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Outrage Over Yiddish Leads To Groundbreaking Sundance Film: The Anxious Search To Document Dying Languages

Sundance

Sundance Film Festival

Sundance coverage day 3

In 1999, Seth Kramer was on location in Vilnius, Lithuania, directing RESISTANCE: UNTOLD STORIES OF JEWISH PARTISANS. His excellent guide, a local historian, pointed out that the local square was paved with stolen Jewish headstones; they were inscribed in Yiddish, the language his grandparents spoke fluently, his parents spoke moderately, and he didn’t speak at all.

greg and david the linguistsKramer halted the filming. He was outraged, incensed and disgusted. After collecting himself, he completed the project, but left Vilnius (Vilna) with the desire to create a film on Yiddish and reflect upon what happens when a language is no longer passed from generation to generation.

Returning to the United States, he completed his searing film for PBS, which was nominated for an Emmy Award. But Kramer also began developing an idea for a film on the declining usage and knowledge of Yiddish. The terrorist attacks on 9-11 derailed the project, but in 2003, he approached his friends, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, with the idea for a film on Yiddish. Daniel and Jeremy had been collaborating on projects since their days as campers at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake.

Together, they formed Ironbound Films, and began preproduction research. The three were most intrigued by those who viewed language loss without sentimentality – as they did – but as an impending global crisis: The Linguists. They were specifically drawn to David Harrison, a linguist and scientist at Swarthmore College with matinee idol looks and the confidence of a real life Indiana Jones. His co-researcher, Gregory Anderson, is a Harvard-alum, black belt, and fan of extreme fighting. Together they speak over 25 languages.

THE LINGUISTS follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, this linguistic Felix and Oscar odd couple, as they race to endangered language hotspots in order to document languages before they are extinct. In Siberia, they sought to record the remnant speakers of Chulym, a native language that was suppressed by the Soviets. In Northeastern India, they visited a boarding school where tribal children are taught Hindi and a trade, and encouraged to forget their tribal languages, including Sora. In Bolivia, David and Greg, along with the filmmakers, trekked high into the Andes to unlock the secrets of Kallawaya, a native language with fewer than 100 surviving speakers. Along they way, the linguists were bitten by swarming fist-sized bugs, got threatened, actually risked their lives, got duped, nearly were danced to death, and even got feverishly ill and possibly cured by native medicines.

Although eighty percent of the world’s population speaks 83 global languages, there are an estimated 7,000 spoken languages in the world today; and about one dies every two weeks. In Australia, 231 aboriginal tongues are endangered and being supplanted by English. In South America, 113 native languages are known to be losing speakers to Spanish and Portuguese. The roots of extinction include shame, embarrassment, active government suppression, the desire for commercial advancement, and, like Yiddish, the failure of parents to teach it to their children.

The documentary makes the point that what is at stake is not only a loss of culture and stories, but the loss of an understanding of medicinal plants, and a way of viewing the environment and human thought. The Indian students that are a native speaker of Sora perform better in arithmetic than their classmates. Perhaps it is because the Sora language counts numbers in Base 12, instead of the English Base 10 system – meaning that thirteen in Sora is “twelve and one” instead of the English “three and ten.” In some languages, words have meanings not seen in the major global languages, such as “nosore” which means “to free someone from a tiger” in Gta, while in other languages, plurality is conveyed by suffixes not seen elsewhere. For example, in the Ethiopian Bayso language, the suffix ‘titi’ means one item, “no suffix” is plural, “jaa” means 2-6 items, and “oor” can mean more than seven items.

As with so many documentary films, the filmmakers and the audience never know what will happen next. When the linguists give a gift to a village chieftain in India, a riot nearly breaks out in a place where two French linguists had been recently murdered by Maoist rebels. In Siberia, the linguists realize that their taxi driver, Vasya Gabov, is actually the best fluent speaker of Chulym they discover. Gabov, a Russian speaker, tells how decades of shame and ridicule had kept him silent; only after he helps the filmmakers find subjects do they realize that he can speak Chulym.

At the Sundance premiere of THE LINGUISTS, Johnny Hill, Jr., perhaps the sole surviving fluent speaker of the Chemehuevi language (a Numic branch of the Southern Paiute language), spoke to a tear filled audience on what it is like to speak a language that no one else can converse in or understand. He resides on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Western Arizona, where he farms alfafa and works on highway maintenance, and in his spare time records the language for future generations.

Asked how the making of this film will affect the filmmakers’ raising of their newborn children and young toddlers, Kramer said that he was actively thinking about how he could impart the Yiddish language, songs, stories and mindsets to his children, and Newberger, a former kibbutz volunteer and intern for an Israeli film production company, plans to spend time in Israel with his family to make sure his children learn Hebrew. As for the Yiddish film… well, perhaps in a few more years.

Links and Resources:

Interview with Professor Harrison on When Languages Die

Link to Endangered Languages

Yiddish Lesson Brazilian Style

A Yiddish comedy sketch

The Beatles in Yiddish

Y-Love raps in Yiddish

Written by Larry Mark from Jewishfilm.com for Jewlicious.

Larry enjoys sitting in dark rooms surrounded by lots of people, and also watching films. When he sits in lit rooms, he enjoys editing Jewishfilm.com and MyJewishBooks.com.

