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than
about the culture," said Adler Peckerar, executive director of
Yiddishkayt, an L.A.-based organization dedicated to celebrating and
preserving the heritage of the Yiddish language and its culture.
"We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far
more [about] Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish
writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that´s
terrible. To me, that is I don´t want to be extreme about it, but
it is a continuation of the Holocaust."
Cultural identity is never simple. It is especially thorny for
American Jews, whose heritage is at once cultural, national and
religious, and whose "old country" no longer exists in most
That leaves the definition of Jewish culture and even the question
of who is a Jew open to debate. Which brings us back to Yiddishkayt.
Yiddish is a vernacular language that was the lingua franca of
Eastern and Central European Jews for the better part of a
millennium. At its peak in the years before 1939, as many as 12
million people spoke Yiddish. Today, it is in daily use by at least
half a million people internationally, most of them Orthodox Jews.
Adler Peckerar´s group is part of a postmodern movement that
celebrates the flowering of a largely secular Yiddish culture, one
that produced an astonishing outpouring of literature, music, art and
science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before being all
but silenced by the one-two punch of Soviet repression and the
What Yiddishkayt doesn´t tend to celebrate is the Jewish religion,
and many of its leading figures are atheists. They embrace a notion
of Jewishness that is purely cultural.
"There are people who aren´t interested in the synagogue route, and
they don´t connect to Judaism through religion, or they don´t connect
to Judaism through Israel," said Aaron Paley, who founded Yiddishkayt
in 1995 and whose family is providing the seed money for the Helix
program. "This is a different way to connect with who you are."
Adler Peckerar, a former professor of Jewish literature and culture
at the University of Colorado, goes further, arguing that the Jewish
religion has never been central to Jewish identity.
"I think the idea that Judaism is equal to what a Jew is that a Jew
is someone who practices Judaism is a totally new phenomenon," he
said in an interview at Yiddishkayt´s offices in the mid-Wilshire
district. A poster of the Yiddish actress Molly Picon peered over his
Statements like that can leave some people sputtering in exasperation.
"It´s just stupid," said Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies
program at Drew University in New Jersey and a former director of
research for YIVO, a widely respected Yiddish research institution.
Before the 19th century, Nadler said, "everything one did was
governed by the religion."
Even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Nadler argued, most Jews
remained religiously observant. "There´s something really sick about
the attempt to rewrite Jewish history and establish that this secular
Yiddishkayt was ever a normative form of Jewish identity," he said.
Still, Nadler agreed that there was much worth remembering in the
Yiddish culture of prewar Europe. And that is what is drawing
students to the Helix program that and the fact that they get a two-
week trip to Europe on someone else´s dime.
sounded so different and so interesting that I just had to
take advantage of it," said Tessa Nath, a first-year student at UCLA
who gave up plans to go to Israel so she could participate in the
Tommy Kedar, a senior at Berkeley, was born in Israel and raised
mostly in the United States.
"I´m 25, and the main narrative that we get about Judaism and
identity and what it means to be a Jew centers around the Holocaust
and Israel," he said. Now he wants "to really understand what it was
that was destroyed" in the Holocaust.
That quest drew him to the Helix program, which "builds another
option and another way to understand ourselves as Jews today, even
though there is a state of Israel and even though there was a
Holocaust.... And it is, in a sense, an act of defiance to the
destruction." (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles Times 04/09/12)
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