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Once Again -  “Ot Azoj!”


The 5th Yiddish Culture Festival "Ot Azoj!" was held in Toronto with great success, gathering many participants and an ever-increasing number of attendees. For any new event, five years is a kind of probationary period during which the community either accepts it or switches its attention to something else.


"When we first announced "Ot Azoj!” in 2014," recalls Vita Shtivelman, the author of the idea and the main organizer of the festival, "the idea of reviving Yiddish sounded very exotic. We have a Scroll of Honour from the municipality of Toronto "for the first Russian Community Yiddish festival". The name no one could really pronounce at first - and now everyone knows it and are asking what will be happening at the next festival...”


For the first day of the 5th festival, the theme was the "History of the Yiddish language" – a lecture delivered by Kalman Weiser, a young professor at York University. And judging by how many were eager to listen to him, including English speakers, the interest in "Mameloshn" is not weakening. Even despite that the postwar generation, on both sides of the ocean, with rare exceptions does not speak the language of its ancestors.


"When my parents wanted to talk about something that was not meant for the children's ears at dinner, they switched to Yiddish," says James Pasternak, Toronto City Councillor, Ward 10th, to whom Vita traditionally granted the honorable right to open the festival. "Since then only a few words have remained in my memory. And I would like to thank you on my behalf, and on behalf of Mayor John Tory for giving such attention to this topic. The history of the language is a very important part of our common history, and this is our future...”


When, where and how did Yiddish appear? Since the 19th century, researchers have been debating about the origin of this language, its carriers, and the circumstances that forced them to travel around the world. Professor Weiser, being fluent in the language, told the audience about the main theories, schools and ideas, often dictated by political or ideological goals. It even went so far that Jews who spoke different dialects of Yiddish some tried to identify as people from Central Asia who had adopted Judaism in the Middle Ages.

But despite attempts by multinational "experts" to convince the general public that the universal means of communication of European Jews is doomed to disappear, along with the culture destroyed by the joint efforts of Hitler and Stalin, the language of our grandparents continues to live.


“Now, an unusual phenomenon is observed”, says Vita Shtivelman, “More and more often children teach their parents what the parents did not want to learn in the past (in their Soviet childhood). Thanks to our efforts, interest in the language has grown in many families, the fabric of which is interwoven in a surprising and multifaceted way with the history, literature, suffering and joy of the diaspora. I want to quote the Israeli-Russian poet Igor Guberman again: ‘Hebrew is the official language of the G-d, on which he spoke with the prophets, he reviled the sons of Israel and sometimes pitied them, but the G-d laughs and cries in Yiddish...’”


I remembered how twenty years ago, while looking for a picture frame for a family photo, I wandered through the narrow alleys of the western part of the Jerusalem market Mahane Yehuda. Somewhere here was an old stone shop, at the entrance to which the gray-bearded old man sat in a ceremonious way, as if descended from the canvas of Michelangelo. Over his head hung a bunch of frames of all kinds and sizes. As it happens, we struck up a conversation, and I heard the story of my interlocutor. A native of Vienna, Abraham Shiffer was one of the prisoners of Auschwitz, doomed to an imminent death.

“’In the summer of 1943,’ he was saying, ‘transports began to arrive with Greek Jews from the Thessaloniki. So, they were even worse than us. Do you know why? Because they did not speak Yiddish, and could only communicate with each other...’”

Ponder, reader. Even there, in a Nazi camp that has become synonymous with the Holocaust, this person has not lost the ability to compassion. He gave strength to the language, taken with mother’s milk...


The second day of the "Ot Azoj!" festival was completely given to a children's concert, which took place in Studio N. And if once people had to be persuaded why it's so important to take part in this event, to the great pride of parents and teachers, about 50 young talented individuals came out on stage.

Saxophonists Efim Pustilnik's jazz and popular music studios masterfully performed a medley of favorite Soviet films and Jewish melodies. The program of contemporary Israeli songs was presented by young soloists of the studio Rocking Youth Production: Tania Krivoruk, Alisa Netta Boyarkin, Lili Abramovich.

In the program of the klezmer orchestra "Yiddle met a Fiddle", Svetlana Untershats’s school Bee Smart Learning Center, Yiddish peacefully neighboured with Hebrew. Audiences were pleased by fantastic numbers from jugglers Sasha Sinai, Anna Barkan, Noah Rabinovich, Nicole Lisov from Art of Juggling by Smile Group Canada. And Dana Kesselman and Daniella Radchenko sang popular Israeli songs: "Light the Candle" by Sarit Hadad, and "Golden Jerusalem", by composer Naomi Shemer.

The first part of the concert was concluded by the famous and beloved by the audience vocal jazz ensemble "Octave", led by Margarita Romko.


In the second part, the stage was given to the family theatrical company Iskanderovy, Barkan and Suzdalnitsky. In bright, colourful scenery, heroes of the fairy tale "Bird Aleph from the old gramophone" by Boris Sandler, a famous journalist and writer in Yiddish, came to life.


“On the first, and even the second festivals, discussing the concert program, I counted with horror how many times performers offered to play ‘Tum, balalaika!’”, Vita jokes. “Indeed, in fact, our task is to revive the lost, seemingly forever, treasures of Jewish musical culture. And this time around a lot of original, interesting numbers were suggested for the event’s program. The main thing is that people realized: Yiddish is part of a common culture, that's why Hebrew, English, Russian were heard from the stage. And this is a great joy: when the outcome is as it was intended! If a person is creative in one particular culture, then that person manifests themselves in others. That's why at our events all nationalities are represented - on stage and in the hall…”


And let it be so, friends! Ot Azoj, Haverim!



Written by: Alexander Gershtein

Translated by: Serge Taliansky

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