Sketch Of The Albuquerque, New Mexico Yiddish Club (1968)
By Maurice M. Rosenthal
I am a third generation American Jew. My parents were born in Boston, Massachusetts, and while they could understand the Yiddish spoken to them by their parents, they raised my brother and me entirely in the spoken English idiom. The last of my grandparents died when I was ten, and with him went my exposure to Yiddish speech. Thereafter,
I went through the common, but vexing experience of only hearing a Yiddish phrase when it was the punch-line of a joke, or when my parents didn't want us children to understand the conversation. Thus Yiddish became for me a mystifying series of rhythms, a sort of adult secret language. While the older folks seemed to enjoy it and laugh in it, they always diverted my normal curiosity to Hebrew,
or to refining my English or gradeschool French.
When I was 25 years old—I had then moved to
New Mexico—I sent to New York for a copy of College Yiddish by Uriel Weinreich. In retrospect my motives were not very clear: I had a vague, perhaps nostalgic thirst for even the remotest sounds of my Jewish past; and I think the mystery of the 'secret language' still haunted me. But when the book came, I immediately set it aside. Much of it was written in Hebrew letters and I hardly remembered a third of the alphabet from my 'kheyder" days.
Nothing further came of that initial, abortive
attempt until 6 years later, when my wife, a convert
from the Lutheran religion, found it in my library.
As oftentimes happens with converts, she threw herself into everything Jewish with uncompromising zeal. She taught herself the "alef beys, " and from there to read, write, and speak Yiddish. It was entirely her own accomplishment, for I could not help her.
My surprise, my amazement, my shame, my pride—it is impossible for me to relate—when
I would come home from work at night and be greeted in warm Yiddish phrases, and then to see little notes written in perfect Yiddish script. Her enthusiasm fed on the fact that she had discovered a uniquely Jewish vernacular, so human, so charmingly endearing, that it completed her new identity in a way that the bingo games and fashion shows of the Jewish women's clubs had failed.
It was at this time, too, that she started buying Yiddish records. Our home suddenly sprang forth with the accents of the past. I felt as if a bridge across some deep chasm had appeared, as if I
had tapped some profound wellspring.
We agreed to study together, to get more books,
to build up our library of the spoken and written word. We bought a dictionary, the works of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, and read to each other at night. We worked out the grammar lessons in our textbook, and we spoke Yiddish at the supper table. We found pen pals in this country and abroad, and exchanged letters in Yiddish. Sometimes our efforts had the serio-comical appearance of the lame leading the blind, for we had only each other to lean on. But slowly, with many false steps retraced and redirected, we made the correct language a natural part of our home life.
The initial study period took place over a span
of six months. We felt, at this point, that it would be good to expose ourselves to the living language and ventured to speak to other Jews in Albuquerque about getting together for an evening of Yiddish conversation. At first the response was cool, with a tinge of amused cynicism. Then we got one other couple, then two. In a month we had ten people, representing three generations.
We had no idea of a program, so we talked a little, played a few records, listened to reminiscences of the old country, and read a few articles from a Yiddish newspaper.
Thus the Yiddish Club of Albuquerque was born. In subsequent months its program grew to include systematic readings of the classics and folklore, building up a select library of the written and spoken Yiddish word, and the custom of inviting guest speakers from the University of New Mexico —there are several who speak fluent Yiddish. Even Jewish art took root and blossomed.
One of our senior members, Fred Veston, from Cracow, Poland, began to implement earlier plans to recreate on canvas the vast panorama of Jewish life in pre‑war Europe. Though his hand is untutored, his pictures are today well exhibited
in several states. Critics recognize the depth and sincerity of his feelings toward his subjects and
his ability to elicit with raw color and form the palpitating vigor of a unique Jewish civilization.
