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Yiddish in Paris: Two Days at the UNESCO Yiddish Conference

The view from our balcony

On November 12th and 13th a unique and historical gathering of Yiddish scholars and communal activists took place at UNESCO in Paris.  The occasion was a UNESCO symposium entitled “The Permanence of Yiddish.” Sponsored through the initiative of B’nai B’rith’s delegation to UNESCO with the participation of the Medem Library, Europe's largest Yiddish cultural institution, the symposium aimed to highlight the wide range of cultural and scholarly activities taking place in Yiddish today.  Among the speakers were guests from nearly a dozen countries including the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia and Romania.   Upon seeing the uniqueness of the event, the networking opportunities, and the presence of several friends from throughout Yiddishland as well as people I had previously only communicated with by email or through Facebook, I decided to attend the conference.  The Yiddish Book Center generously covered some of my expenses, and I split a hotel room with my friend and colleague Yakov Blum who serves on the board of Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish with me. He was invited to talk about Yugntruf’s Yiddish Week as well as the Yiddish Farm’s summer program. 

Upon arrival at the hotel where most of the conference participants stayed, I ran into a group of Yiddish scholars I knew, who were animatedly discussing the intricacies of old-fashioned French elevators.  “M’darf zikh gut aynkvetshn un az m’fort tor men nit rukn kegn der tir”,  (you’ve got to squeeze yourself in and you mustn’t push against the door when it’s moving), and other tidbits of advice were dispensed between their “borekh-habo”s  and the hotel concierge’s “bienvenu/welcome.”  Being jetlagged and exhausted, I retreated to my room.  Instead of falling asleep, however, I was cajoled into taking photos of Yakov with his father, who was in town for business, standing on the balcony overlooking the Eifel Tower.  Somehow despite my terrible fear of heights and the fact that the balcony was only wide enough for one person to walk on at a time, I managed to get myself into position to snap a photo. “zent greyt?”  “Shmeykhl!” (Are you ready?  Smile!). 

(The view from our balcony). 

After admiring the Eiffel Tower we headed to the “pletsl,” the historical Jewish quarter still known by its Yiddish name meaning “little place” where thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe congregated before the war.  Today the neighborhood is an unusual mix of kosher restaurants and butcheries interspersed with high-fashion establishments.   Along the pletsl’s main street, the Rue de Rosiers, are Eastern European Jewish restaurants advertising “gehakte leber,” “bagels,” and “milchige kugel” all written on the vitrines in Latin letters without explanation or translation.  It’s doubtful to me that the average American Jew today knows that “gehakte leber” is chopped liver but it would appear from the shop windows that their French counterparts do. 

The next day I walked with a group of friends to UNESCO’s headquarters, walked into the room where the conference was to be held and immediately walked out.  Why, you’re probably asking, did I walk out?  Well instead of a small badly lit room hidden away in a corner like I am used to walking into when attending Yiddish conferences I found myself in a room with six or seven story high ceilings, a massive podium and four hundred people sitting around tables in rows adjusting headphones.  Clearly, I thought, despite the signage I had wandered into the wrong room.  After all this was UNESCO’s grand hall, usually occupied by diplomats and only comparable in size and scale to the UN’s main hall in New York City. I spotted a Lithuanian friend, an erudite Yiddish scholar now living in Paris and studying at the Sorbonne whom I had met in Vilnius four years earlier.  After exchanging greetings I asked dumbfoundedly “tsi iz dos take der rikhtiker zal?”  (Is this really the right room). Yes, she told me, this was the right room… And please sit down; we’re about to start!     

And start we did.  Dignitaries from UNESCO and B’nai B’rith addressed the participants in French and had their words translated into English by a team of simultaneous interpreters (which was good for me as I don’t understand French).  After lunch a panel entirely in Yiddish (with simultaneous translation into both English and French through the headphones) featured the experiences of several people with programs using Yiddish as a living language in the 21st century.  Yaakov Blum, spoke about Yugntruf’s “Yiddish Week” and Yiddish Farm’s Summer Immersion Program.  Dr. Binyomen Moss of Johns Hopkins spoke about raising his children in Yiddish and the informal educational circle called “Pripetshik” his family participates in along with several other Yiddishist families in Baltimore.  Simon Neuberg, the Yiddish professor at the University of Trier (Germany) discussed his efforts to modernize Yiddish children’s books for his daughters.  The audience of more than four hundred sat quietly and listened to the presentations.  I quickly made a mental note of who was listening with the aid of the translation and who was following the presentations in Yiddish.  As one would imagine a lot of older French Jews understood Yiddish but I was pleasantly surprised by how many young people I had never seen or heard of before were listening to the presentations in Yiddish.  Among the other panels were panels on the use of Yiddish in modern technology, Yiddish in the arts, and unusual careers that use Yiddish.  You can read the symposium’s program in its entirety here.

As a translator and interpreter by training I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the interpretation.  At times I listened along with one ear covered by a headphone to hear the English interpretation at the same time that I listened to the Yiddish.  Not only were the simultaneous interpretations of the presentations nearly flawless (and no simultaneous interpretation is flawless, most is far from it), but the audience questions in Yiddish or French were accurately rendered into English along with the panelist responses which were then translated from Yiddish into English and French.  While I had expected the presentations to be expertly interpreted because the written presentations had been handed in in advance, I was amazed by the ability of the interpreters to accurately translate long and sometimes meandering questions and comments.  Many interpreters have been trained to do this in the UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, English and Russian) but to see it done to and from Yiddish at the skill level of a UN interpreter (the major leagues of the interpreting world) was something truly unique.    

I spoke with many people during the informal gatherings and meals we had over the next two days of the conference and was amazed by how many people, several dozen in fact, told me that they were listening to the reel to reel recordings from Montreal that I have been putting online as part of the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library.  Several people mentioned the recordings of the poet Abraham Sutzkever including one woman who remembered seeing him reading his poetry as a child in Paris and another woman who is translating his poetry into French and is consulting the recordings to judge the poetry’s meter. 

All told the UNESCO Yiddish Symposium was a unique event unlikely to be repeated for another generation and I as well as all of the other participants had a wonderful time learning about the work of colleagues around the world and making new friends.  What, if any new programs and initiatives will come out of the conference and Yiddish’s newfound prominence in UNESCO, however, remains to be seen.

Jordan Kutzik December 28, 2012