“I even speak Yiddish with a Mexican accent. I can’t help it.”
If you call the Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan and ask to be referred to a Yiddish speaker in San Diego, you’ll be given Raquel Leisorek’s number.
“I was born and raised in Mexico City. In 1948, I helped establish one of the city’s three Yiddish schools, the Peretz Shul. I taught Yiddish there for 28 years. My parents spoke Yiddish to us at home, and I attended Yiddish schools. The language was important to our family, to our identity. My father owned a mill, a factory that produced tons of masa, cornmeal dough, for tortillas. It was hard work. Getting up every morning at 4:00 a.m. Grinding corn for tortillas. It was a very Mexican life, but with Yiddish.”
Looking a little too young to have founded a school in 1948, Leisorek sits in her University City living room, a black wool cardigan draped about her shoulders. She speaks formal Mexico City Spanish. She complains that her English isn’t “perfect,” but she speaks it very well. When Spanish and English can’t accommodate what she wants to say about Jewish life in Mexico City, she slips into Yiddish.
“When I start thinking about Yiddish, I start speaking in Yiddish. It just happens. With the younger generations, they’re not so fluent. They haven’t had the practice. I’ve spoken it all my life. I taught Yiddish in Mexico City, and I’ve taught Yiddish in San Diego since we came here 22 years ago. Now, I mostly give private lessons. I’ve taught Yiddish here longer, I think, than anyone else.”
Leisorek and her husband Elias belong to a local community of 600 or so Mexico City families who were educated primarily in Yiddish. They are the largest community of Mexican Jews in the United States. Their experience of the New World began in the mid-1920s, after the United States decided it no longer wanted Eastern Europe’s Jews. Mexico was glad to take them in. Seven years of revolution had ruined the nation’s economy, and Mexico actively recruited Jewish immigrants, hoping they might stimulate commerce and trade. While many of these immigrants knew nothing about Mexico, considered it a stopover on their way to New York, once their boats docked in Veracruz, they apprehended the country’s potential.
“Compared to Russia and Poland, there was little anti-Semitism in Mexico. We were such a small minority, but we were safe. They called us ‘los rusos,’ ‘the Russians.’ Nobody knew what Jews were. My parents’ generation realized they could make a living in Mexico. They started out as rag peddlers, door-to-door salesmen. The first thing these early immigrants did was to buy a plot of land for a cemetery. The next thing they did was to start renting buildings so they could have Yiddish schools, the first of which opened, I think, in 1930.”
Leisorek’s parents belonged to a generation especially proud of Yiddish, their mama loshen, “mother tongue.” But Yiddish pride was a recent phenomenon. More than 1100 years ago, France began a centuries-long effort to rid itself of Jews. Driven from their homes, they moved eastward, settling along the left bank of the Rhine, between Cologne and Speyer. They brought with them Hebrew, and Jewish dialects of Old French and Old Italian. These languages, intermarrying with several medieval German dialects and, later, several forms of Slavic, produced Yiddish, a name that literally means “Jewish.”
As these Jews migrated beyond the Rhine Valley, into middle Europe, the Baltic, into areas that later became Russia and Poland, Yiddish developed into the Jewish lingua franca. Although dialects evolved over time, a tailor from Cologne could make himself understood to a rabbi in Kraków. Printed in Hebrew letters, Yiddish books published in Venice could be easily read by Jews in Vilna. Yiddish was “common” in both senses of the word: it served to unite a dispersed population, and it was also the language of the masses, of the common workaday Jew with little Jewish learning. Hebrew was used by religious scholars, the Jewish world’s elite. Hebrew was loshen kodesh, the holy language of Torah, prayer, ritual, and blessing. Hebrew was so sacred it couldn’t be uttered in unclean places. Yiddish you could speak in a latrine.
“Something revolting.” “A semi-animal language.” “An example of poor taste.” High-minded German-speaking Jews in the 18th Century had little nice to say about Yiddish. It was “jargon” spoken by “wretched peddlers who roamed about at fairs.” The high-minded urged their fellow Jews to speak “pure German,” or, lacking that, “pure Polish,” or “the pure, beautiful, and rich Russian tongue.” Their nagging grew fainter, however, in the late 1700s as Hasidism, a mystical movement, caught the common Jewish imagination. Hasidism introduced an ecstatic faith to the Jewish masses. A Jew needn’t master Hebrew, or spend a lifetime studying Talmud, to access the Divine. Purity of spirit, kindness, charity, and love were sufficient to bring a Jew close to God. The heart is what counted. And Yiddish, the language closest to the common Jewish heart, became the language of Hasidic literature. Secular and religious elites opposed to Hasidism realized they had to do something fast. They set aside their disdain and wrote their anti-Hasidism propaganda in Yiddish.
As a weapon, Yiddish gained prestige.
By the 19th Century, there were still many Jews who hated Yiddish, but the rise of nationalism and socialism made it a language that could no longer be dismissed. The Jewish masses had begun to develop an idea of themselves as a political entity, as citizens with specific rights. Yiddish, they said, wasn’t “jargon.” English, too, was a Germanic language rich in foreign elements, yet no one called English “jargon.” Yiddish was a national language like any other and as such deserved legal recognition.
Socialists became aware of Yiddish’s struggle for acceptance. They realized Yiddish was the best means of enlisting Jewish workers in the revolutionary cause. But then a strange thing happened. In order for the Jewish masses to become good socialists, they first, of course, had to be educated enough to understand socialism. In order to become educated, they had to be literate in their mother tongue. In order for the masses to become literate in Yiddish, the language itself needed discipline — a formalized grammar, a universally agreed-upon spelling system, a dictionary. In the end, it was difficult to tell whether Yiddish was socialism’s servant or vice versa. This intermingling of politics and linguistics produced the secularist movement Yiddishism.
