A Milwaukee Yiddishist in Oxford
A handmade scrapbook highlights the adventures of an everyday Yiddishist
Imagine a Yiddish city.... and Milwaukee, Wisconsin probably doesn't come to mind. I was born and raised in the Milwaukee Jewish community, and I wasn’t aware that the city has a rich local Yiddish history. Recently, while sorting through boxes in the Center's vault, I came across a handmade scrapbook that introduced me to the life of Milwaukee native Rochel Mark and her friendships with other Yiddishists in Milwaukee and around the world.
Rochel Mark was an early member of the Yiddish Book Center. She was born in Siberia and died in 2010 in Milwaukee at age 93. Her family later donated her personal Yiddish archives to the Center: hand-made binders of Yiddish materials and ephemera from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.
One of the binders serves as a personal scrapbook commemorating Rochel’s participation in the 1985 Oxford Summer Yiddish Programme. She meticulously kept all the mailings from the program, along with receipts from her travel and lodging and several maps and schedules.
The academic materials in the scrapbook portray Rochel as a diligent student and generous classmate. Her syllabus from a course with Dovid Katz are followed by pages of copious notes; her essays for Yitskhok Niborski contain his kudos and corrections in red pen. On one page, she wrote a table with the names of each of her classmates listing their hometowns and professions. I can picture Rochel on the first day of class, carefully listening to everyone introducing themselves and copying down each classmate’s information.
Rochel attended the program with her good friend, Mae Marks, a fellow Milwaukee Yiddishist. In addition to their Yiddish lessons, Rochel, Mae, and their classmates enjoyed touring England, with Rochel’s scrapbook containing materials from Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace), the Museum of London, and more.
Rochel seems to have become close with the people she met during the program. Her scrapbook contains Yiddish notes from classmates, adorned with doodles, and birthday cards in honor of her 66th birthday that occurred during the program. A friend named Rivke even wrote her a Yiddish poem. One couplet reads, “In sibir iz di tayere Rokhele geborn/Gevaksn un a sheyn vaybele gevorn...” [In Siberia, dear Rochel was born/She grew up and became a beautiful woman”]
Rochel continued her Yiddish studies one year later at the Yiddish Book Center where she spent a week in the summer of 1986. Sessions were led by greats such as Yiddish folklorist and scholar Ruth Rubin and writer and Yiddish translator Leonard Wolf.
Rochel’s warmth radiates from the scrapbooks’ lively photographs of her Yiddish activities. Around the dinner table, on a busy street, and in front of monuments, she grins, surrounded by classmates and friends. These pictures show how, for Rochel, the study of Yiddish was an exciting adventure best shared with others.
Rochel was not only an avid student of Yiddish abroad, but also an active volunteer and supporter of Yiddish culture in Milwaukee. For twenty-five years, she read Yiddish books to seniors. She also translated important documents from Yiddish to English, such as the letters of former Prime Minister of Israel and Milwaukee native Golda Meir for the University of Wisconsin Archives.
Milwaukee was home to a number of prominent Yiddish authors and activists: poet Alter Esselin, actor and radio program host Paul Melrood, who served as the president of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, and musician and writer Howard Weinshel, who taught Yiddish at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. These, as well as passionate, everyday Yiddishists such as Rochel, sustained Yiddish clubs, classes, and even one of the longest-running Yiddish theater troupes in the US, Milwaukee’s Perhift Players.
Alongside the contributions of celebrated Yiddish writers and activists, we must also recognize people like Rochel Mark in cities like Milwaukee who sustained the culture for future generations of Yiddishists. Rochel’s Yiddish adventures inspiringly exemplify how we can engage with Yiddish today. A kindhearted and enthusiastic Yiddishist, Rochel explored the world, and gave back to her own community.
—Sarah Biskowitz, March 2022
Sarah Biskowitz is the Richard S. Herman 2021-2022 fellow in bibliography and exhibitions at the Yiddish Book Center. A native of Milwaukee, WI, she graduated from Smith College in 2021 with a degree in French and Jewish studies.