Learning about Yiddish life before the Holocaust

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Students participating in the Helix Project perform a Yiddish song at a home in Studio City.

If you ask American Jews, or really just most Americans, to picture what it was like to live as a Jew in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, chances are you imagine a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The tale by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem tells the tale of Tevye the dairyman and his daughters in the poor village of Anatevka.

But the real story of Jewish life before the Holocaust is far more interesting and complicated. KCRW’s Avishay Artsy reports on an effort to teach American college students about that history.

The Helix Project takes students to Eastern and Central Europe to learn about the rich cultural life of Jews since the 14th century, using historic maps to guide them. It’s a far cry from Birthright and other programs that promote the strengthening of Jewish or Israeli identity.

Robert Adler Peckerar is the executive director of Yiddishkayt, a group based in Los Angeles that preserves and promotes Yiddish culture. He says the goal of the trip is to bring that culture to life by retracing the footsteps of significant Jewish artists.

“We mainly focus on Jewish cultural production – poets, writers, songwriters – and the everyday culture that Jews produced and absorbed and digested at a time when the majority of Jews were found in Eastern Europe,” Peckerar said.

The students all have different reasons for going on the trip. Clare Fester studies union movements in her native Australia, and is interested in the rich history of Yiddish labor activism. “Yiddish workers are some of the first to organize in parties,” Fester said. “And I also live in a country that has a pretty terrible history of racism. And the Jewish worker’s movement shows the way those barriers can be overcome, and that’s something that we’re still fighting for in Australia today.”

Of course, you can’t really talk about Jewish culture without mentioning food. Avery Robinson, from Detroit, studies Jewish-American culinary history. He wrote his whole thesis at the University of Michigan on kugel, essentially a Jewish casserole, and how it evolved over several centuries.

“And I’ve already come across a kugel derivative in Lithuania,” Robinson said. Even though his approach is academic, “as long as it’s good food, I’m happy to eat it,” he said.

The trip this year is co-sponsored by another Yiddish organization, The Workmen’s Circle, and mostly financed by benefactors who want to see the Yiddish language survive.

About 13 million people spoke Yiddish before the Holocaust wiped out about half of its speakers. With the Helix Project and other programs like it, the hope is that the language, and the lives of those who spoke it, may be remembered for another generation.