In October 1897, 13 Jewish workers met in Vilna to establish the Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland. The Bund felt that Zionists, who hoped to revive Hebrew as a modern spoken language and establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, were starry-eyed utopians. Bundists believed the cure for Jewish sorrows lay neither in Israel nor in the God of Israel but in building socialism in Russia and Poland. The Bund established secular Yiddish schools for the poorest Jewish children. Through Yiddish, the Bund opened their minds to a world beyond the poverty and the shtetls, or small villages, in which they lived. By the 1920s, Yiddish culture was in full bloom. Fourteen million Jews spoke Yiddish as their first language. A Jew could choose from a dozen daily and weekly Yiddish newspapers. Poets, novelists, and playwrights produced a rich, secular Yiddish literature. The Russians and Poles who immigrated to Mexico came of age in this culturally self-confident atmosphere. When they left Eastern Europe, Yiddish was ascendant and remained so until June 22, 1941, and the events that followed.
“Yiddish isn’t dead,” says Leisorek. “It’s still alive in Mexico. Maybe not as strong as it once was. We worked hard to preserve it. There in Mexico City, we even wrote and published our own Yiddish textbooks.”
She points to a stack sitting on her coffee table. Their covers are worn with use. Sentences have been underlined. Notes jotted in margins.
“Now, of course, in San Diego, it’s more difficult. There are no Yiddish schools. The children aren’t raised in that environment. There are some families who send their children to Mexico City so they can get at least some Yiddish education. And even in San Diego there are people who are interested in learning Yiddish. There are more than you’d think. You’d be surprised.”
When Yale Strom, who graduated from Crawford High School, class of ’76, took Yiddish lessons from Leisorek, he was starting to find his way into klezmer, the sometimes wild, sometimes sad music that Jews have played since the 12th Century.
Although secular, klezmer drew its sound and feel from the ancient Jewish liturgy — much in the way that 20th-century soul music took its strength from gospel. Hasidic Jews, whose mystic faith dignified Yiddish, were naturally partial to klezmer. Singing and dancing, Hasidim believed, could make a Jew closer to God. Klezmer made Yale Strom famous in the world, and Yiddish changed the course of his life.
“My family moved to San Diego from Detroit when I was 11 years old. My father’s side of the family were from Byelorussia and the Ukraine. My grandparents spoke Yiddish. We had a very Jewish home. I was bar mitzvahed at Beth Tefilah, but we usually used to pray at this little Orthodox synagogue up on El Cajon Boulevard. It was what you’d call a shtieble, just a small little place, no rabbi, where people got together to pray. My father preferred that sort of thing. It was less organized, less formal, more spontaneous. No long-winded sermons. Later on we also went to pray at Chabad, the Hasidic synagogue on Montezuma. We felt very comfortable there too. Part of my father’s family were from Stolin, in Byelorussia, which was an important Hasidic center. We have Hasidism in our blood.
“I was raised with a lot of music. In our house on shabbos, the Sabbath, we’d sit around the table and sing zmiros, ‘traditional songs.’ I also studied violin from the time I was eight, mostly classical stuff. I played in the Youth Symphony. When I was in high school, I listened to a lot of folk music — Theodore Bikel, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson. While I was going to Crawford, I started going to this annual folk festival they had at San Diego State. What I heard there influenced me too.
“In 1981 I heard ucsd’s Big Jewish Band play at the Sushi Gallery downtown, and the music, klezmer music, really resonated with me. It wasn’t just folk music. I had a deeper connection to it, something fundamental. I had an epiphany. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta learn about klezmer. I’ve gotta play it.’ I figured there was room for two klezmer bands in San Diego. That’s how my band Zmiros was born. I got together with a couple of old friends from high school. We started playing weddings, bar mitzvahs. All the usual occasions where klezmer’s been performed for centuries. We started to become noticed. We started to become popular. All the while I was determined to do whatever was necessary to learn more about klezmer. I decided to go to Eastern Europe to study klezmer at its source. Klezmer’s development paralleled Yiddish’s development. You can trace the two histories from the Rhine Valley into Eastern Europe and beyond. Yiddish and klezmer are very much linked. I bought a one-way ticket to Vienna. I had $800 and my violin with me. From Vienna, I took a train to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and arrived there on a rainy night.
“I had no place to go, no place to stay. What was I doing? What was I thinking? You know, I was young. I just had this strong determination to learn about klezmer. I somehow found my way in Zagreb to a Jewish senior citizens’ home. I remember it had a big Star of David over the front door. I knocked and knocked, and finally this old man came out and told me to go away, that it was late. I persisted. He ended up letting me in and giving me a room. I lived at the rest home for a week, talking to the old people about songs they remembered, about klezmer music. I ended up going to Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In Bucharest there was a fantastic folk-culture library that had all this klezmer sheet music. I went there every day for a week and copied 20 pieces of music by hand. The librarians must have thought, ‘What’s that crazy Jew doing? Why is he interested in that old music?’
“When I came back to the States I went to New York and enrolled in the summer Yiddish program held by the yivo Institute for Jewish Research in conjunction with Columbia University. The Yiddish I’d learned at home and from Raquel Leisorek had helped me during my first trip to Eastern Europe, but I needed more to get deeper into klezmer culture. I ended up pursuing a master’s in Yiddish studies at nyu. I was on a partial scholarship. To make ends meet I played my violin at Times Square Station. On slow days I made $12 to $15 an hour. On good days I could make as much as $25. I played in the subway five to six days a week. And all the while I was keeping Zmiros, my klezmer band, alive back in San Diego.