In March, 1966—four years after its founding,
the club rented space in the Old Town Studio
of Albuquerque and presented the first Yiddish drama in the history of New Mexico. The play
was Der Get (The Divorce) by Sholem Aleichem. The conception and execution were beset with obstacles: there were no actors to choose from— every club member was made an actor by necessity (not one had been on the stage before); my wife became a director by reading a textbook on play direction a month before opening night; the theater's lighting technician, a Gentile, didn't understand his cues; there were threats of denunciation from the pulpit because the play
was to open the week of a Jewish holiday (Purim); and actors alternately got sick and melted in fear. But the play went on and received critical comment that made the cast boggle in disbelief: it was a smash success.
The four scheduled performances were sold out—and this in a town of less than 700 Jewish families. (The newspaper was extremely resourceful in finding a local reviewer: the editor turned up a Europeanborn linguist; amazingly, he was named Weinreich and was a cousin of the author of College Yiddish.
Emboldened by the initial effort, the next year the club tackled Sholem Aleichem’s magnum opus. Tevye Der Milkhiger, a two and a half hour performance, complete with authentic, hand‑made costumes, and a Russian dance sequence, which was named by the local newspapers as one of the best plays to appear in Albuquerque in 1967. It was praised not only for its artistic merits, but because it inspired foreign language plays (Lorca and Moliere) by other amateur groups.
Perhaps these activities are the best answer I know to those who fear that the rebirth of Yiddish signals a return to cultural insularity. Exactly the opposite is true. The city itself counts the Yiddish theater as a singular attraction. Its press is extremely generous with free space. Gentiles comprise almost a third of the plays' audiences (each program booklet contains a scene‑by‑scene synopsis in English). In short, Yiddish is eagerly accepted as another family member in a community where several major cultures have coexisted for many years.
While the accomplishments of the Albuquerque Yiddish Club are satisfying in many respects, it would be a mistake to leave the reader with the impression that a full‑blown renaissance is underway. The club has a hard core of only twelve members and a periphery of twenty interested persons who attend from time to time.
The religious establishment of the city has not seen fit to accommodate Yiddish in its curriculum for
children, nor as a subject for adult programs. In
this respect Yiddish culture fares the same as it does in other parts of the United States, i.e., officially ignored, unofficially tolerated.
The club has a salutary influence on its growing circle of members and friends: we speak Yiddish freely among ourselves in private and in public; it is a normal medium of telephone communication; and most importantly, it is the language we use during Jewish holidays when we wish our celebrations to have the distinctly flavorsome quality of Jewishness. Witnessed in a natural context by the children, it is adopted little by little.
The association of Yiddish with a warm home life and happy friends at Jewish holidays creates in the children the most positive attitude toward the language. Small wonder that when we needed two youngsters to play roles in Tevye Der Milkhiker, two club members' children sprang forth with enthusiasm. The fact that they had to learn to read the Yiddish script, learn what the words meant, and learn to act—along with their normal load at public school—did not deter them. They did it, and they are anxious to play in this year's production.
It appears, then, that the old saw still has teeth: where there's a will, there's a way. The renewed interest in Yiddish all over America is a heartwarming phenomenon. Jewish institutions will respond to the demand for textual and lexical material, as well as the training of teachers and cultural leaders, if there is a demand. Apparently we are on the threshold of that demand.
The next step, restoring Yiddish to its place as
the language of Jewish communal life, depends upon our recognition of the fact that a free society is the proper place for cultural affirmation, not assimilation. There is no conflict between devotion to one's cultural heritage and respect for the social mode of one's country.
Editor’s note: Maurice M. Rosenthal published this article in “Vegvayser far a yidish klub“ (Guidelines of a Yiddish Club) in 1968. It was copyrighted, sold for three dollars a copy and had fifty pages.
This self-published booklet has these sections.
How to Start a Yiddish club
Records, Books, Organizations
Jewish Life in Europe
Program Material, Lecturers, Films
Yiddish Schools Camps and Resorts
Publishers, Distributors, Dealers, Schools