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A Yen for Yiddish : 6,000 Sample Old World Culture as Revival Hits Los Angeles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Glicker’s strong ties to Yiddish language and culture were passed along gently Sunday to his 13-month-old daughter, Hayley.

Glicker swayed and sang to his baby girl as the Golden State Klezmer Band played “Mein Yiddishe Mama,” a tribute to motherhood, during “Yiddishkayt: A Family Festival in English & Yiddish” held at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks.

“It’s cultural Judaism,” said Glicker, 37, whose father spoke only Yiddish as a young boy. “She just loves the music.”

Organizers said that as many as 6,000 people attended the daylong festival--believed to be the first of its kind in Los Angeles and part of a worldwide revival of Yiddish.

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The day featured storytelling, films, cooking classes, Yiddish language classes, music, arts and crafts, book sales and plenty of food. Kiosks outside the center offered borscht and gefilte fish, blueberry and cheese blintzes, marble, pistachio and chocolate halvah--and hot dogs.

“I’m filled with such joy. It’s absolutely a thrill,” said Sylvia Brown, 71, co-chairwoman of the Jewish Education Committee. “It’s the realization of a dream.”

Yiddishkeit was the culture of Eastern European Jews. The Yiddish language, which is 1,000 years old, derives from Middle High German but also includes elements of Hebrew, Russian, Polish, English and other languages.

Yiddish was largely wiped out by the Nazis more than 50 years ago and was suppressed for some time by the state of Israel in its efforts to establish Hebrew as the national language.

Festival organizers said it was time for Los Angeles residents to generate interest in Yiddish, historically associated with the poor and working classes, as a way of learning about history and cultural roots. It is no longer a dying culture and a language comparable to Latin, they said.

“It’s exceeding my expectations,” said Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources and the festival’s executive producer. “We have lots and lots and lots and lots of parents and kids.”

Paley said Los Angeles, with more than 500,000 residents of Jewish ancestry, was one of the last large cities in the United States without a widespread Yiddish revival in recent years. The festival is expected to become an annual event, he said.

“There’s a place for Yiddish in the 21st Century,” he said. “If you want to have a better understanding of where you are, you need to know where you’re coming from.”

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That sentiment was shared by many at the festival.

Zinovy Goro, 48, leader of the Golden State Klezmer Band, came to the United States from Russia in 1979 and was surprised by the local interest in Yiddish. It was forbidden in Russia, so he came to Los Angeles to learn klezmer, the instrumental music that Eastern European Jews traditionally played on festive occasions.

“For me, it’s very interesting,” Goro said with a smile.

Marjorie Gluckman, 21, of Westwood said she was energized by the feeling of culture and history at the festival.

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“It’s educational for all ages,” Gluckman said as she sat listening to Klezmer music. “It’s very important to carry on traditions. That’s what brings us together.

“It reminds us of where we came from and what we went through,” she added. “You don’t want to forget the Holocaust because you don’t want to go through it again. This is wonderful.”

Still, some in attendance wished there were more events to appeal to teen-agers and young adults. Keeping Yiddish alive will depend a great deal on generating interest among the young, they said.

“This is very nice but mostly for older people,” said Lola Shapiro of Northridge. “My son doesn’t speak Yiddish, and my husband doesn’t speak Yiddish.”

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Shapiro’s 19-year-old son, Evan, was less than impressed with the festival, saying it needed more activities that were not geared toward small children or older adults.

“I have an interest but it’s such a big step to learn a new language,” Evan said. “People try to talk to me in Yiddish, but I don’t pick it up.”

Paley said such criticisms are welcome, although a major goal of the festival was to encourage parents to bring their young children. Future festivals may generate more activities for teens if that’s what it takes to keep them coming and learning Yiddish.

“It’s hard to get them to come,” Paley said. “I’m so happy that they’re here.”

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