“In the winter of 1984 I made my second trip to Eastern Europe. I took a friend with me, and we stayed for eight months. We took cameras with us and film. Politically, this was an exciting time in the Eastern Bloc. We had many hassles with border police. We met Václav Havel. We were developing film in bathtubs. We liked being in that cauldron, that excitement. We weren’t doing it for the bucks. We were trying to document what was left of Jewish life in all Eastern Bloc countries. We came back to America with 8000 photographs.”
The photographs ended up as a major exhibition at the Spertus Institute in Chicago. The exhibition led to the first of six books Strom has written about Jewish history, immigrants, and klezmer music. When not authoring books, Strom has produced two plays, three documentaries, one feature film, and eight klezmer CDs. He’s finishing The Book of Klezmer, a 350-page work, due to be published in the spring of 2002, that details most of the music’s culture and history. In mid-June of this year, his play The Rebbe’s Gypsy Song will be workshopped at the La Jolla Jewish Community Center’s Streisand Festival.
“Yiddish opened this entire world to me. I could be in these small out-of-the-way towns in Romania or Poland, and I’d bring out my violin and play and people would start to laugh and cry and talk about their memories, their lives, the music. Those were pinnacle moments. Nothing can replace them. These people spoke in Yiddish, the language closest to their hearts. Without Yiddish I could never have gotten so deep inside these amazing little pockets of this culture, this civilization, that managed to survive despite Hitler and Stalin. Without Yiddish, I could never have gotten so deep.”
Far from Bucharest and Zagreb, an amazing little pocket of Yiddish culture survives two Monday evenings each month in Lucy Goldman’s home in Banker’s Hill.
“My family came to San Diego on the day Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953. Why do I remember the day? Because I’ve always been interested in politics. Always. Even as a little girl. It’s natural for a Jew to take an interest in politics. What happened to us in Eastern Europe happened because we had no political power. We have a stake in democracy. That’s what we learned.”
On the walls of Goldman’s home hang big, bold, modern paintings. Turkish and Moroccan rugs line the hardwood floors. (“I schlepped all this stuff back with me from my travels. Everything you see I carried personally by hand. I was one of those obnoxious passengers with large carry-on luggage.”) The breakfast nook, overlooking a canyon, serves as a gallery for photos of Goldman’s children — Dean, Lissa, and Leah — and her ten grandchildren. There are also photos of elegant smiling Goldman, shoulder to shoulder with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barak. (“But no pictures of local politicians. They’re undeserving. Except for Bob Filner.”) And there are photos of windswept Goldman standing in a desolate Jewish graveyard in Cuba, and of Goldman chatting in Yiddish with two old guys in a Havana synagogue courtyard. In her kitchen, Goldman bustles about making tea, asparagus risotto, and her famous apple cake.
“My family spent three years in Munich, in the American sector, waiting to come to America. We’d fled Poland to Samarkand, in the Soviet Union. My father was an extremely charming, resourceful man. He worked in shmattes, the garment and fabric business. He even found a way to make a living, enough money to keep us alive in Samarkand. Of course we spoke Yiddish. My parents were of that generation, secular Yiddishists. They did a lot of contrarian things in Poland, like going to a restaurant on Yom Kippur to eat pork sausage. For them, being a Jew had nothing to do with religion.
“We had distant cousins in San Diego, and when we got here we rented a little apartment at 4485 Illinois Street in North Park. That was the Jewish neighborhood back then. Most of the refugees, when they came to San Diego, settled there. We didn’t even have a phone. I was this 15-year-old girl and my family didn’t even have a phone and I felt very inadequate. I was this Jewish girl from Poland, and San Diego was like a completely different planet. An alien world. It was a very un-Jewish city. Even the Jews here were all-American. My family spoke Yiddish at home. I felt very estranged. It was tough. I went to Hoover High School and there was this other girl from Poland, and the two of us just sort of held on to each other. We had something in common. There was also a Jewish community center near 33rd and El Cajon where they had dances for teenagers. I went every week and met other Jewish kids. It helped me feel less isolated.
“Of course our parents wanted us to hurry and learn English and become American as fast as possible. They promoted their children’s assimilation. They were proud that their children assimilated. Of course, a lot was lost along the way. Gradually, we started to speak Yiddish less and less. Finally, decades passed without my speaking Yiddish at all.”
What Goldman did during her Yiddish-free years was to marry, divorce, raise three children on her own; start working at Yardage Town, her father’s fabric store, which grew to 15 locations throughout the county; and ultimately assert herself in local and national politics. In 1971, she helped run Pete Chacon’s campaign. In 1972, she was a McGovern delegate to the Democratic convention. In 1974, she was at the contentious mini-convention in Kansas City. Later, with Fred Schnaubelt she opposed San Diego’s convention center. (“So Fred and I had different politics. It didn’t matter. We were both opposed to that monster.”) In 1981, she ran against Dick Murphy for a city council seat and lost. She went on to serve on the board of the Centre City Development Corporation, where she made John Davies’s life a living hell.
“Along the way I also managed to earn Susan Golding’s undying enmity. But, hey, I love politics.
“So, three years ago, I went to this seminar on Yiddish culture at ucla, and this professor gave a lecture, in Yiddish, on the partisans of Vilna. What happened in the Vilna Ghetto isn’t as well known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This lecture was fascinating. Hearing something of substance discussed in Yiddish, I was in heaven. I enjoyed it so much I came back to San Diego wanting more than speaking a few Yiddish sentences every now and then.
