Delving into the “Soul and Heart” of Yiddish
Not long after retiring from a career as a dentist, Earle Halsband set himself an ambitious goal: to learn Yiddish.
Earle and his wife, Carol, lived in Massachusetts at the time and had visited the Yiddish Book Center. Earle had also read Outwitting History, Aaron Lanksy’s memoir, which further inspired him to learn the language. So ten years ago, Earle took the plunge and signed up for an intensive six-week summer Yiddish program at YIVO.
Then sixty-five, Early found himself surrounded by college-student classmates. “I was the old man in the class,” he says with a laugh. But the program was transformational; in particular, he remembers one afternoon when the instructor, Anna Gonshor of McGill University, led the class in translating a short story. “It was so beautifully written—she unlocked that beauty of the language,” he says. “I decided that I wanted to learn to read the literature.”
“It was so beautifully written. I decided that I wanted to learn to read the literature.”
Now living in Florida, Earle has continued his study of Yiddish in a class led by Paul Azaroff, who, Earle says, “tirelessly teaches his students the excitement of reading the great authors in that original language.” (They’ve read Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem so far, and they’re now tackling Itzik Manger.) Earle is also a regular reader of the Yiddish Forverts, and he seizes on any opportunity to converse with another Yiddish speaker. “Anybody he can find that can, he’ll recruit them,” says Carol, who grew up hearing her grandmother and mother speaking Yiddish and has picked up on more of the language through Earle.
While Yiddish has a nostalgic pull for many people, for Earle, it is the literature that is “the soul and heart of Yiddish,” he says. “If you learn the language of the literature,” he observes, “you learn the customs of the Jewish people” and catch the nuances, the symbolism, and the idioms that can be lost in translation.
The Halsbands have been supporters of the Yiddish Book Center for years. They sponsored a Steiner Summer Yiddish Program student one year and more recently they established a named endowment fund in support of educational programs by means of an IRA Charitable Rollover. “What Aaron Lansky has done is a remarkable thing,” Carol says. “The Yiddish Book Center has a place in history by keeping and maintaining all these historic volumes and great literature.”
Through their gift to the center, the Halsbands are helping a new generation access that literature. “That’s the future,” Earle says. “It’s nice to reach us old people, but you’ve got to bring it to new people.”
To learn how you can support the Yiddish Book Center, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.
From Kvel, the newsletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Spring 2016)