A New York Jew in China: A Year of Yiddish Videos

Over the past year, RP and I have made a series of 12 videos about various aspects of life in and around China, and I present them to you below, beginning with the final episode. They are in Yiddish, with English subtitles.

Yiddish?! you ask? Yes, Yiddish.

Some of you may not know that Yiddish is still spoken by anyone – some of you may think it is only spoken by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many of you know some Yiddish words that have embedded themselves in English – shlep, nosh, oy! – but most of you have probably never actually heard Yiddish spoken.

For the curious: yes, Yiddish lives. An approximately 1,000-year old language, it is written in the Hebrew alphabet and is related to German. It is not a dialect, a jargon, or jabber, but is related to German much in the way that Dutch, Afrikaans and English are. It is a rich and beautiful language with influences from Hebrew and numerous western European and Slavic languages. Up until recently the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry across the globe, the vernacular language of millions, the Holocaust and powerful forces of assimilation have driven it into decline. But Yiddish lives, still – and is even experiencing a modest revival among non-Orthodox Jews, according to some sources.

Why make videos in Yiddish instead of English, or even Hebrew? And why make them about life in Asia?

To take the second question first: why not? Yiddish is a living language spoken by well over a million people, and living languages should be used to document, describe and relate any and all experiences of their speakers. Yiddish enters its second millennium of life in the 21st century, bolstered by a dazzling history of literature, poetry, song and theater. It continues as a vernacular language in this century; Yiddish is emailed, texted, Skyped and Tweeted. Some people even make Yiddish videos and put them up on YouTube.

As for the first question – well, of course the author Isaac Bashevis Singer would have said it best. It may well be apocryphal, but he is reputed to have said of Yiddish:

It is the richest language in the world. Take such words as “a poor man”. You can say of a poor man, a pauper, a beggar, a mendicant, a panhandler…

But in Yiddish you can say: A poor shlemiel, a begging shlimazl, a pauper with dimples, a shnorer multiplied by eight, a shleper by the grace of God, an alms collector with a mission, a delegate from the Holy Land, dressed in seven coats of poverty, a crumb catcher, a bone-picker, a plate licker, a daily observance of the Yom Kippur fast and more and more.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years. Yiddish was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and kabbalists. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world. I say, therefore, to my children: Come back to me. Learn me, and my sister’s Hebrew and Aramaic. Learn my and your history. Treasures are stored up for you, saved form a thousand fires, preserved through a thousand exiles, hidden and carried forth from enemies and tyrants. Yes, you will find many treasures but the greatest of all is yourself. You will find in me your inner being, your identity, your very soul.

Without further ado, here is one year of A New York Jew in China, A New Yorker Yid in Khine, אַ ניו־יאָרקער ייִד אין כינע . Hats off to my husband RP for his perseverance in driving this project forward, despite my endless kvetching.

Episode 12 – Birobidzhan: A Yiddishland in the Far East

From the Jewish Autonomous Oblast on the Russia-China border.

Episode 11 – Living a Jewish Life in China

Increasing numbers of expat Jews in China leading Jewish lives.

Episode 10 – Passover in Kaifeng

In the small community of Kaifeng Jews, in Henan province.

Episode 9 – Chinese Medicine

In which RP gets stuck with acupuncture needles.

Episode 8 – Growing Old in China

Playing mahjong, smoking pipes, dancing in the public squares.

Episode 7 – The Jews of Malaysia and Singapore

A little-known history of Jews in Southeast Asia.

Episode 6 – What Do Chinese People Think of Jews?

They think we’re really, really smart.

Episode 5 – On the Roof of the World

Reportage from the Himalayas.

Episode 4 – Jewish Shanghai Lost and Found

Revisiting the sites and history of the Jews of Shanghai.

Episode 3 – The Real Chinese Food

Who doesn’t like a little mooshoo pork?

Episode 2 – Disappearing Languages

What it takes to document a small, endangered language on the edge of the Himalayas.

Episode 1 – New Cities

The new cities of China, springing up around us.