“I’d been introduced to Bernardo Grezemkovsky, and I knew he spoke Yiddish. I had this idea for a weekly Yiddish gathering, a salon. A lot of Yiddish groups don’t really do much speaking in Yiddish. They talk about Yiddish. Or they speak ‘Yinglish,’ a mixture of Yiddish and English. I wanted something more serious. I wanted a group where people made a real effort to speak good Yiddish. It had to be every week, a real commitment. Bernardo knew people here from Mexico City. I knew a few people from around town. That’s how the group started. One week it’s at my house, another week it’s at Bernardo’s place in La Jolla. Sometimes we decide on a topic, like Yiddish poetry. Other times we just let the conversation flow. There’s always something to talk about. Also, there’s food. And there’s this competition about food. Actually, it’s Bernardo’s competition. His food always has to be better than mine. Or you at least have to say Bernardo’s food is better than mine.”
If you bought College Yiddish, a textbook published by the yivo Institute for Jewish Research, admired by Yiddish speakers in general and by Raquel Leisorek in particular, you would learn in Lesson One that “Yiddish faraynikt yidn fun aleh lander,” Yiddish unites Jews from every land. When Lucy Goldman’s doorbell rings, Lesson One makes sense. Goldman greets Julie Galper from Peru, Maurice Rubenstein from Belgium, Al Salzberg from Canada, Fanny Krasne from Latvia, Ruth Mannis from Connecticut, and the large contingent born and raised in Mexico City. A fire crackles in the fireplace. Goldman brings out white wine. “That Jews don’t drink,” she says, “is a myth.” Bernardo throws his hands in the air. “What are you talking? In Mexico City, when there was a wedding, at dinner we put a bottle of tequila in front of each guest!”
Goldman’s guests introduce themselves. When the Eastern Europeans talk about their lives, the room grows still. Other lives are simpler. “I went to a Workmen’s Circle school in Connecticut,” says Ruth Mannis. “The Workmen’s Circle, Der Arbeter Ring, was related to the Bund in Poland and Russia. Workmen’s Circle was what the Bund was called here. At my school, we of course got a Yiddishist education. No religion. But after studying all that Yiddish, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to practice it. Especially not after we moved out here. In the 1950s, however, we were driving with my mother near Lake Elsinore, and there in the middle of nowhere, I saw this big banner in Yiddish for a Workmen’s Circle picnic. We stopped the car and let my mother get out so she could speak to those people in Yiddish. Who would have thought there’d be a Workmen’s Circle picnic at Lake Elsinore, of all places?”
Off to one side of the room, near the front door, sits Goldman’s cousin Pearl Recht, a quiet woman. Pearl doesn’t say much about herself. She instead launches into a long Yiddish joke about circumcision and two stubborn Jews. When Pearl reaches the punch line, everyone roars — Julie Galper guffaws, Ruth Mannis clamps a hand over her mouth, Maurice Rubenstein slaps his thighs. Sophie, Maurice’s very pretty wife from Mexico City, and one of the group’s finest Yiddish speakers, chokes on her wine.
“Pearl knows literally hundreds of Yiddish jokes,” Goldman tells the group’s newcomers. “She’s got an incredible memory.”
A few days later in her home near San Diego State, Pearl says, “For a long time in my life, I didn’t remember Yiddish at all.”
Unlike Goldman’s family, who fled to Samarkand, Pearl’s parents stayed in Poland. “There came the day my father was sent to a labor camp. And we never saw him again.
“My mother was a remarkable woman. For two years she managed to protect me and my little sister. We moved from place to place. At one point we were out in the country, in rural Poland, hiding in this farmhouse. German soldiers were coming, we knew, to look for Jews. They knew that some Poles were hiding Jews. We were hiding in the attic. You know, during the war, there was no food. A thin slice of bread was one meal. We were hiding in the attic when the German soldiers came. They thrust their bayonets through the ceiling into the attic to see if any Jews were hiding there. We saw the blades come up right near where we were. My mother and sister and I didn’t make a sound. The soldiers left. I was so scared I couldn’t eat my little slice of bread.
“I don’t know how my mother did what she did. How she kept on going. Where she found the strength. How she kept us safe. The Germans started rounding up all the Jews, moving them from villages into ghettos in the larger Polish cities. There were fewer and fewer places to hide. My father had been a watchmaker, and somehow a Polish watchmaker who had worked with my father found my mother. He told her that he knew a family that might be able to help us.
“My mother took me and my sister to this family. They were simple people, good people, religious Catholics. For them, helping Jews was simply the right thing to do. My mother took me and my sister to this family and she explained the situation to them. But my sister, who had been so traumatized by our running from place to place and hiding, had nightmares. She would wake up in the middle of the night and scream. My mother took me by the arms and told me, ‘If the neighbors hear your sister, they might tell the Germans, and this whole family would be in danger.’ I was a little girl, but at that time in history, a child was like an adult. I already had an adult’s understanding of the world. I understood what she was saying. She said, ‘I can leave only you here.’ She had some gold coins, and she tried to give them to the family. But they said, ‘No. If at the end of the war any of us survive, and if you didn’t need the gold, you can come back and give it to us. Take it with you now. You’ll need it.’ And my mother hugged me. She hugged me and she walked out the door with my little sister, and as far as I understand she went to a ghetto that was nearby and not long after she and my sister were sent to Auschwitz.
“This Polish family was good to me. For six months I stayed in a wardrobe, you know, like a closet. Sitting all day on a little chair. The problem was that I spoke Polish with a Yiddish accent. I spoke Polish with that intonation, like a Jew. I couldn’t help it. This family had created this story that I was the husband’s niece. That his brother in Warsaw had been in the resistance against the Germans and had been killed and had left behind a wife and six children. So the story was that I was one of the brother’s children and this family had taken me in as a favor. While I sat all day in the wardrobe, they taught me how to speak Polish like a Polish girl from Warsaw. When I had learned to speak well enough, I could go outside. But there was always this fear that I might run into someone from Warsaw who would start asking questions. There was only one close call. I was outside our apartment building and a woman saw me and she told my Polish mother, ‘That little girl looks like a Gypsy or a Jew. She walks around with her mouth closed.’ So I had to learn to always walk around with my mouth a little bit open.
