Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Eugene Orenstein's Oral History

Eugene Orenstein, distinguished professor emeritus of Yiddish and Modern Jewish History at McGill University in Montreal, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on August 26, 2011 at KlezKanada, in Montreal, Canada. Eugene begins his interview with an extremely detailed account of his parents' life in Poland. The third son of Jewish immigrants, Eugene's memory has captured many of the stories his parents told him growing up. Eugene carefully details the stories behind both his mother and father's life, how they were sweethearts in Poland, how his father deserted from the Polish army, how his father ended up in Cuba with his soon to be brother-in-law, and how his parents eventually married and settled in New York City. While retelling these stories, Eugene explains that having been born 14 years after his second oldest brother, his parents had adjusted their storytelling given the events of the Holocaust. It became quite important to them that their children know of life in Eastern Europe since that life had been destroyed. When Eugene finishes this reflection, he goes on to describe life in the "Coops," a Jewish cooperative housing settlement in the Bronx. Eugene spends quite some time describing his life growing up in the Jewish, Yiddish speaking world of the Bronx. In retrospect, however, Eugene offers new opinions about his upbringing—thoughts, he explains, that he hadn't really considered during his younger years. After detailing the largely Yiddish and Jewish aspects of his childhood, Eugene describes how he went to public school in the Bronx before going to City College for his B.A. He then went on to do his graduate work in modern Jewish studies at Columbia University where he also worked with Yiddish. The latter half of the interview focuses on Eugene's move to Montreal upon accepting a position at McGill University. Having met his wife, another native Yiddish speaker, Eugene decided to stay in Montreal. He describes the differences between Montreal and the Bronx, and how the differences have begun to dissolve as Yiddish becomes less used in the vernacular sense. The interview ends with Eugene adamantly advising those going into Jewish or Yiddish studies to master the necessary languages.

This interview was conducted in English.

About the Wexler Oral History Project

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Since 2010, the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded more than 500 in-depth video interviews that provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture.

Tell Us Your Story

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Do you (or someone you know) have stories to share about the importance of Yiddish language and culture in your life?