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14 Comments

  1. themiddle

    1/28/2008 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks Larry, that was interesting.

  2. ck

    1/28/2008 at 10:38 pm

    HOW could we have missed Julie Andrews in Throughly Modern Millie (1967) featuring Mary Tyler Moore (“It’s Jewish!”) and Mickey Katz playing the clarinet in the background??

  3. Rabbi Yonah

    1/29/2008 at 2:07 am

    To my knowledge there were unlikely any gravestones in Lithuania with Yiddish. The only Yiddish on graves in Lithuania would be on the graves of avowed yiddishists, of which were not enough to pave any roads.. Those graves he saw were written in Hebrew.

  4. Larry Mark

    1/29/2008 at 8:40 am

    ah yes…. Hebrew…. another of those dying languages? hehehe… But seriously.. if this is correct, then it just shows how perceptions , even false perceptions, can drive people on lifelong missions.

  5. AaronfromWG

    1/29/2008 at 1:59 pm

    Yiddish is not likely to die out any time soon. People who speak yiddish at home as a first language have among the highest birth rates in the US. Yiddish speaking communities, like Kiryat Joel in NY state have a population that nearly doubles every 10 years. With a pop of 20,000 if you do a little math and figure out how many of them there will be in 100 years. 20 million just from those 20000 thousand original people. This is not counting other Yiddish speaking communities.

  6. Larry Mark

    1/29/2008 at 2:21 pm

    While Yiddish speakers will not die out ni Brooklyn, Monsey, Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, I do not think that those Yiddish speakers will be reading and passing down the Yiddish literature and poetry that was created over the past few centuries

  7. froylein

    1/29/2008 at 2:22 pm

    BUT many Yiddish speakers in Kiryas Joel (and the other frum NY communities) descend from ancestors that did not speak Yiddish as a mother tongue and turned frum / Yiddish-speaking under the impression of the horrors of the Holocaust. The Yiddish you hear there is pretty bad compared to the one you can hear in Antwerp.

    And I have to agree with Larry; the Charedi communities are not likely to preserve the tradition of “secular” Yiddish literature (only a rough 0.5% of Yiddish publications have been translated in English so far), Yiddish pop music or even sultry Yiddish love songs.

  8. AaronfromWG

    1/29/2008 at 6:27 pm

    Well this is the only Yiddish that will be left after many older folks pass away. As these communities grow, they will be economically forced to become more secular. You’ll eventually get Yiddish Literature, poetry, etc. Secular Yiddish lit. has always come from people who’s parents or grandparents were religious so this is not a change.

    As far as their Yiddish being bad: 400 years ago a German Jew would say that the Russian Jews spoke bad Yiddish and vice versa. Yiddish has been constantly changing for nearly a thousand years as Jews migrated. The Charedim’s “bad grammar” will be a new Yiddish Dialect in 100 years.

  9. Oyster

    1/29/2008 at 11:52 pm

    AaronfromWG is brought to you by: Oy-Bay.org 🙂

  10. AaronfromWG

    1/30/2008 at 12:09 am

    I’m reppin the Oy Bay area. South Oy Bay to be exact.

  11. rokhl

    1/30/2008 at 1:07 am

    I’m waiting for this headline: “Outrage over Yiddish leads Jews to learn Yiddish and then make a film about how Yiddish isn’t dying because they learned it instead of being Outraged.”

    On second thought, who’s gonna believe something so ridiculous? Being outraged is much easier.

  12. ck

    1/30/2008 at 7:09 am

    OK is it just me or was Julie Andrews like really sexy when she growled during the chiri biri bum song in the video above?

  13. froylein

    1/30/2008 at 10:24 am

    Aaaron, 400 years ago Russian Jews spoke East Yiddish (usually the Poylish variety) and German Jews spoke West Yiddish, which was one of the languages I grew up with. (There only are a few native speakers of the latter around here, and I’ve encountered a few in Insrael as well.) At that time, Yiddish was the language of trade, and practically every village had its own variety. Prior to WW2, Yiddish was considered one of the world languages.

    What made me consider the kind often spoken in America “bad” compared to the Antwerp variety is that the former has foregone lots of originally Yiddish vocabulary (partly replaced it by English, partly by Standard German, thus forming Yinglish / Anglish) to an extent that many “native speakers” there lack what it would take to read a more complicated piece of literature in Yiddish. Also, in the Charedi communities I’m familiar with over there, it is common practice that the girls get raised in English while the boys get raised in Yiddish (don’t even get me started on what kinds of people get hired as English teachers at many of those religious schools). (BTW, I also know young Chasidishe women in Bnei Brak that only were raised in Ivrit.) To communicate amongst each other, they have to settle for a somewhat low standard of either language, which doesn’t exactly help for the language to survive in all its finesse.

    So, what variety of Yiddish will eventually survive, we cannot foretell, but as Rokhl has rightly pointed out, whining will definitely not preserve the language – unless done in Yiddish.

  14. Julie

    2/12/2008 at 6:56 pm

    I second Rokhl’s point, which is less about not whining and more about actually learning Yiddish already (as opposed to “actively thinking” about it).

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