“This family was so kind. They had two little boys of their own, but if they had a cookie or a bit of cake, they always shared it with me as if I was one of their own children. They never forced me to go to church with them. On Sundays when they went to Mass, they would leave me in the woods near their apartment where I would play until they came back from church.
“After the war, Lucy’s parents made their way back to Poland to see who had survived. All her mother’s family had been murdered. All her father’s family had been murdered except me. Lucy’s parents found out where I was and they came to get me. So much time had passed. Six years had passed. This Polish family was my family. I was 14 years old. I recognized Lucy’s mother only a little bit. I had only a vague memory of who she was. She wanted me to go with her and her family to Germany. They were going to try to go to America. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t remember Yiddish. My Polish mother took me and said to me, ‘Look, I want you to know that I love you and someday you will understand what I’m going to do. You are very young. Someday you’re going to grow up and want to marry and have a family of your own. You are a Jewish girl. There are no Jews left in this town. No one will marry you. You have to go. I’m not going to let you stay.’
“I left with Lucy’s mother, to Germany, to wait to go to America. Once I was with Lucy and her family, I started speaking Yiddish again. It all came back. After so many years, it was all there in my mind. For a long time I kept in touch with my Polish family. After we came to San Diego, I’d send them money, medicines, vitamins, nylon stockings, watches. Watches because, you remember, the father was a watchmaker and he could sell them. I kept in contact with them, but as the Cold War became more serious, it was harder and harder to get letters and packages to them. Finally, we just lost all contact.”
Pearl doesn’t come often to Lucy’s Yiddish evenings. The core group is relatively small, 20 people at most. Others come and go. There’s always someone new. The meetings at Bernardo’s home attract more Mexicans, and Bernardo makes a point of serving Mexican food. At the end of a Monday evening at Bernardo’s, everyone gathers around his dining room table to eat enchiladas, chicken tamales, cactus salad, Mexican candies. Entire conversations about Mexican politics and Mexican history are conducted in Yiddish. Bernardo mostly listens and makes sure everyone is eating enough.
He very much resembles the actor George Segal, and the ladies in the Yiddish group say, with a wink, that in Mexico City he was a well-known tango aficionado. Bernardo is also a bullfighting fan. (“I was the first Jew in Mexico to own a bullfighting ring!”) In his upstairs office, he keeps a life-size bust of Manuelito, Mexico’s most famous toreador.
“I had to go to work when I was very young. I didn’t have a chance to be educated in Yiddish. But the language is very important to me because when I was starting out in life, going door-to-door selling shmattes, Yiddish was the language I did business in. The people who helped me, who bought from me, spoke Yiddish. So I have very warm feelings about this language.”
In bookcases and closets surrounding Manuelito’s bust, Bernardo keeps Yiddish magazines, Yiddish textbooks, Yiddish videotapes, recordings of Yiddish songs. One of the more unusual items in Bernardo’s collection is a Yiddish-Spanish dictionary, compiled by Marcus Grinstein and published in Mexico City in 1993. In Grinstein’s foreword, he specifically thanks Daniel Ajzen for his encouragement. Ajzen, a website developer who now lives in San Diego, is a friend of Bernardo’s. And along with attorney Zack Chayet, Ajzen periodically shows up at Bernardo’s house for lunch.
The three men constitute an informal brain trust of Jewish life and history in Mexico. As they sit around Bernardo’s table, hummingbirds zip past the dining room windows. The morning’s rain shines on the orange and lemon trees Bernardo has planted around his house. (“Just a little reminder of the way we lived in Mexico.”) The three men discuss the misdeeds committed 60 years ago by a member of the Mexico City community. The gentleman in question did something unforgivable to his wife.
Chayet leans across the table and wags a finger in the air. “The Mexico City community has a very strong institutional memory. The community is so small. We remember what he did. No one in the community would do business with him. Never. Of course, we didn’t punish his children. They had nothing to do with it. But by him, it’s another matter.”
Ajzen nods. “You can’t get away with much. Everybody knows everybody else’s business.”
Bernardo sets on the table a bowl of guacamole, and beside it, a bowl of herring in sour cream.
Between bites, the three men talk in Yiddish and Spanish about Jewish life in Mexico City. It was never like Brooklyn, they say, where a Jew could conduct his entire life in Yiddish. There were, of course, two Yiddish newspapers and, for several decades at least, a weekly radio program, Die Yiddishe Sha (The Yiddish Hour), that broadcast Yiddish songs and news. What kept the language alive in Mexico City was, they say, that 90 percent of Jewish families sent their children to Jewish schools.
“It provided a very fine education,” says Chayet. “In the morning, we had the curriculum mandated by the Mexican government: Spanish language, Mexican history, Mexican literature, mathematics, and science. In the afternoon we had a full Yiddish education: Yiddish grammar, Yiddish literature, Jewish history. Mexican culture and history are very rich. Jewish culture and history are very rich. You can imagine. We learned a lot.”
Ajzen forks a bit of herring onto a cracker. “In some of our families, we admired Mexico even before we got there. On my mother’s side, my grandfather had served in Leon Blum’s government in France. He read the Mexican constitution and saw all it guaranteed. He said, ‘This is a lot better than what we have in Europe. The Mexican constitution has everything we want.’ Going to Mexico made sense.”
