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Radio: A Yiddish story

25 March 2009

by Edward Wickham

IT IS a dramatic anecdote for any­one, let alone a librarian. Aaron Lansky, strolling through a New York suburb, discovered 600 books tipped into a dumpster and heading for the incinerator. The books were in Yiddish, a language that — back in the 1980s — was widely regarded as dying or dead. Mr Lansky and his friends managed to retrieve the volumes, which formed the basis of a new col­lection, the National Yiddish Book Centre. The language had been saved from “the dustbin of history”.

Like all founding myths, this one is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. In particular, Mr Lansky’s claim that Yiddish was just a few years away from obsolescence is arguable. Nevertheless, it encapsu­lates the state of a language that latterly has been spoken mainly in only a few neighbourhoods in New York.

Dennis Marks has been telling the story in Yiddish: A struggle for survival (World Service, various times), and visited one such neigh­bourhood, the forbidding Crown Heights, where Hasidic Jews live in a closed community, speak­ing the language of the faith.

We heard examples of the Klezmer music, which, one of its pro­ponents argued, is a musical abstraction of the Yiddish language. The cadences of the violin and voice, she claimed, directly mimic Yiddish: “Can you hear that, or am I imagining it?”, she asked. I fear it was the latter.

As another of Mr Marks’s inter­viewees admitted, Yiddish is not passed down through the genera­tions. You have to work at it. It is only because of places such as Crown Heights and the Book Centre — now enhanced through the patronage of Steven Spielberg — that it will survive.

The disputes surrounding the Pope’s comments on Africa, AIDS, and condoms benefited last Friday from the input of the Any Questions? (Radio 4) panel. “Utterly demented” was the considered response of Boris Johnson. Dr Nazir-Ali earned him­self a clap with his call for further emphasis on faithfulness in rela­tionships; while Professor Lisa Jardine, who chairs the HFEA, could not un­der­­stand a position on contracep­tion which had apparently no room for manoeuvre.

What was striking was that the audience member who asked the question clearly knew a good deal more about the subject than the panel, and pointed out that the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is somewhat more nuanced than the reported position of the Pope. Any Questions? con­tinues to witness to the modern confusion between experts and people with opinions.

Either I am getting to a certain age, where Radio 4’s Afternoon Play slot becomes appealing, or the strand has been upping its game of late. The offering on Monday of last week, from Salley Vickers, was a fascinating retelling of the Oedipus myth, in which the ailing and aged Sigmund Freud, played by John Hurt, is visited by blind Tiresias.

Where Three Roads Meet pro­poses a different interpretation of the myth of Oedipus from the one that ob­sessed Freud and genera­tions of psychoanalysts. It is a story of liberation — from falsehood, and from the fate into which a child is born. Oedipus is a Freudian hero not because he killed his father and married his mother, but because he attained self-knowledge.

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