The Yiddish Book Center's

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.

Diane Cypkin's Oral History

Diane Cypkin, a performer and professor of Media, Communications, and Visual Arts at Pace University, was interviewed by Mark Gerstein on August 8, 2013, at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Diane describes her parents' lives in Lithuania and the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life in Kovno (modern-day Kaunas). When the Soviets invaded Lithuania as part of their agreement with Nazi Germany, Diane's father, a manufacturer of children's clothing, conspired with his own workers to disguise his capitalist status, an offence that would have landed him in a Stalinist camp. Anti-Semitic actions by native Lithuanians preceded the German invasion in 1941. The Jews of Kovno were ordered into a ghetto and Diane describes how the Cypkin family narrowly escaped death during a Nazi-led massacre. During the existence of the Kovno ghetto, the Germans placed Diane's father, Abraham Cypkin, who spoke several languages, in charge of a slave labor brigade. Abraham Cypkin began to write lyrics that he put to Russian and Yiddish melodies. These songs were like a letter to the world, speaking of the heartache of ghetto life. Years later, Diane performed some of Abraham Cypkin's songs during a commemoration of the Kovno Ghetto at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hiding in a bunker for thirty days, the Cypkin family was liberated by Russian forces and they eventually made their way to a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where Diane was born. The family immigrated to the United States in 1949, establishing residence in Brooklyn. Diane recalls how her parents' love of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) informed her life. She describes how she broke into Yiddish theater as a teenager in the 1960s and played numerous roles over the years. She shares memories of her performances with some of the luminaries of the Yiddish stage and radio, including Joseph Buloff, David Opatoshu, Ben Bonus, and Zvee Scooler. Diane appeared on Broadway in the production of Light, Lively, and Yiddish. At the same time, Diane was acquiring a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. Her dissertation chronicled the history of the 2nd Avenue Yiddish theaters in New York City. Diane became the Yiddish theater curator at the Museum of the City of New York where she put together the exhibition "A Celebration: 100 Years of Yiddish Theatre in New York." She went on to develop a one-woman concert/lecture on the Yiddish actress Molly Picon, which she has performed for audiences as far away as Utah and Montana. Diane explains how she tells the story of Picon's life in English and sings the songs she made famous in Yiddish. She relates how a Yiddish audience is a community event, a kind of reunion. "Yiddish is more than a language," says Diane. "It is the mamaloshen (mother tongue), but also it is mama's loshen (a mother's tongue or language)." Diane comments on the importance of Yiddish contributions, in terms of personalities and themes, to a larger national theater. She concludes by offering thoughts on the role of Yiddish in the broader culture and the future of Yiddish.

This interview was conducted in English.

Diane Cypkin was born in Münich, Germany in 1948.

Artifacts related to this oral history