Bernardo, Ajzen, and Chayet agree that each of the Jewish schools generated a different kind of person. The Yiddishe Shul, the city’s oldest Jewish school, produced businessmen, entrepreneurs, “multimillionaires.” The Peretz Shul, which Raquel Leisorek helped establish, produced professionals, sociologists, journalists, ecologists. And Tarbut, the Zionist school, which emphasized modern Hebrew, produced artists.
“I think,” Ajzen says, “the Yiddish influence on all of us was very strong, especially in creating a social conscience.”
“We felt we were Mexicans in Mexico,” says Chayet. “We had a sense of responsibility to Mexican society.”
But in early October 1968, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered Mexican troops to fire on demonstrators in Tlatelolco, Mexico City’s most famous plaza. Three hundred people died, among them a number of Jewish students. In mid-November 1975, President Luis Echeverría supported the United Nation’s infamous “Zionism is racism” declaration. Echeverría’s wife also fancied herself as something of a revolutionary. She started dropping hints that her husband’s government might expropriate businesses and industries “for the people.”
“When Echeverría was president, we started hearing ‘Ustedes’ in Mexico,” says Chayet. “The plural form of ‘you.’ People started using it when they talked to you, meaning, ‘you Jews.’ You weren’t just a Mexican anymore. You belonged to a specific group. ‘You Jews.’ No matter how well you spoke Spanish, how much you knew about Mexican history and literature, no matter how concerned you were about Mexican politics, no matter how much you had contributed to Mexican society, you were always going to be ‘Ustedes.’ You guys. Meaning ‘not us.’ Jews were never going to belong 100 percent.
“So, we started looking around, considering our options. There had always been some Jews who left Mexico City for the border towns in Mexico and the U.S. In the 1950s, people went to Tijuana if their businesses failed. In Tijuana, you could make a fresh start. But as time went on, the situation in Mexico City became more unstable. In the early 1980s, there was the big devaluation of the peso. The Mexican economy was in very bad shape. That’s when crime became a big problem in Mexico City. Kidnappings. People no longer felt safe.”
“Many of us knew San Diego very well,” explains Bernardo. “We’d been here often. We came here on vacation. Or we came up for our annual physical at Scripps and then went to spend a few days in Las Vegas. We felt comfortable here. And so, when we started thinking about leaving Mexico City, San Diego was a very natural choice.”
“We felt at home here, but it was still a big change,” says Chayet. “Our tradition of Yiddish education was very strong, and it was impossible to continue that education in San Diego. Not long ago I was speaking with a certain rabbi here in charge of a certain Jewish school, and I was trying to encourage him to offer just a little Yiddish in the curriculum. Just so the kids could get some sense of it. A taste. And this rabbi said to me, ‘Why would we want to teach Yiddish? It’s not even a written language.’ ”
Bernardo and Ajzen shake their heads and sigh. Chayet waves his hands in the air.
“Can you believe it? A rabbi saying that? A rabbi doesn’t know that Yiddish is a written language? That Yiddish has literature, poetry, history? So, this is where we find ourselves now.”
Bernardo shrugs. “So what can you do.”
Ajzen is trying to preserve the Yiddish culture he grew up with. His son, Roman, is studying Yiddish at Stanford. Ajzen himself is working to establish an unusual Yiddish presence on the Web.
“Both my parents were from Bundist homes, and our house was a destination for Yiddish speakers whenever they visited Mexico City. We had guests from South Africa, France, Poland, from all over the world. I grew up in an atmosphere in which Yiddish was very much a living international language.”
Ajzen was educated at the Peretz Shul. Before coming to San Diego he served as an intern at the bbc in London, wrote freelance pieces for a dozen Mexico City papers, published a muckraking political magazine, organized the city’s first cable television system, established Mexico’s first educational radio station, and produced a seven-part documentary about German war criminals living in Latin America.
“For the documentary I managed to get an interview with Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who never ever gave interviews because he felt he was always misquoted. I happened to find out he was in Vienna, and I had a phone number where he could be reached. I was extremely lucky because he answered the phone when I called. I immediately began speaking to him in Yiddish. He said I was the first person who had ever called him and asked in Yiddish for an interview. He said he’d talk to me, but I’d have to meet him in Vienna. The next day, I bought a ticket, put it on my credit card, and flew to Austria. I ended up doing two parts of the documentary on how we found Wiesenthal and interviewed him. The documentary was a big success all over Latin America. In Brazil it was front-page news for an entire week. So, you see, Yiddish can be very useful.
“The language has given so much to me in terms of culture and identity that I feel an obligation to do something in return. This sense of obligation, of needing to do something for a cause, was truly taught to us at the Peretz Shul. What I’m trying to do now is launch a website, www.savethemusic.com, to preserve Yiddish music. My son Roman came up with the idea as a high school project and it’s grown from there. We want to create an on-line library of Yiddish song lyrics, sheet music, and digitized recordings that would be available to everyone in the world. We’d like to be able to offer many versions of a single song. Right now we have ten versions of ‘My Yiddishe Mameh,’ for example. Eventually, we’ll probably have even more. Lucy Goldman and Bernardo have donated some money, so we’ve been able to recruit an international network of volunteer zammlers, or collectors, who go out and rescue old Yiddish records. We have zammlers in L.A., Toronto, New York, Miami, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, and Paris. People find these old records in basements, in attics. Sometimes people die and leave behind record collections, and their children don’t know what to do with them. Our zammlers go out and pick the records up and send them to us. So far, we’ve got more than 500. We have 150 boxes of music waiting for us in New York, but we have no place to store them. We don’t have enough money.
