In the key of resistance: singing Yiddish in Sydney

by jewonthisguest

This is a Jew on This guest post from Clare. Clare is the secretary of Dos Pintele Syd. She is a non-Jewish Yiddish enthusiast, revolutionary socialist and involved in campaigns for refugee rights and against staff cuts at Sydney University.

In 2010 my second year Yiddish class attended Holocaust ethnomusicologist Dr Joseph “Yosl” Toltz’s guest lecture in Sydney University’s Holocaust class. Two years later Yosl and I run Sydney’s first and only all-Yiddish choir: Dos Pintele Syd.

Tragically, 2010 was the last year Sydney University ran the Yiddish program. The remaining students made a cameo appearance at Monash University’s Yiddish program via videoconference, then set off for the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Summer Program in Yiddish to complete our degrees. There I joined the Cowl Jewish Leadership Program, enabling students to bring Yiddish and Jewish culture to campuses across the US, and now Australia.

We are ever grateful for the Book Center’s support, but private grants such as ours are one of the many symptoms of a society that does not value culture, especially cultures beyond the mainstream. Cultural initiatives in the US, and increasingly in Australia, are driven by the private funding of individual donors or foundations. Anthropologists, historians and linguists must continually prove their cultural worth in projected dividends. Yiddish departments across the world struggle to make ends meet, here the SBS radio was forced to suspend its Yiddish and Israeli Hebrew programming over the summer due to budgetary and demographic limitations. Without serious state funding for education and cultural programs, Yiddish and every other minority culture face a deepening existential crisis.

On top of the increasingly privatised nature of culture, Yiddishists have faced the internal kulturkampf (culture war). Since its emergence Yiddish had been relegated to the margins of Jewish culture as women’s language, a shtetl language, a revolutionary’s language. With the near-hegemony of Israeli Hebrew as the Jewish language after the Holocaust, the kulturkampf continues quietly. Yiddishists the world over struggle to find a home for themselves and their culture. In Sydney we confront especially arid terrain for Yiddish. This is in part demographic, many of our communities never spoke Yiddish to begin with. But there are few Yiddish cultural initiatives, and those who love Yiddish find little support from the Jewish community at large.

In recent years some Yiddishists have turned to translation as their major cultural undertaking. Their projects are immensely valuable, but in some sense translation takes the Yiddish out of Yiddish. Translation alone is a bandaid for a bullet wound: it fails to address waning Yiddish literacy, education and institutional support. Dos Pintele Syd aims to deal with this issue, or at least provide a stronger bandaid. We learn music in transliteration and native Yiddish speakers translate as we go. We share poetic and professional translations to deepen our understandings of the text. We discuss the lives of the composers and poets. When linguistic or cultural idioms appear, we discuss them collectively, based on our different experiences – mame-loshen, university, Synagogue, musicianship. Every song is in Yiddish, and every song raises a question about poetry, folk culture, activism, children, festivals, antisemitism.  In the absence of the hallmarks of Yiddish life – Yiddish schools, theatres and papers – Dos Pintele Syd seeks to put Yiddish back on Sydney’s cultural map in a way that celebrates and expands Yiddish on its own terms. Remarkably, our membership is at least one third non-Jewish, and the demographic scales and sliding further in that direction. This suggests that text translation is by no means the only avenue for accessibility.

Dos Pintele Syd joins the growing list of cultural initiatives across the world reclaiming and re-energising Yiddish culture. One member explained: “The Yiddish language to me is the most expressive of all languages. It is filled with heart and soul. Similarly the music is magic – so emotionally rich – nothing compares with it.” Another described the importance of Dos Pintele Syd: “By grouping together and singing in Yiddish as we have in our Yiddish Choir is one way of maintaining our most precious Yiddish language… I also love Yiddish and singing songs many of which I remember from my childhood.”

Yiddish is the indispensible thread that holds together the fabric of Eastern European Jewish history and culture. Like every Yiddish endeavour, Dos Pintele Syd’s value is enormous, but its survival is contingent on more support – moral, membership and especially material. The growing success of Dos Pintele Syd is cause for hope that, despite what the pundits say, Yiddish is here to stay. I look forward not only to a flourishing Yiddish choir, but the reinstatement of the Sydney University Yiddish department, Yiddish literature being made accessible to all, and a society that engenders Yiddish with the innate value it deserves. Dos Pintele Syd is proud to be part of this process.


Dos Pintele Syd rehearses fortnightly on Tuesdays at 7:30pm in Newtown Shul, 20 Georgina Street, Newtown. Email or contact Clare on 0415 821 485, or find us on Facebook under ‘Dos Pintele Syd’.