Working to nurture a language


Yiddish: A centenarian puts out a literary journal six times a year.

August 22, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Itche Goldberg has a lot of memories. He remembers delivering ice by horse and wagon in the days before refrigeration. He recalls the days when the Soviet Union seemed - to some people anyway - like a wonderful new social experiment. When he mentions "The War," he's not referring to the first gulf war, or Vietnam, or even World War II; he's talking about the Great War, now known as World War I.

When that conflagration ended in 1918, Goldberg was 14, which means he's now in his 101st year. These days, that's not such a big deal; after all, there are 50,000 centenarians in the United States alone. But Goldberg is one of the very few who has not retired.

For the past 40 years, Goldberg has been the editor of Yidishe Kultur, one of the world's few remaining Yiddish literary journals. He puts out the magazine almost single-handedly and must spend his own money to keep it going.

`How to continue'

But he won't quit. "It was always a case of how to exist and how to continue," he says.

Goldberg has reason to feel attached: He helped found Yidishe Kultur in 1937 as a response to the Nazis' attack on Jews. The magazine, which has a few hundred subscribers, appears only in Yiddish, and features original poetry, prose and criticism.

He is utterly committed to Yiddish. For more than eight decades, he has tried to nurture and protect the language he grew up speaking in Poland. But he brushes off praise. "The important thing is the magazine," he says in English that bears the accent of Eastern Europe.

Goldberg sees Yiddish as the cultural high point of Jewish history. The language originated 1,000 years ago in the Jewish communities of Germany. A fusion of medieval German, French, Hebrew and Slavic, it became the daily language for millions of Jews. Beginning in the 18th century, Yiddish literature blossomed, and writers like Sholom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz used the language to depict the Eastern European Jewish experience.

The Holocaust, emigration and assimilation have greatly reduced the number of Yiddish speakers. And for many years, Israel viewed Yiddish as a reminder of historical Jewish vulnerability and discouraged use of the language in favor of Hebrew. Perhaps a half-million people now speak Yiddish fluently, a 95 percent decrease from before World War II. But Goldberg is not discouraged and labels as "nonsense" the idea that Yiddish is dying.

In fact, linguists say the use of Yiddish is likely to begin growing within 15 years because of high fertility rates among Hasidic Jews, who now make up the majority of Yiddish speakers.

Almost every day, he goes into his Manhattan office, where he edits, writes and takes care of the myriad details involved in publishing six issues of the magazine a year. The office is at 26th and Broadway, three miles from the apartment he shares with his 99-year-old wife, Jennie, a retired social worker.

With a full head of white hair and a penetrating gaze, Goldberg appears at least 25 years younger than his age. "He's just remarkable," says Yankl Stillman, a Yiddish translator and retired engineer who lives in New Jersey. "Here's a man who at the age of 100 can give you a 45-minute lecture with no notes." Stillman, 77, met Goldberg in 1939, when the older man taught him at a Yiddish school in Brooklyn. They are now good friends.

"He's one of the most respected figures in the Yiddish world," says Itzik Gottesman, associate editor at The Forward, the venerable weekly Jewish newspaper in New York that appears in English and Yiddish.

Like many, Gottesman mentions Goldberg's tenacity. A few years ago, Goldberg was due to give a talk at a cultural center in the Bronx. On the way, he took a bad fall. His face scraped and bleeding, Goldberg handed his notes to Gottesman and headed to a hospital.

"Fifteen minutes later, he came back," Gottesman recalls. "He said `I'm OK. I'll give the speech.' We were all flabbergasted. This was a 95-year-old man."

In addition to running the magazine, Goldberg is finishing up his second book of essays on Yiddish literature.

A small two-room suite - enough space for Goldberg and a part-time secretary - the magazine's office is filled with books, papers and mementos. There are bound copies of the magazine stretching back to its inception; a black and white photo from 1916 that shows a few dozen earnest dark-haired Jews - the Chicago Yiddish Socialist Choir; a stone bust of his late friend Martin Birnbaum, a well-known Yiddish poet; and a poster from the '40s advertising an after-school Yiddish program.

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