“Digitizing the records is going to take even more money and lots of time. Basically, it takes a technician four hours to clean up a single song. We’re just starting to digitize 600 songs, which will cost about $20,000. I feel a kind of urgency about this project because I know so much Yiddish music is sitting out there in the world. People are getting older. People are dying. These are the songs my parents sang. Many of these records were made at the height of Yiddish culture. I don’t want any of it to disappear.”
Some of the songs Ajzen would like to preserve are sung every week by Libby Taylor at Seacrest Village, a Rancho Bernardo senior citizens’ home that seems like a hotel. There are fresh flowers in the lobby. The staff is courteous. At mealtimes pretty young waitresses offer a menu of main dishes and desserts. (“Try the sugar-free rugalach,” Taylor advises after dinner. “They’re not bad for a sugar-free dessert. Me, I’ve never cared for sweets. Maybe that’s why I’m so healthy. Maybe that’s why I’ve lived so long.”) Taylor is barely five feet tall.
“I may be short, but I’ve known what I wanted in life.
“My life, I could write a book. I should write a book.
“I was born in Pinsk in 1917. My father, well, my father left my mother and we were very poor. Extremely poor. There were seven children. Four girls, three boys. I went to a Bundist school, which gave me a marvelous education for free. We learned good Yiddish, we learned Jewish history, world history, literature, math, science, politics. We learned about socialism. The Bund education gave us hope for what we called a shenere un besserer velt, a more beautiful and better world.
“As a young girl I was very serious. I was the kind of young girl interested in politics. I didn’t dance much. But I think I was a young girl who was interested in the world, and I liked to make the world interesting for others.
“After I graduated I went to a Jewish trade school where I learned to sew. In those days, it was a wonderful thing to learn a trade. I was very fortunate. In September 1938, I left for America on one of the very last ships to leave Gdansk. I didn’t come to America for religious freedom. I came to better my life. My plan was to work hard and make enough money to bring my family to America. One year after I left Gdansk, Germany invaded Poland.
“I got a job in New York, sewing lace onto ladies’ slips. I was a pieceworker. I of course joined the ilgwu — the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. I was proud to be a union member. Trade unions, the rights of the worker, were things the Bund had taught me to respect. I stayed in the union until 1950 and have remained involved with the labor movement all of my life. I still believe in a shenere un besserer velt. But I remember very clearly the day I read in the Forvert, the Yiddish newspaper in New York, about the Hitler-Stalin pact. I said to myself, ‘To hell with socialism. To hell with all that leftist crap.’ On that day I became a Zionist.
“I was determined to learn to speak English beautifully, and I was determined to learn about America. One thing that struck me when I got to New York was the black people, the prejudice against black people. I was from Pinsk. I’d never seen a black person before in my life. So, in 1940 I went to Cooper Union College in Manhattan and enrolled in a course on the history of the Negro people. My education had given me this idea of fighting for justice, social justice. At that time in the world, you can imagine how hard the struggle for justice was.
“It must have been in 1941 that the Yiddish press began with the first stories about what was happening in Eastern Europe, in Poland. When I read one of those first articles, I was again in the subway. I fainted right there.
“Of my family, I’m the only one who survived. There in Pinsk, two of my brothers were shot. Everyone else died of starvation.
“So, you don’t lose hope. You can’t lose hope. I stayed interested in politics. I canvassed in Harlem. I stayed working in the garment business until 1950 when I went to the union clinic for a checkup. The doctor said, ‘Libby, what are you doing sewing? You’ve got an education.’ I said to him, ‘So you’ve got a job for me?’ He said he needed a receptionist and I started working at the clinic a few days later. The nurses there taught me how to be an ekg technician, and I became a darned good one. When my husband and I moved out to Los Angeles, I was the first Jewish woman that St. Vincent’s Hospital ever hired.
“There wasn’t as much Yiddish in Los Angeles as there had been in New York. But my husband and I were involved in the labor Zionist movement. We went to the Yiddish Culture Club over on Vermont Street to hear speakers from Israel, from New York. We also went to the Workmen’s Circle, which was still very active in Los Angeles. There was even a Workmen’s Circle group in San Diego. They and people from Los Angeles would go out to Lake Elsinore in the summer. I don’t know what happened to the San Diego group. I know that up until the early 1990s, they were still meeting. Where are they now? All of them are probably dead. But the Workmen’s Circle is still alive. It’s pro-Yiddish, but no longer anti-Zionist. The war changed all that. How could they remain anti-Zionist? Israel has to exist so a Jew can have an open door.
“In 1980, after I retired, we moved to Palm Springs. We moved to San Marcos. We moved to Oceanside. I had time to devote to Yiddish. At all those places I lectured on Yiddish, gave classes in Yiddish. There was a real interest. Sometimes a hundred people would show up to learn a little something. I still get phone calls from people who heard me speak in Palm Springs. Here at Seacrest Village, I give a weekly Yiddish class, and on Friday nights I sing and teach Yiddish songs. I also give a monthly lecture on Yiddish at the Chabad synagogue in Rancho Bernardo.
“Why do I do all this? Because Yiddish gave me an education. Yiddish gave me a life. Yiddish is my passion, my all-consuming interest. When I speak it, Yiddish is still alive. This is what I tell people. This is what I believe. When I speak Yiddish, my hometown Pinsk is still alive. The great intellectual vitality of Pinsk is still alive when I speak Yiddish. I know it sounds like I’m being dramatic, like I’m being sentimental. But it’s true. When I speak Yiddish, my brothers, my sisters, my mother, even my father, are still alive. Yiddish is the only thing I took with me from Europe. It’s the only thing I’ll take with me when I die. The people at the New Life Club understand what I mean.”
Although its purpose isn’t Yiddish preservation, the New Life Club happens to be the county’s oldest and largest group of Yiddish speakers that meets on a regular basis. The club gets together one Sunday each month in San Carlos at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.
Rose Schindler, New Life’s current president, puts the finishing touches on a banquet table set at the far end of the synagogue’s social hall. She studies a tray of noodle pudding and shakes her head. “I don’t think we have enough food. But who knows? We never know how many are going to show up. We have 200 members. Sometimes 100 come. Sometimes 50.”
She tidies up a bowl of cream cheese and smoked salmon, tosses a big salad, checks to make sure a platter of potato pancakes is still warm. “Every year, I’m sad to say, we lose more members. What can you expect? None of us are getting any younger. None of us are spring chickens.”
The New Life Club is made up of people who have stories similar to Schindler’s. On the first day after Passover in 1944, when she was 14 years old, her mother sent her to buy bread.
“I was walking down the street to the bakery, and I heard a man banging a drum in the town square. Banging a drum, that’s how they let everyone know there was going to be an announcement. Our town, Seredne, was such a nice little town. Clean and pretty. People called Seredne ‘Little America,’ because by Czech standards it was very prosperous. Before the war, we had a beautiful community. There were always children playing in the streets.
“The reason the man was banging the drum was that we were all being ordered to leave our homes immediately, taking only what we could carry, and meet down by the train station. There were eight children in my family, six girls, two boys. You can imagine how difficult it was to get all of us together, to try to decide what we should take. What you should remember is that this was happening in the spring of 1944. Some parts of Europe had already been liberated.
“All the Jewish families went to the train station. It was kind of a camp. We were guarded by police. We stayed there maybe for ten days. We had no food, no water, other than what we had brought with us. My parents knew what was happening. Every day, more families’ names would be called. Every day another train came to take them away to Poland. We had just had a very nice Passover. The whole community was still intact. Our families were still together. The Germans liked to use Passover. During the war, they did many things specifically on Passover. They knew the Jews would be together with their families. On Passover, the Jews would be easier to find.
“I often think about how strong my parents were. How brave they were. When we were there waiting at the train station, they must have been frightened. But they never let us kids know that they were frightened. Finally, the day came when the soldiers called my family’s name, and we lined up and got into the boxcar. There was just straw on the floor. No water. All of us packed together. Poland wasn’t so far away. Maybe we were on the train one day, maybe two days. The adults knew what was going to happen. There were men in our car who were praying. For hours, they stood there praying. During the entire trip to Auschwitz, they prayed. And you know what they were praying for? They were praying that the Messiah would come. And you know what? The Messiah didn’t come.”
Sometimes the New Life Club has entertainment, other times people just play cards and talk, mostly in Yiddish. Schindler, Pearl Recht, Gussie Zaks, and Jacqueline Heyman have played mahjong together since the late 1950s. They set up a card table in the synagogue’s social hall, rattle their mahjong tiles. Pearl Recht tells jokes. Gussie Zaks says, “After the war, when I got to New York, you had to learn how to play mahjong or you couldn’t make any friends. A person has to have friends. What else could I do? So I learned to play mahjong.”
One Sunday not long ago, the afternoon’s special entertainment was Robin Grosmark who, in a form-fitting gown, took the stage to sing old favorites and a selection of show tunes. Eighty or so New Lifers, settled at big round tables, immediately cut short their conversations. They shush the people who keep talking. “It’s an honor to be here,” says Grosmark, and she launches into a lush rendition of “Memory.”
“Memory, memory,” says Max Schindler, Rose’s husband, tapping his fingers on the tabletop.
“My father and I made the death march from Dresden to Theresienstadt. It was about Passover time when we got there. We were starving, we were sick. During the march, non-Jews stood on the side of the road, watching us walk past. They could see how hungry we were. No one offered us a crumb. Those of us that made it to Theresienstadt were barely alive. We were too tired to move. We just lay down in the dirt, the mud, the filth. There was no sign of Passover.
“There was typhus. Everyone was sick. My father died shortly after liberation.”
A New Lifer wags a finger at Max and whispers, “Shush! We’re trying to listen.”
Max waves at him and smiles. “Yeah, yeah.” Many of New Life’s members have known each other since the club began meeting in 1951. They belong to the same synagogues. Their kids have gone to the same schools.
“I don’t remember exactly who started the club,” says Rose. “I think the people who founded the club are already dead. The man who started it was, I believe, Dr. Walter Ornstein, an osteopath. I don’t think he was a survivor. I don’t remember. I was busy raising kids. Max and I didn’t really start getting active in the club until 1957. We used to have a lot of dances. We were younger. We used to meet at the old Jewish Community Center over on 40th and University. We’d dance. We had a wonderful time.”
Robin Grosmark segues into “It Had to Be You,” and the club lets out a collective sigh.
“C’mon, people, get up and dance. You know you want to,” she says.
“Rose and I met in England after liberation,” Max says. “England’s Jewish community wanted to sponsor 1000 boys and girls who’d made it through the camps. They couldn’t find 1000. They found around 730. A whole book was written about us, the kids they brought over. So, Rose and I met there in England. We were the first of that group to get married.”
Around Max, wives are pulling men to their feet, goading them out to the social hall’s dance floor. A little stiffly at first, the couples begin to dance, holding each other tight, cheek to cheek.
Soon, women all over the room are pulling men from their seats. At one table, two women grab the same man by the shoulders.
“Zei fozechdich!” someone laughs and yells. “Opreisen die hant fun der man!” (“Be careful! You’re going to tear the man’s arms off!”)
“It had to be you…” Robin Grosmark croons.
All around the room, more people rise to dance, and you hear the words repeated, “Lomir tansen! Lomir tansen!” Let’s dance! Let’s dance!